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Adventure Travel

Dec 15, 2016

Denali National Park – How to Avoid Being Eaten by the Locals

The rules of wildlife etiquette in Denali National Park.

WRITTEN BY

Madhuri Chowdhury

When hiking in Denali National Park, it is likely that you will come in contact with its residents. Along with all other National Parks in the United States, DNP aims to conserve and protect the wildlife that lives within its boundaries. When visiting, it’s important to remember that the park belongs first and foremost to its wildlife; the bears, moose, caribou, wolves and others that live there. Keep these pointers in mind to stay in favor with the locals and avoid getting mauled:

Bears

In the absence of lions and tigers, grizzlies and black bears are the kings of interior Alaska.

Rule number one: Always stay 300 yards (that’s three football fields) away from bears, and never surprise one. Bears will usually avoid human interaction (we suck and they know it), so make sure you’re making some noise to make your presence known when in bear country. If you’re in a group, talk to each other. If you’re alone, clap your hands or talk to yourself. This is especially important in areas with low visibility or while walking downwind.

Rule number two: Keep all food in bear-proof containers. Remember that bears need to fill up on food in order to hibernate. Interior bears are even hungrier than their coastal counterparts, because these bears do not have a steady stream of salmon to feed on. Not knowing where their next meal is coming from means that interior grizzlies are more likely to snack on humans or on human snacks, if given the opportunity. Bears have a heightened sense of smell, so if you have food on you they will smell it even if you’re 20 miles away.

A coastal grizzly at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park.
A coastal grizzly at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. Photo: Madhuri Chowdhury/The Outdoor Journal

Rule number three: If you’ve followed all the rules above but are still super unlucky and happen to surprise a bear by accident, it is important to 1) let them know you are human (speak to them) and back away slowly. 2) Do not run. Bears are curious by nature, so you don’t want to give them a reason to chase you. You will not win in a bear chase, an average bear can run at 35 mph, whereas Usain Bolt, the fastest human in the world once ran at 27 mph. You do the math. 3) Stand your ground. Grizzlies have been known to charge, but back away without making contact (a bluff charge), so please refer back to point two. 4) Do not drop your pack. Remember, bears are curious and they’ll most likely want to know what’s in your pack.

Rule number four: The only time you should consider fighting or playing dead is if a bear starts to in fact eat you. If a black bear attacks you, protect your head and neck with your pack; if you’re about to die, fight back. If a grizzly attacks you, play dead until the bear loses interest. Remember that playing dead could work with a sow, but might not with a predatory bear. Use your judgement, as every situation is different, and no method is really fool-proof. Follow these steps and you will most likely live.

Pro tip: Keep bear spray clipped to your belt. Don’t walk around with it in hand, ready to blow. More often than not, you’re going to spray another hiker or yourself. Bear spray is most effective when you’re already within 25 feet of a bear.

Moose

Moose look pretty innocent if you ask me. They have gentle faces and before I went to Alaska I hadn’t really heard many stories about moose attacks. This is why most people are lulled into a false sense of calm when they encounter a moose. Do not be fooled, moose are very dangerous. Just ask the three-legged sled dog I met at Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey’s kennel.

Rule number one: Always stay 25 yards away from moose. If you happen to come into unavoidable contact with one, back away and run. If a moose looks ready to charge, run away and hide behind a tree or anything that can act as a barrier between you and moose. You could even run zig-zag to confuse them since they can’t change direction quickly. Unlike bears, moose are not testing you when they charge. They will also more likely lose interest and not chase you too far.

Rule number two: Watch out for warning signs. If a moose has stopped eating to look at you and licks its lips/puts its ears back/the hairs on its neck stand, you’re annoying that moose and it will most likely charge you.

A moose at the Wildlife Conservation Centre near Anchorage. Photo: Madhuri Chowdhury / The Outdoor Journal
A moose at the Wildlife Conservation Centre near Anchorage. Photo: Madhuri Chowdhury/The Outdoor Journal

Rule number three: If a moose does end up knocking you down, get into fetal position and protect your head and neck. Do not get up until the moose has left; if it’s close by when you get up it could just knock you down again.

Pro tip: Moose can be especially dangerous in September and October when it’s mating season (don’t let them think you’re after their girl), and Spring when the new calves are born (don’t let them think you’re after their children).

General Etiquette Tips
Riding in one of Denali National Park’s famous green buses is like being on safari in Africa. There’s a chance you will see a large predator (bears, oh my!), and then there are the less dangerous animals like Dall sheep and marmots. In general, always remember that all wildlife must be treated with respect, from a wolf to ground squirrels (they can get super aggressive about their nuts). Here are general etiquette tips to keep in mind:

1. Don’t invade their personal space. When you see professional close-up shots of wildlife, know that the photographer used a telephoto lens, and wasn’t actually that close to the animal. Use binoculars if you want a better look.

2. Don’t stare too long. Remember that creepy guy who stared at you too long on the subway? Do you want to be that guy?

3. Don’t feed wildlife. You may think you’re being nice, but you’re doing the animals, the Park, and other visitors a disservice by making wildlife associate humans with food. Even squirrels can be dangerous if they’re expecting to be fed all the time.

4. Most importantly, enjoy the experience, and do your bit to conserve the wilderness your favourite animals call home. 

Book a trip into Denali National Park with Salmon Berry Travel & Tours 

Read our comprehensive guide to Denali National Park in the upcoming Winter 2016 edition of our print magazine.

