By JIM FOSTER
Special to the Parade
The old Athabascan moved down the path. Weathered by age and the results of hard winters spent on the Alaska Range, he remembered caribou hunted in his youth and the miles of unspoiled land. Land that put on its white coat when the days became short.
The smoke from the few cabins in the small settlement the white man called Kantishna caught his nostrils. His head turned slightly, his gaze falling on the small creek winding along through the low hills. The sliver of water was Moose Creek; the land, named by the ones who had gone before was called Denali.
The water ran bubbling over the smooth rocks as it had for thousands of years. It was a historic place; one that held recollections of those that had gone before. These were not of the cold days of darkness but the time of the midnight sun.
The old figure moved quietly away from the creek and was gone. As I watched after him the present returned with the sound of the creek. With it came the job at hand, to catch another grayling. Stepping a little deeper in the water I made a cast to a small pocket of idle water. The little nymph with silver thread reflected the sunlight for a second before disappearing into the jaws of combative grayling trout.
The fish made a run to the faster water putting a bigger bend in the #4 weight rod. The grayling made a valorous effort before yielding to exhaustion and allowing itself to be guided into the calm shallows near the bank.
Glancing up I was once again being watched by the old Indian along the creek trail and began wondering more about this place called Denali.
The park was originally established to protect its large mammals, not because of majestic Mount McKinley.
Charles Sheldon conceived the plan to conserve the region as a national park. Naturalist, hunter, and conservationist, Sheldon first traveled here in 1906 and again in 1907 with a packer and guide named Harry Karstens.
Largely due to Karstens, Mount McKinley National Park was established in 1917. Its populations of Dall sheep and other wildlife were now legislatively protected. However, Mount McKinley itself was not wholly included within the boundaries.
Sheldon wanted to call the park Denali, but his suggestion would not be followed until 1980. That year the boundary was expanded to include both the Denali caribou herd’s wintering and calving grounds, and the entire Mount McKinley massif.
Predator-prey relationships exist in balance here as it may have existed elsewhere before human intrusions. Denali National Park and Preserve remains a subarctic wilderness of wildlife and glaciated mountains.
Several casts later another scrappy grayling found my lure and with the assistance of a bend in the creek and a large rock the line parted and the limp monofilament blew in the breeze. I looked in my shirt pocket for another lure. As I finished tying on the small-feathered lure, something caught my attention.
Looking down at the large track the reality of just exactly where I was sunk in. This was Denali, I was past the end of the road and right now I was looking at a very fresh bear track so fresh it was still filling with water.
Turning my head slowly I saw the bear on the other side of the creek. Another followed the first cold chill as her two cubs came into view less than 30 yards away.
A rather sticky situation – The large female was looking me over and acted like I was more of an irritation than a threat. She was correct. I slowly raised my camera and took her picture. She didn’t seem to mind so I took a few more. Why not?
The cubs were now moving away, their mother looked at them, checked me out one more time and slowly followed them over the rise. They were gone. I watched the empty hillside for a full ten minutes before moving.
Turning around I felt the old Indian watching as I retraced my steps up the small creek. Had the spirit of the Indian communicated with the spirit of the bear? Had he let her know I was not a threat to her young?
Surviving a close encounter with a female brown bear, and having experienced Denali, fishing the little creek that has run over the gravel and rocks of the valley for years, the experience was beyond words.
As I strained my eyes at the far away hill, I thought I saw the old Indian smile.
Editor’s Note: To see more of Jim’s writing and photography, visit fosteroutdoors.blogspot.com. If you have comments or news for Jim Foster, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.