During the summer and fall months, the narrow road into Chilkoot Lake is a destination for travelers here in Haines Alaska. Many visitors to town come to witness brown bears feeding on the salmon as they make their way into the lake to spawn. But, by late November the road is covered with snow and is a mere trail for snowshoeing and skiing.
In April of 2012, there was still four feet of snow on the road and I decided with a beautiful day beginning to emerge, I would drive out there and go for one of the last snowshoe treks of the season.
The lake lies north of town at the end of Lutak Inlet surrounded by the mountains that rise out of its waters. The lake and mountains carved out their own personal valley and today they are part of the Alaska State Park.The Chilkoot River runs alongside the road and is only a mile long from where it leaves the lake until it reaches Lutak Inlet.
Being that it was the first week of April I did not give a second thought to bears being out prowling, and with my dog Jake in the lead, we headed up the trail.
The snow was perfect for snowshoeing, therefore making my short adventure into the park an easy one.
The river is a mere trickle in early spring and will only begin to gain water when the snows on the mountains begin melting. Quite often, there will be people walking the river in search of fishing lures that were lost during the prior year’s fishing season.
After rounding a wide corner, I could see the fish weir. It looks lonely sitting in the river with no life around it. When the salmon are running, it’s overflowing with water and salmon trying to get through it, only in opposite directions. Bears quite often fish near the weir, where it is easier to catch the fish. Once I watched a sow brown bear tossing the salmon out of the water and onto the riverbank to her patiently waiting cubs.
As I approached the weir, I began to feel as though something was watching me. I stopped! Why was I feeling like I was being watched? I shook it off and kept moving. After going only a short distance, the strange feeling washed over me again. I had to be thinking too much, maybe because I was on the trail by myself. I felt as though the hair on my neck was standing straight up.
Do you remember that old “gut instinct” your elders warned you about when you were growing up? I was having one of those moments, but I couldn’t understand why. It was only three days into April; the bears were still sleeping, right? I was sure I was letting my thoughts get the better of me, but I could not shake the feeling.
I stopped and thought for a moment, and then, before I knew it I had turned around and headed back down the trail towards my truck.
I stopped! Turning to my right I glanced up on the high bank that runs along the road opposite the river, expecting to see something following me. There wasn’t anything there, but a dark forest under the thick tree cover. Relief!
Keeping Jake close, I turned and continued out the trail careful not to try to go at a fast pace and tire myself out.
I could see the only building on the road and knew I was only a few minutes from my truck. As I approached the building I could see tracks in the snow that were not there when I started out. Brown Bear tracks!
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had heard of bears crawling out of their den for a look around, but I did not think I would ever witness it.
Suddenly I found my snowshoes moving at a fast, but steady pace. At this point pure adrenaline motivated me, but I was also careful not to make any sudden movements. After all, it may still be in the area and watching me.In early spring, bears are hungry and grumpy and if this bear was out prowling around this early, chances are, it was a little bit of both.
I reached my truck fifteen minutes later and was able to breathe a sigh of relief.