FOREST BATHING IN THE BEAR COUNTRY

A hike in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is a chance to come face to face with bears and ethereal blue glaciers while slowing down and plugging into the therapeutic powers of the natural world

Hiking in the lush and inviting Tongass National Forest in Juneau, Alaska
The Tongass National Forest is a buffer against climate change, absorbing around eight percent of the nation’s annual global warming pollution and storing an estimated 10-12 percent of all carbon in USA’s national forests. However, it continues to be threatened by ongoing congressional attempts to clear-cut rare and valuable old-growth trees.

In the heat of idleness, I often envision myself in the middle of nowhere, lost in the deep, dark woods, full of magic and mysticism. Taking deep breaths to smell the fresh forest air and damp soil, placing my hands on the trunk of a tree, listening to the ambient sounds of birds, dipping my fingers in a stream to feel the chilled water and soaking up the sublime serenity, I am at the peak of bliss, calm and contentment. Such is the tonic called “nature”!

Lured by wilderness, I reserve a seat for the Mendenhall Glacier Hike for my day trip in Juneau. Alaska’s remote capital city with no roads going anywhere, Juneau is the gateway to remarkable hiking trails and massive, awe-inspiring glaciers.

Downtown Juneau (2)
Downtown Juneau

After a barely 25-minute drive from downtown Juneau, my hiking buddies and I are ready to set foot in the Tongass National Forest, the USA’s largest national forest, and part of the Pacific coast temperate rainforest – the largest forest of its kind in the world today – which stretches 2,500 miles from northern California up to Kodiak Island in south-central Alaska.

Our trail begins with cautionary advice: “This is a bear trail. Do not approach or run from them. Keep your food in the pack”. In spite of this warning about how unpredictable and uncertain wildlife spotting is, we casually walk past the signboard, giving it only a quick glance.

Alaska's Tongass National Forest has one of the highest density of black bears in the world - Picture Courtesy Jim Pfitzer
Picture by Jim Pfitzer

After walking just a few steps in the wet, moss-covered rainforest, our passionate guide and naturalist Jim Pfitzer is quick to sense some sort of movement in the foliage behind us. “It’s the bears,” Jim announces. We walk back in silence and decide to wait, hoping bears make a grand entry on the muddy path. Voila! We see a family of three black bears plodding sluggishly, searching for salmon – their favourite delicacy. Yes, bears catch spawning salmon and pull them out on the stream banks to devour the nutrient-rich parts of the fish.

While Tongass is reputed for having one of the highest density of black bears in the world, we certainly didn’t expect to spot bears within a few minutes of starting the trail.

“There are certain days when we don’t see bears at all. I guess we just got really lucky!” says Jim. Being treated to these adorable creatures in their natural habitat is indeed a rewarding experience.

This is just the beginning! We are yet to unfold the flavour of the forest. After walking only a few hundred meters farther, we have a close encounter with another bear. “That’s 19-year-old Nikki enjoying her catch of the day,” says Jim who succeeds in making us feel strangely comfortable around bears. We sight seven bears in and around the bushes and it’s a wonderful feeling to observe and photograph their behaviour without causing any disturbance.

I am both inspired and fascinated by Jim’s tendency to affectionately converse with bears, expecting them to understand or respond to his questions and instructions. This brings to mind Albert Schweitzer’s meaningful lines – Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.

Filled with a certain sense of fulfillment, we continue our journey in the Alaskan backcountry. Sunlight filters through towering Sitka spruce, western hemlock and red and yellow cedar trees, moss and ferns cover the ground, and lichens drape many trees. Apart from dwarf dogwood that produces berries, we come across blueberry and salmonberry plants and several kinds of mushrooms including angel wing mushrooms. Lush and inviting, the forest is nothing short of an enchanted world coming alive from folklore, fantasies and childhood classics.

On a cloudy evening, the Mendenhall Glacier appears deep blue in colour
Our very first view of the Mendenhall Glacier – a sight to behold

After the first mile, the trail becomes less defined and gains a bit of elevation characterised by uneven terrain, some steep pitches, slippery screes and a series of stairs.

But all the hard work pays off when the trail opens up to expose a glorious view of Mendenhall Glacier overlooking the Mendenhall Lake and the forest. The partly cloudy weather treats us to impressive deep blue icebergs glamourised by pinkish-blue skies and snowcapped mountains in the background. The sun shining on one of the mountains adds to the drama.

 

As Jim interprets the landscape, I think to myself how wonderful would it be if I could capture all the beauty in a bottle and take it home with me to be able to witness it whenever I please! However, my ecstasy soon transforms into despair when he highlights that within a few years, the glacier will retreat from the water, and within 25 years retreat out of view entirely. “Alaska is experiencing the brunt of global warming more than any other place in the world,” adds Jim. It is disheartening to know that the glacier is in the phase of rapid retreat and nothing concrete can be done to save it. As humans, we will lose something very valuable if we let this stunning piece of creation be destroyed!

After moments of pondering in quiet, we take a quick break to munch on energy bars and move on, expecting to reach the end of the East Glacier Loop Trail before it gets pitch dark.

On our way, we cross several brooks and little waterfalls before reaching the viewing platform that gives us another incredible view of the glacier.

View from the Steep Creek boardwalk
View from the Steep Creek boardwalk
Salmon is a favourite with black bears - Picture Courtesy Jim Pfitzer
Picture by Jim Pfitzer

Our trail ends at the Steep Creek boardwalk that winds past the viewing platform along the stream. An ideal spot to see sockeye and coho salmon spawning from the platforms as well as black bears feasting on them!

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To close the day on a high note, we decide to spend the rest of our evening at a 100-year-old historic watering hole in downtown Juneau. After all, we must celebrate our bear sightings or simply how it felt to be in the wild.

While raising a toast and reminiscing about our time in the woods, I felt a deeper connection with nature. It was a profound experience to walk for miles with no particular reason or intention other than absorbing the solitude of the jungle, open to the sky, joyful in its abundance and safeguarded by no one. I left feeling a lot more humble, responsible and mindful of the intersection of human progress and wildness, leading to the birth of a budding environmentalist in me!

DID YOU KNOW?
The Japanese practice something called Forest Bathing, or Shinrin-Yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” Thus, shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through your senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. It is simply being in nature and allowing it to positively impact your health and wellbeing. The Japanese believe that Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening your senses, it bridges the gap between you and the natural world.

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