WHITE RIVER, Yukon Territory, Canada – Water is what kills people in the wilds of the far north, but bears are what people fear.
Why this disconnect is hard to say. Maybe it’s rooted in the thought of a bear upsetting our belief we live in a world largely under our control.
Whatever the case, the sad reality of these differing risks was recorded once again in the 49th state this week.
An Indiana man hiking in Denali National Park and Preserve near the center of the state crossed paths too close with a sow grizzly and was attacked. Like most victims of bear attacks, he survived.
Denali officials have refused to identify the man for reasons that are unclear. The names of those mauled by bears in national parks are supposed to be public records.
But the 55-year-old, unidentified man had a classic encounter with a sow grizzly, according to a media statement from the Park, which said he was hiking in thick fog when he encountered a “grizzly with two 1- or 2-year-old cubs nearby. (She) charged at him from bushes approximately 100 feet away. He was able to deploy bear spray, but only after the bear had knocked him down.
“The bears departed quickly after the attack, and the visitor was able to walk 1.5 miles to the Eielson Visitor Center where he met a park transit bus.”
Reported to have been bitten in the calf, ribs, and shoulder, the man was taken by ambulance to the Fairbanks hospital where he is reported to be recovering.
Forty-year-old David White was not so lucky.
Two days before the Indiana man was attacked, White’s body was found along Jacksina Creek in the northern part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve about 140 miles southeast of Denali.
The nation’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias is little visited. The park service said White, a resident of North Pole, was hunting in a remote corner of the preserve where that activity is legal.
“Based on evidence found by searchers, it appears that White attempted to cross Jacksina Creek and was swept away by the current,” the federal agency reported.
“The NPS reminds hunters and visitors to be prepared for difficult river and creek crossings that can be extremely dangerous, even for experienced backcountry users.”
Three years ago, the dead in the Wrangell-St. Elias were wildlife professionals Michael Huffman and Rochelle Renken, who came north looking for adventure.
As an Alaska geologist and mountaineer with thousands of hours of experience in the Alaska backcountry observed in the wake of White’s death, “it’s always the rivers.”
The rivers punish the littlest of mistakes.
When you cross paths with a bear in the wilderness, there are inevitably options for survival. Firearms, pepper spray, knives, rocks, tree limbs used clubs and even simple, aggressive behavior have been employed to successfully repel or kill attacking bears.
There is, unfortunately, only one option for those flushed down a cold, raging Alaska River: swim for your life.
It is hard to avoid thinking about that here along the Alaska Highway because of Richard Griffis. He was last seen near this river 15 years ago.
His disappearance is one of those long, unsolved northern mysteries.
“Griffis was last seen on the White River….he had stated to people that he was going to Alaska, possibly by traveling up the White River, (and then) over the mountains in Kennicott, Alaska.”
The White drains the northeast corner of the park.
It is a fast, silty, glacier-fed river that joins the Yukon River to change the Clearwater flowing out of Canada the color “of coffee with cream,” according to the Tok Air Service, which describes the White as “a seldom floated river that offers a breathtaking view of the Wrangell St. Elias Range for miles.
“It is a fun, adventure-filled float with several canyons and some standing wave action. The drop-off location is at the toe of the Russell Glacier where the White River is born.”
No one who has floated it over the years has found any sign of Griffis or that cocoon otherwise described as a “survival pod.” I once invested a lot of time in trying to find out more about his story.
It became clear during that investigation that Griffis was a bit of an oddball, but his sister in the Lower 48 has been left forever wondering what happened to him as has the Canadian Mounty who investigated his disappearance.
The latter was pretty confident the wilderness swallowed Griffis whole. Big, glacial rivers can do that. The bodies are only sometimes found.
The Copper River Country Journal published in the big basin on the north side of the Wrangell park notes the long history of this.
White’s “death is one of countless tragedies involving the Copper Valley’s many roiling rivers and streams, going back to the 1898 Gold Rush and before,” the Journal noted. “The Copper Valley’s rivers, lakes and creeks are extremely hazardous. Water drownings are very common.
During the famous rusk to the Klondike gold fields north of here, dozens were reported to have died in the Yukon River rapids on the route from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse.
“The Klondike Gold Rush was the international story of the year in 1897,” the National Park Service in a story titled “Rushing to the Grave,” credits the Mounties with limiting the carnage there by requiring boats be registered.
Because of that, the story says, there were “relatively few fatalities given the risk of the river.” But then everything is relative.
In the Klondike of 1897, as today, the biggest killer wasn’t the water or the bears. It was those invisible pathogens that predate SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.
“One of the most common causes of death during the time of the Klondike Gold Rush was from contagious diseases,” the story notes.
What is new today in the north turns out to have been very old.