Hiking the Eagle River, Alaska

Greg Rodgers in Alaska

I’m not sure which of us first saw the giant brown shape on the trail just up ahead, but we both gasped in horror…

My friend Jessica and I had just walked maybe a mile or two through the woods along a trail in the Eagle River Nature Sanctuary, just 30 minutes north of Anchorage. A beautiful area to hike in, the sun was shining bright and amplifying the shades of green all around us. The mozzie fleet was out in full strength and running attacks on us every chance that they could. Some were successful in their mission. I made sure that many others died trying with a bloody smack from my hand. A beautiful day to be outside, but we were here for one purpose and one purpose only:

There were bears.

My flight departs at 10 p.m., so in a final Alaska grand finale attempt to fulfill my idiot tourist tendencies and put me face to face with a grizzly, we drove up to Eagle Creek. There were stories in the paper, numerous reports from locals and hikers, all leading us to Eagle River — apparently a mecca for those who wish to be attacked by a bear while visiting this great state.

There was even a local, small town festival going on called the “Bear Paw Festival.” What a convenient name. We enjoyed the music and a good street performer as well as the usual carnie rides, face painting, and assortment of artery-clogging fried random objects. We even got to witness a terrified girl be forced to ride a pony.

Local festivals like this that give you a small glimpse into the lives of the people in the area, but I was twitching to get into the field and meet my destiny. Oh sure, I’m not a complete moron: I was armed. Armed with a bright-orange bell that made the same jingle as Santa Claus’ sleigh would, and a small can of mace that probably wouldn’t stop a brown dog, let alone a bear of any color.

Hikers here use bells because they sound so unnatural that bears don’t like them. It keeps you from walking up and surprising a bear by accident — which can sometimes be a real career-limiting decision. Jessica had the bell, but I begged her not to ring it much. In my right pocket, I had my camera and the mace, both of which I fumbled with for one adrenaline blinded second as the huge brown shape above me came into focus.

It was a moose.

We both sighed a little, Jessica’s in relief, mine in disappointment. Well, ok, there was some relief, too. Then, without warning, we got another bonus shot of adrenaline as the giant animal jumped violently onto the trail and took a few I’m-gonna-charge-you steps in our direction. My first thought was that it must have young and we were too close for comfort. The moose was a sturdy female, no antlers, but it stood taller than me and had pretty big muscles. Not something I wanted to face off with on its home turf.

As fast as the moose jumped onto the trail, it went off on a tangent into the woods and then the culprit appeared: a family coming down the trail from the opposite direction, bear bells jingling like it was bloody Christmas. They had spooked the animal in our direction. It was not aggressive at all, just panicked because of being surrounded by idiot tourists; probably the way some Anchorage natives feel in the summer.

The moose thundered off into the thick and I never even got a proper picture of it. The one I got was blurry and obscured by trees. However, this was the first time that I have ever encountered a moose in the wild on foot, and it was an awesome experience. They can, in some instances, be even more dangerous than the bears.

Eagle River Alaska

We finished the hike by sitting out on a boulder in the river again. This time the water was a dirty gray color and rushed by with anger. It had been raining for the last couple of days. We sat there absorbing the cold wind that blows up and down the river but never saw any more wildlife. I did see a pile of bear scat (poop for you non-technical types), so I know that the bears were there, just playing hard to get. We hiked out fast because I was out of time and had a flight to catch. But it is impossible to stay unhappy in such a magical place for very long, even with no real flesh-tearing encounter. I had a smile on my face that would last for days.

Also, now I have yet another reason to come back: to meet a grizzly.

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