When you’re hiking alone in Alaska, you should be sure to make noise by shouting as you go, so that you won’t surprise a bear
On the move: Don’t lose your bearings on a hike
It was the last day of the trip. Before arriving back in Anchorage after a two-week camping tour of Alaska, there was time for one last hike. Chugach State Park is just east of the state’s biggest city, but any sense that it might be tame is lost as soon as you arrive. With over 500,000 acres of land including mountains, rivers, glaciers and a coastline, with at least 450 kilometres of trails, and hundreds of wild brown and grizzly bears, there’s no sense of the city at all.
It was raining, and one of our group had a problem with her foot, so after eating a packed lunch, our guide dropped our group of 12 at the Winner Creek trailhead and said he’d meet us at the end – 5km ahead and marked by the Alyeska hotel.
About half a kilometre into the hike, we reached the “hand tram” – a metal cage that runs over a river gorge and was powered by hand. Me and another group member were the first over, but somewhere in the wait at the other side and after taking some pictures, I started using my phone, since I had a large data allowance to use up. Scrolling down the chain of events leading up to the death of Anthony Bourdain a few days before, I became distracted.
I bent down to tie my shoelaces and when I looked up I realised the group had gone. No problem, I thought. I’d soon catch them up, as I had done on several hikes during the course of the trip. I was aware, of course, of the danger of bears, and realised that hiking alone brings increased risks. When you’re part of a group, and making more noise, bears perceive you as being bigger, and therefore not as prey. When you’re hiking alone in Alaska, you should be sure to make noise by shouting as you go, so that you won’t surprise a bear.
If there is a confrontation and a bear charges you, the protocol is not to run, but to stand your ground, again, so that you are not perceived as prey. Single hikers should also carry bear spray, which is powerful pepper spray in a handheld aerosol gun that can be fired at the animal’s face as a last resort.
I didn’t have bear spray on this occasion. Next, it started to pour with rain. I moved ahead as fast as I could, following what I thought were the correct signs. Yet after a couple of kilometres I realised I hadn’t seen any people for a long time and the path was leading up into the mountains. Google Maps told me I was nearly at my destination, but I called our guide to make sure. He wasn’t sure where I was either, but we realised that Google Maps wasn’t being accurate. After some Googling, I realised that there were two Winner Creek trails – one “lower” and one “upper” – and that I’d probably gone the wrong way. The phone was getting soaked and just as my guide called me back, it died.
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I marched back the way I came, determined not to panic. After a hair-raising hour I found the correct trail and around 40 minutes later, I arrived at the hotel, soaking wet. A woman standing outside the hotel looked at me and said “You’re my inspiration!”
Last week, just a week after I’d been there, a 44-year-old lone hiker, Mike Soltis, was mauled to death by a grizzly in the same park, just a few kilometres from where I’d been. The moral of the story being this: always pay attention to your surroundings, know exactly where you are going and never get complacent. And though it might be fun and liberating, try not to hike alone.