By Tucker Dimberg
“One hundred bottles of milk on the wall, one hundred bottles of milk. Take one down, pass it around, ninety-nine bottles of milk on the wall…” This melody ran throughout the Chugach Mountain Range for a reason not familiar to Florida residents: Bear safety. Backpacking through Alaska exposed me to things that I never would have experienced in our corner of the States.
Backpacking, or hiking in the backcountry with the supplies in a backpack, is an activity many people find joy in. The experience of putting on a backpack with ~40 lbs. of supplies and food to hike for many hours isn’t an activity for the lighthearted. I went on a month-long trip throughout Alaska with a group called “Adventure Treks” and each backpacking group consisted of ten students and two counselors. We went on three main backpacks, a four day backpack in the Chugach Mountain Range, a six day backpack in the Talkeetna Mountains, and four day backpack in the Mt. Denali State Park.
Twelve hours deep into the Chugach Mountain Range, near Anchorage, my group and I came across a steep snow field, not marked on the map. This was the first snow field our group had come across, and with some hubris we assumed that we could simply conga-line across the snow, but we were quickly proven wrong. A member of the group quickly took a tumble down the field, and what seemed to be a funny situation quickly turned slightly dangerous, as the end of the snow gave way to a rocky slope. After stopping themselves, they were rescued heroically by our counselors. Landscapes such as the Matanuska Glacier’s moulins, or seemingly never-ending holes in glaciers where running water dumps out, Lion’s Head River’s rapids, and the Talkeetna Mountain Range’s raging rivers gave a certain challenge to my Florida grown body. Every piece of Alaska, from the massive glaciers slowly inching along mountain faces for thousands of years, to the hills bordering the common roads, gave my mind pause. Imagine the exact opposite of Florida’s land, that is what Alaska is.
Training for wildlife safety is not the usual snakes and alligators briefing we get down here. The focus is on two animals, bears and moose. Bears are the most dangerous animal in Alaska. One day I found myself walking through camp and bear came strolling out of the forest looking straight at me, for example. When backpacking, people must bring all the food with them into the woods. Naturally, this attracts curious bears. The solution to this is a so called “bear fence,” an electrified fence that surrounds all the equipment and food at night (though this does not stop the bears from poking their noses in and saying hello). We also must maintain a certain noise level when hiking through a wooded area as to alert bears in the area of our presence. I personally came within 20 feet of a bear three times, one while I was walking around camp, one while I woke up and was greeted by an admittedly skittish bear wandering around, and the other on a late-night bathroom run. We always carried whistles with us to alert others of a spotting and would group up in fours to scare them away. Moose are the gentle giants of the backcountry, as they only become aggravated after provocation. We were so wary of startling a momma moose, that we turned around and undid a whole day of hiking when we came across a moose standing in our path.
Seeing the peaks of Denali and the glacial lakes of Matanuska gave me a martian-esque experience compared to anything else I have experienced. Even just driving on the roads, surrounded by rock faces that give way to beautiful sounds that stretch on as far as the eye can see that are framed by mountain peaks and dense forests . Trekking through the wilderness but nothing but the supplies on your back (literally) is an experience I will never forget. On your next trip up to Anchorage, make sure to watch out for those bears.