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Grizzly Camping in Southeast Alaska

We were in the Southeast Alaska town of Haines on the final leg of our Alaskan journey. We had been driven out of the far North by freezing storms and car trouble, and had a few days to kill before we would board a ferry headed South.

Haines AK

We were in the Southeast Alaska town of Haines on the final leg of our Alaskan journey. We had been driven out of the far North by freezing storms and car trouble, and had a few days to kill before we would board a ferry headed South.

Often the most memorable vacation experiences are the ones that are not planned. For us, this was one of those times. Instead of a direct passage to Washington, we were able to change our ferry schedule around to explore what would become my favorite part of Alaska.

Haines is a small town, out of the way of the big cruise lines. There was enough local activity to make it real and enough tourist activity to make it fun. After the frozen landscape of interior Alaska, the coastal rain forest was a fun change of scenery.

Battery Point Trail Haines AKWe found some interesting hiking trails, and by the time we left, we were repeat customers at a local coffee shop, where we were the only people not wearing Wellingtons.

It was almost October by this point in our trip and hundreds of Bald Eagles had already arrived to their winter home. It was awesome seeing so many of the huge birds gathered together in one spot. They loose a bit of their majesty though when they are scavenging and squawking with seagulls over dead salmon.

We also had our first grizzly experience our first night there. It was much less terrifying than I imagined.

It was early evening, and we were headed out to find a campsite at Chilkoot Lake. We had heard of bear sightings in the area, and sure enough we spotted a mama bear and her three cubs fishing in the river.

Grizzlies Headed for our Campsite

Well, I should say mama bear was fishing. For the cubs, it was play, play, play. On the shores, they tumbled and wrestled. In the river, they took turns dunking each other. From our safe distance from inside of our car, it was not only not terrifying, it was adorable.

There was also a mama bear across the street sitting at the base of a tree while her two cubs climbed high up in the tree. She caused us a little more concern. We kept our distance and didn’t stop near her, but watched as other people, so interested in the bear in the river, didn’t even notice the mama grizzly sitting about four feet from the edge of the road.

Mama Bear

We warned one car full of tourists of her presence after they stopped in the middle of the road right next to her, flung their doors open and started to get out.

We got a bit jittery after that. Not only had we gotten closer to a mama grizzly than we ever wanted to be, but we also noticed that they had come from the direction of our campsite.Our second night camping with the grizzlies was a little more interesting. We were hoping to spot the grizzlies again, so in the early evening we parked our car near the headwaters of the river, and sat inside to do a little reading. After about 20 minutes, the bears showed up and passed 10 feet in front of our car.

Later that evening as we were standing in our site wondering if it was safe to get our food out and make dinner, we noticed mama and her babies headed our way. We headed for the safety of the car and watched.

By this time, it was almost totally dark and we were hungry. We could hear mama bear on one side of us and babies on the other. We decided if they wanted our site, they could have it.

We moved across the street and made dinner by headlamp, peeking over our shoulders about every ten seconds to make sure we weren’t luring the bears over with our taco salad.

Boarding Ferry near Haines AK

Our first passage on the Alaska State Ferry was from Haines to Skagway. The scenery was lush with dramatic cliffs and huge waterfalls.

We had scheduled a night’s stay in Skagway. A main stop for the cruise lines, this town is hopping in summer. Being that it was early October however, this scenic little tourist town was pretty much closed. The locals said the population goes from about 4000 in summer to about 500 in winter. We were hard pressed to even find an open restaurant to eat dinner.

The next day, we boarded the ferry for Juneau. This time, the passage was rough and stormy.

Views from the Ferry

It was by chance again that we had extra time to spend in Juneau, and we had just enough time to fall in love with it.

Juneau is the big city of Southeast Alaska, and we easily filled three days with hiking and driving around admiring the lush scenery. We also took some extra time to catch up on laundry and walk the narrow, steep, San Francisco-like streets of downtown Juneau.

The Mendanhall Glacier was possibly our favorite attraction. It had just experienced calving exposing some extremely blue ice. We read that in the summer you can rent kayaks and paddle the lake among the icebergs. Bummed that we couldn’t find anyone to rent us kayaks, we added it to our bucket list for next time.

Matanuska Glacier Juneau AKIt was a little bit harder to board the ferry this time. Although we knew we would be making a few stops, the next time we would drive our car off of the boat would be in Washington. We parked in line at about 9:00pm and watched movies in the back of the car waiting for our boat to arrive. We boarded the M.V. Malaspina around 1:45am.

As one of our “big” splurges of the trip, we booked a 4-berth cabin (the 2-berth’s were taken) with an in-room bathroom and a window! It was not pretty to look at, but after living in our car for a month, it was wonderful. We wouldn’t have to move our stuff for three more nights!

We hardly even bothered to leave our cabin the first day except for a quick trip into Sitka while we were docked, where it was raining so hard, the only thing we really saw was the inside of a bookstore. We also found the open-air, heated solarium on the upper deck and spent the afternoon on the lounge chairs reading.

Besides a quick trip to Ketchikan, and eagerly heading to the dining room for meals, this became our routine. I would like to tell you I spent every day ogling and photographing the magnificent scenery, but I can’t. We mostly read books and ate, and let the waves rock us to sleep at night. It was possibly the most relaxing four days of my life.

Ketchikan AKOur trip to Ketchikan was a bit hurried. We had two hours before we had to be back on the boat and a two mile walk into town, but we got to see the famous “Creek Street”, and we got four days worth of exercise in one afternoon.

We still felt like we were half a world away when we docked in Bellingham, Washington. Never would I be able to describe Washington and Oregon as crowded unless I was coming straight from Alaska, but it felt that way.

Two days later we were back at our home in Oakhurst, California. We had driven the Alaska Highway, toured the Kenai Peninsula, witnessed glacial calving, marveled at Denali, experienced the frozen North country, camped with Grizzlies, fallen in love with Southeast Alaska and experienced the inside passage. We had experienced the Alaska road trip that people dream about.

About Charlotte DeWitt

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