Everyday Adventurer Mark Waring – Backpacking Grizzly Country

I’m a ‘backpacker,  not the ‘gap year’ type hitting bars in Bangkok and budget hostels in Bali, more a walker of wild places. I’m one of those who’ll pack up a shelter, sleeping system and supplies and head off somewhere remote for some quiet miles carrying all required.  The principles are simple, it’s about moving and living in a wild environment being both self-powered and self sustained.

For me it’s mostly a solitary occupation but at times it involves family and friends. Either a joint or solo endeavour it always involves extended time in natural landscapes and, whatever the weather and outcome, it offers some of life’s sweeter moments.

In Britain we are surprisingly spoilt, in our crowded island, with considerable backpacking choice. I’ve a passion for the Scottish Highlands and believe we have some of the finest mountain walking in the world on our doorstep. Scotland’s enlightened outdoor access code means a freedom to walk and camp in hundreds of square miles in still, for the most part, undeveloped uplands.

From the ‘end-of-the world’ seascapes of Sutherland’s hills, through the breathy peaks of the Torridon to the sub-arctic domes of the Cairngorms via the neglected mountain fastness between Strathcarron and Affric, there are weeks of challenging summits and quiet reflective camps. Scotland’s weather usually provides a stern test and if you’ve got the gear and experience to move safely and comfortably across the Highlands you are set to backpack most places.

I’ve taken those skills honed in Scotland and applied them abroad in some of the world’s last wildernesses. Family ties have meant a lot of walking in the sub-arctic mountain landscapes of northern Scandinavia and I intend to post a little more on my walks there. Other trips have seen me further afield in North America and I had a very memorable trip in Canada’s Yukon Territory recently which provided my greatest exposure to wilderness to date.

The Yukon’s a vast territory, the size of Germany, Austria and Switzerland combined. This empty boreal land presents  a raw wilderness, still untouched in the main by man. I spent some time walking the borderlands with Alaska and ventured into the last great redoubt of the grizzly bear, ten days without sight of another human.

I mentioned in my first post that adventure could be about context. That factor can sometimes push the everyday into the realm of adventure, be it a new running route or a testing climb on the local crag. Perhaps then adventure is simply an occasion or event when you seek to push yourself and challenge your self-imposed limits. The Yukon was all that, a real exploration of myself and a raw environment of mountain, tundra, glacier and forest.

The factors that tested me most were intense solitude, the rough trekking and the presence of large numbers of grizzly bears. I was in Kluane and hiked in thick bush, over steep snowy passes and through countless fast flowing glaciers rivers to reach the foot of the Donjek Glacier, the world’s largest glacier outside of the polar regions. Going solo meant, as ever of course, that adventure could quickly turn into misadventure. Most probably a trip or slip, either bone-breaking or worse, or going under when crossing thigh deep fast creeks. Unique to Kluane, however, is the concentration of grizzlies as it’s remote location and vast space provides refuge to the planet’s biggest population.

Warned that walking in my own greatly increased the chances of an ‘encounter’ with a grizzly bear I felt under considerable emotional pressure, not least when pushing through dense forest, wary of surprising an approaching bear. My first miles set the tone for the initial stages of the walk. On a rough gold miner’s track rising up from the lonely Alaska Highway, fear had me almost turn tail through the tight tunnel of Yukon bush back to the security of windswept asphalt. In my first hours on the  ‘Donjek Route’, a rough trail framed by a wall of dense bush, I froze with fear at a sight ahead.  A large, very fresh, grizzly bear ‘scat’ or dropping dominated the narrow track and left no doubt as to a grizzly’s recent presence.

This was part of the adventure in the Yukon. It was overcoming the anxiety that walking in grizzly country quite alone provided, the first few days meant conquering almost instinctive fear. It also saw changes to my normal backpacking routine; food had to be eaten and prepared well away from my tent, my precious supplies hung in a bear proof Kevlar laced bags a minimum 100 metres distance and, importantly, at all times a large canister of ‘bear’ or pepper spray was within reach.

Warned by locals and some pre-trip reading I knew that safety in grizzly country lay in careful routines. I took comfort in keeping a clean camp and making sure I made plenty of noise at all time. The initial awkwardness of constant warning shouts (perhaps it’s an English thing!) soon disappeared when I saw that scat!  It was also an acknowledgement of my own vulnerability and the uniqueness of the situation. In Kluane I was not top of the food chain and had to proceed with caution. Wariness though was replaced by a respect for the grizzly.

If you’d like to know more look out for my feature on my Kluane backpack in planned May’s ‘TGO Magazine’ –  on sale in April (keep an eye on my site for info oneswedishsummer.weebly.com). I’ll say a little more about backpacking of a gentler sort in my next post.

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