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Travel

Mar 19, 2019

Is ‘Sidecountry’ a Four-Letter Word?

A team of Avalanche experts define the word, and discuss how to deal with the phenomena. Do we attempt to stop the sidecountry locomotive, or shape the definition and attempt to harness its power?

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This article originally appeared in The Avalanche Review, a trade and scientific journal serving the American Avalanche Association Membership. It was written by Scott Savage, Simon Trautman, Ethan Greene, and Doug Chabot.

Riding in the sidecountry is fun, and it is marketable. Google ‘sidecountry’ and you get 438,000 search results. As more people recreate in the sidecountry, ski areas promote it, equipment manufacturers capitalize on it, riders benefit through new technology and increased availability, the media eats it up, more people want the experience and WHAM! – we are lost somewhere in a very successful feedback loop. Ski area avalanche professionals and backcountry avalanche forecasters, however, are scratching their heads about how to deal with the phenomena; do we attempt to stop the sidecountry locomotive in its tracks or do we embrace the term, shape the definition to benefit our mission, and attempt to harness its branding power to educate the various user groups that recreate in terrain adjacent to ski areas?

One of the great slopes on Gornergrat with plenty of sidecountry opportunities, near the top, with the ever-distracting Matterhorn in the distance. Location: Zermatt. By Doc Searls Santa Barbara, USA

Currently, defining sidecountry is similar to defining pornography; people disagree on a formal definition but you know it when you see it. In our opinion, sidecountry is very useful term for describing a certain combination of human behavior and geography. It is intuitive because most people understand that sidecountry refers to the terrain adjacent to ski area boundaries. This terrain is easily accessed, easily “lapped”, and in many cases highly visible. Observing this reality and thinking about the term in a geographical and behavioral sense is important because it showcases the idea that sidecountry terrain is used differently than backcountry terrain, and as such, suggests that sidecountry users may have different needs than those traditionally addressed in avalanche education. We believe that using the term benefits avalanche professionals by allowing them to relate to audiences and be succinct when speaking, writing, or educating on sidecountry topics.

“Sidecountry is backcountry”

“Sidecountry is backcountry” is a recently coined phrase that is also highly descriptive and accurate regarding particular aspects of sidecountry. Sidecountry avalanche rescue is effectively a backcountry rescue – regardless of the proximity to a ski area, organized rescue may not arrive in time. Since ski areas do not perform avalanche hazard mitigation work in sidecountry terrain, the phrase is probably an effective tool to communicate avalanche danger, especially to novice and casual sidecountry users. “Sidecountry is backcountry” is a simple message that is easy to understand. There is power in this: power to educate, power to simplify, power to feel that one is addressing the problem. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with a simple problem or a singular, simple user group.

Ski areas do not perform avalanche hazard mitigation work in sidecountry terrain.

Novice, casual, and experienced sidecountry users have different levels of expertise, attitudes, decision-making techniques, and educational needs. In addition, novice and casual users are highly influenced by experienced users. A cursory look at recent sidecountry accident and near-miss reports reveals that experienced sidecountry users appear to be involved more frequently than the less experienced individuals. The experienced group generally visits the same sidecountry terrain frequently enough to become familiar with terrain features, may actively manage or mitigate avalanche hazard (slope cuts, cornice drops, etc.), and at times may have more intimate knowledge of the slope-scale snowpack structure and stability than local avalanche professionals. Most importantly, an “I’m going there because it’s there and I want to ski” attitude seems to be common; experienced users access the terrain and then decide whether to mitigate or avoid hazard or just forge ahead. Will telling these more risk tolerant individuals that “sidecountry is backcountry” reduce their risk? Will it help us communicate with them? Sidecountry may be the same as backcountry in some ways, but routine sidecountry users and backcountry users are disparate user groups.

Skilled, experienced professional avalanche educators can create effective sidecountry-specific educational programs and presentations. As we have learned while reaching out to snowmobilers, relevancy is everything. Just as force-feeding traditional avalanche education to someone who never gets off their sled is ineffective, so too is drawing a “backcountry box” around someone who skis out-of-bounds 50 days a year, but rarely or never uses skins or established backcountry stability evaluation and decision-making techniques. Sidecountry is a growth market for snow sports equipment and clothing manufacturers, and these companies may be interested in supporting educational and outreach efforts to sidecountry users (their customers). Instead of abandoning or over-simplifying the term, maybe the ski and avalanche community would be well served to take advantage of the strong, established sidecountry brand by partnering with the media and outdoor gear retail industry to accomplish the following:

  1. Define sidecountry as the unique geographical and behavioral issue that it is, focusing on the specific dangers associated with sidecountry recreation
  2. Identify and define specific user groups
  3. Tailor, market, and promote user group specific educational programs

The term ‘sidecountry’ is descriptive, intuitive, and useful. We agree with the recent NSAA Journal Editorial “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Sidecountry’ ” that the avalanche and snowsports communities must better communicate that riders are on their own when they leave ski area boundaries. Our common goals are to educate the public on the inherent risk of avalanches outside that boundary and to help users reduce their risk in this terrain. In our opinion, we can enhance communication by acknowledging the difference in behavior and risk tolerance between user groups, by identifying and targeting the needs of those groups, and by partnering with those that have the marketing and promotional power to deliver the message.

Read Next: Charge Hard, Stay Smart: Guidebook Guru, Fritz Sperry, on Safety in Avy-Prone Backcountry.

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