Hikers and backpackers who have made the journey to explore Denali National Park were stunned this week to learn that a hiker had been mauled to death and partially eaten by a male grizzly bear while hiking in the park. This was the first confirmed fatal grizzly bear attack within the park boundaries, and it changes the atmosphere for all of us who venture into the backcountry in Alaska's premier park.
Richard White, from San Diego, was an experienced backpacker who had hiked in Denali on previous occasions. Like all who wish to backpack in the park, he went through the mandatory briefing on the dangers of hiking with bears before he received his backcountry permit. The 49-year-old man was hiking along the Toklat River when the attack occurred on a gravel bar. Another party of hikers found a pack, blood and torn clothing near the river, and alerted rangers of the ominous signs. Park backcountry rangers later found a large male grizzly guarding a “food cache” about 150 yards from the pack, which turned out to be the hiker’s remains.
Alaska state troopers shot and killed the bear. The contents of the animal’s stomach later confirmed it was the bear responsible for the attack. Rangers later found a camera belonging to White near the kill site. In it, 26 images showed that the hiker had been quite close to the bear prior to the attack, approximately 40 yards, far less than the quarter mile separation Denali rangers recommend backpackers keep between themselves and bears. The images, which have not yet been published, show that the bear was feeding on a gravel bar along the river, and was apparently unaware of the hiker’s presence for much of the time White was taking photographs. The final frames show the bear looking up at the hiker, then moving closer, then moving closer still.
White, who had decades of hiking experience, was approximately halfway through a five day backpacking trip along the Toklat River when the attack occurred. The Toklat is a popular destination for hikers in the park, located slightly more than halfway between the visitors center and the end of the road near Wonder Lake along the park's only road. Rangers speculate the mauling occurred shortly after the last shot was taken. Wildlife biolgists estimate that approximately 12 grizzly bears reside in the vicinity of the kill site.
In Denali National Park, private cars are not allowed beyond Savage River on the single park road that connects the visitor’s center with Wonder Lake, 90 miles farther west. Hikers who want to venture into the wilderness in the park catch one of the buses that travel the road each day. The Toklat rest stop, where the Park Road crosses the Toklat, is 53 miles from the main visitors center, in the heart of the park’s expansive 6 million acre wilderness.
Many of the buses that ply the 90 miles along the mostly unpaved road are filled with tourists and cruise ship passengers. But a few of the buses are special “hiker buses,” or "camper buses," especially equipped for the needs of backcountry travelers. These are lively affairs, full of wilderness veterans, backpackers, wildlife photographers and biologists. Approximately a quarter of the seats in these vehicles are removed to allow room for backpacks and tripods and other assorted backcountry gear. Hikers and photographers are allowed to leave the bus, and reboard later on, at each stop along the way. This unique means of transportation is how backcountry travel is managed within the park.
The Toklat rest stop, along with Igloo Creek, Polychrome Pass, Eilson Vistors Center and Wonder Lake, are all popular bus stops for hikers along this road. All of these locations see considerable visitation during the brief summer, and all are in grizzly bear habitat. Only one section, the area around Sable Pass, just east of Polychrome and west of Igloo Creek, is closed to backpackers because of the large populations of grizzly bears that concentrate in the area. Everyplace else, hikers just take their chances.
It is common for backpackers to disembark the bus at, say Toklat, or Eilson, or Polychrome, to spend several days hiking, then reboard the bus to travel to a different stop along the park road. Perhaps most popular is the Wonder Lake campground near the terminus of the park road, one of the few designated campgrounds along the road, and one of the most scenic. Wonder Lake is also the trailhead for the McKinley Bar hike, and the McGonagall Pass hike. Any of the hiking routes near the road present the same situation as that found in the vicinity of the Toklat and the recent fatal attack: in the middle of prime bear habitat, where an encounter with grizzly bears can occur anywhere at any time. The fatal mauling last week happened just three miles south of the Toklat Rest Stop, a place where hundreds of visitors stop each day.
The fatal attack will likely change the way backcountry travelers view hiking in Denali National Park. But veteran backpackers maintain that park regulations are adequate to protect hikers, as demonstrated by the historical record of decades without a fatal incident. All of us who have sat through the mandatory bear briefing before picking up our hiking permits will no longer hear the rangers say these reassuring words: “There has never been a fatal bear attack in the park.” The incident on August 25 along the braided channels of the wild Toklat River has added a sobering element to backpacking in the magnificent, pristine wilderness. But it should not deter those of us who love the wilderness of Denali, and who follow the prescribed behavior for hiking in bear country, from venturing into its pristine backcountry.