We headed out in a group of self-drive Jeep Wranglers to Lake Harriet Hunt, Tongass National Forest to find out what Alaskan bears really do in the woods.

It’s spring in the Tongass National Forest, just out of Ketchikan, Alaska, and we are headed out in a group of self-drive Jeep Wranglers along an old logging road to Lake Harriet Hunt. Back Country Jeep and Canoe Safaris run the 4-hour trip, and all we needed was a New Zealand licence to sign up. Well, that and a Visa Card! You know you have left New Zealand when the trip leader on the 4×4 tag along you have just joined starts his hazard ID briefing outlining what to do if we encounter Alaskan bears.

Bears, “Oh sh*t”.

After the sign in and briefing, we were assigned our vehicles, four to a Jeep. Not so much fun for those in the back, but we were assured there would be breaks for driver changes and we would all get a chance behind the wheel, and our convoy of eight trucks hit the road for the short drive to the forest entrance. 

The drive traverses some 50-year-old Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock plantations, on the way to a canoe ride across the lake, and into a much older original forest area.

Our chariots await

Like any good forest trip, the first hazard was the lock on the forest gate, but after the usual battle we were in, and a lesson on engaging 4wd was held just inside the forest gate. We suspected this was timed to allow one of the guides time to get the “goddamned” gate shut and locked.

What followed was an entertaining enough scramble up a fairly rocky and washed out track to a look-out point, with a running commentary over the CB radios from the guides in the lead vehicle.

The track itself was challenging enough that many of the passengers, including our back seat duo, made it quite clear there “ain’t no way in hell” they were getting behind the wheel when it came to their turn.

Exiting a small stream crossing, almost at the top of the climb, we came across our first sign of the forests’ bear population, and at the same time, the answer to the old question about what bears do in the woods. And the answer is yes, they do. Lots.

From the end point of the drive, at an old skid site lookout and turning point, we swapped drivers and headed down to the canoe portion of the trip. To be honest, I think the only reason I got to drive was because Dena forgot the Wrangler was left-hand drive and accidentally got into the passenger side.

Our new American friends were very clear; they weren’t giving up their nice safe spots in the back.

Following another battle with the gate, we exited the forest track and headed for the lake, and the canoe trip. The newby guide in the lead truck copped a fair bit of flak as he took off in the wrong direction, back towards town.

Finally arriving at the canoe jetty, we donned life jackets and took up paddles for a quick crossing of the lake, deeper into the forest, for lunch (salmon) and a short hike further into bear country.

At our lunch spot on the other side of the lake, we were again warned about the possibility of a bear encounter, and how to behave in such a scenario. Our guides seemed to believe our best chance of survival was to surround them in a protective huddle while they safely escorted us back to the canoes. Yeah right!

7-year-old Grizzly in Sanctuary – those claws can pierce steel

In truth, although the chance of a bear sighting was there, we would be unlikely to be at much risk, as they had just emerged from hibernation, and were much more interested in the high nutrient “bear bread” fungi growing from dead trees in the area, than in us.

With the very low tourist numbers over the winter, their natural behaviour is generally undisturbed, and we were shown a couple of spots where they had slept through the winter.

Sadly, there is a major threat to the bears and other residents of not only the Tongass but all the great Western Alaska Forest Parks, with a massive new outbreak of spruce bark beetles killing trees across Southcentral Alaska, as far north as the Alaska Range.

A survey completed by state and federal forest officials shows dead spruce trees over nearly 450,000 acres of the region, 30 times more than 2014, and extending 200 miles north of previous outbreaks.

The beetles normally are present in low numbers in Alaska forests, but in the 1990s they exploded across the Kenai Peninsula, turning nearly 5 million acres of big spruce trees red and then ghostly grey. The outbreak was the largest ever at that time.

The scenic drive up through the plantation trees

As if this was not enough, the new Trump Government has rescinded the previous administrations’ protection orders on many of the parks, including the Tongass, putting the few remaining 800-year-old trees at risk of forestry operations. The environmental lobby is starting to gather strength to fight the destruction of these heritage areas.

Once back on dry land, and following a quick head count to ensure we hadn’t left anyone in the lake, we were just left with a quick run back up a major forest road, back into Ketchikan, and our boat out. 4wheeling in Alaska – check!

Check out more pics in the gallery above.

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