Originally created 05/30/97

Seven hours roll past in grizzly country



We were thrown in together, forced to spend seven hours in each other's presence. Without food. Without drink. Without regard for our disparate personalities and the potential conflict they might carry.

But you weren't about to hear any complaining on this bus. Everyone was too busy gazing out the windows, spying Alaskan wildlife and sharing their finds with their fellow passengers.

"MOOOOOOOOSE!" someone would yell.

"CARIBOUUUUU!" yelled another a few miles down the road.

"SHEEEEEEEEEP!" screamed a normally reserved grandmother from Iowa or somewhere.

With each identifying yelp, the big green bus would grind to a halt as Nancy, our immensely patient driver, played along.

This was Monday at Denali National Park, down in the considerable shadow of Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. My wife and I had been on vacation for a full week. We had been halibut fishing in Homer, glacier watching in Prince William Sound, but this was going to be the highlight.

Denali is 60 million acres of towering mountains and icy-cold rivers, tundra and spruce trees. And wildlife. Loads of wildlife.

It's not every day you get to see Dall sheep up close, in their natural habitat. Or bull moose. Or red foxes. Or wolves. Or grizzly bears. (OK, the odds were kind of long. Just 300 grizzlies live in the park, which gave us 20,000-to-1 odds of actually seeing one in our travels.)

That's why each of us gladly paid $17 for a seat on this bus. That's why we dragged ourselves out of bed in time to make the 8 a.m. excursion. That's why we filled our backpacks with squeeze bottles and energy bars - except for the guy who stunk up the joint with CORN NUTS - and steeled ourselves for the dusty, daylong ride through the wilderness.

Our destination was the Toklat River, some 53 miles into the park. There's another 46 miles of dusty mountain road beyond the Toklat, but that part hadn't quite thawed out yet from the long winter.

No matter. We had plenty of stuff to see along the way in this 106-mile journey. Sometimes we even thought we saw things that weren't there.

"What's that near the water?" the 50-something man seated directly behind us wondered aloud.

"It's a BEAR!!!" his wife cried, clambering to her knees atop the seat and gazing through a pair of high-powered binoculars at an object maybe 300 yards away. "And there's a BABY BEAR right behind it."

By this time, you would have thought they were holding Dennis Rodman's live execution right there on the roadside. Pandemonium swept through the seats as everybody from saintly blue-hairs to goateed backpackers pressed up against the windows to get a closer look. There was much stirring and buzzing until Nancy's voice finally broke through on the intercom.

"Sorry folks," she said. "Those aren't bears."

"They're not?" our neighbor demanded, sounding more than a little skeptical.

"Nope," Nancy continued. "Those are stones."

At this everyone on the bus dissolved into laughter. Well, not everyone. The couple in the row behind us didn't seem to enjoy it. Nor did they appreciate it when Nancy brandished the needle several hours later when we passed the same point.

"And those," the kindly driver said, "are still stones."

Ouch.

"I had a feeling that was coming," said the woman behind us.

A few minutes later we came upon an actual grizzly bear. There, maybe 40 yards from the road, was a blonde mama bear nursing two of her cubs. It was an incredibly moving sight, even for a cynical city kid who can hardly imagine life without indoor plumbing and remote control.

Cameras clicked. Camcorders whirred. All was forgiven.