This was bear country. No doubt about it. Over breakfast Alfred from the guesthouse had said, “You should make sure that you talk when you go walking there – or maybe sing – that way you won’t take them by surprise. My wife and I saw a mother bear with cubs in those woods earlier this year but don’t worry too much, just make sure that you don’t take them by surprise.”The drizzle had stopped by the time we left the guesthouse to walk east along the bank of the Valbona River. The day before we had come across four snakes in the space of a couple of hours, including a sluggish horn-nosed viper that had the tail of an unfortunate lizard protruding from its mouth, but today, perhaps because of the lack of warm sunshine, they were nowhere to be seen. Undoubtedly they were still close by, skulking beneath rocks, sleeping the deep reptilian sleep that comes with the digestion of a heavy meal… of reptiles. No snakes, but we did see an extraordinary large lizard – a European green lizard (Lacerta viridis) as we later identified it – with strikingly beautiful markings that morphed like a potter’s glaze from sky blue on the head to copper-stain green along its back and tail. Among our fellow guests at the guesthouse were a couple of German amateur herpetologists and, confronted by reptilian magnificence as this, it was easy to understand the appeal. Bear country it may have been but this was snake and lizard territory too.In a meadow just beyond the footbridge that led across the racing river to the tiny hamlet of Čerem, stood a monument to Bajram Curri. Bajram Curri (pronounced ‘Tsuri’ like the English county rather than the universal Indian dish) also gave his moniker to the principal market town of this far northern border region of Albania, its name only 20 years ago a watchword for lawlessness and gun-running – a KLA stronghold that was more closely connected to what was then war-torn Kosovo than its own national capital in Tirana. These days, Bajram Curri is a quiet provincial town that only ever becomes animated on market days when hard-bargaining farmers might raise their voices over the price of sheep. Like the rest of Albania, it is now as safe as anywhere in Europe – safer probably – yet still there were those who looked askance whenever Albania was mentioned as if the country was still lawless and dangerous and run by shady mafia figures. It is not… but there are bears in the woods.Further on a wooden sign pointed steeply uphill towards ‘The Cave of Bajram Curri’, the cave where the Albanian hero and patriot was said to have once taken refuge whilst fleeing his enemies. We followed this up through woodland for a short while before taking another path to the left that signposted the springs at Burumi i Picamelit. This track, marked by occasional red and white ciphers painted on trees like Polish flags, lead through dense beech woodland scattered with huge boulders that had long ago thundered down from the cliffs far above. It was an evocative place, a numinous realm of shade and fecundity – the light tinged green by filtration through the high leaf canopy and by the thick carpet of moss that coated every surface. Here and there were saprophytic ghost orchids poking through the coppery leaf mold – pale, bloodless plants that had no truck with the chlorophyll that otherwise permeated the woodland like a green miasma.The path eventually bypassed a glade where large moss- and fern-covered rocks formed a natural outdoor theatre. Dead dry branches snapped noisily underfoot as we made our way across to the largest of the rocks – silence was not an option and any lurking bears would have been duly warned of our intrusion by our clumsy, crunching progress. Growing high on one of the larger rocks was a solitary Ramonda plant, a small blue flower and rosette of leaves anchored to the moss. The plant had an air of rarity about it – and scarce it was: a member of a specialised family found only in the Balkans and Pyrenees. Growing in solitary isolation and providing a discrete focal point in this hidden glade it almost felt as if this delicate blue flower had lured us here – the trophy of a secret quest, an object of worship. Indeed, the whole glade had the feel of the sacred: an animist shrine or secret gathering place; the location for a parliament of bears perhaps?We looked for evidence of ‘bear trees’ and eventually we found it: beside the track we discovered a conifer that had a large patch of bark missing from its trunk, freshly removed by the action of claw sharpening – or maybe as some sort of territorial signifier. At the junction of tracks further on was more visceral evidence in the form of a footpath sign that has been quite brutally attacked by a bear (or bears), the support post whittled away to a fraction of its former girth by unseen fearsome claws. Why this post had more bear-appeal than live growing trees of similar size was a mystery. Did bears have a preference for scratching away at machined timber? Was the unnatural square profile of the post especially tempting? Or did the bears somehow understand what signposts were for – to direct clod-footed human walkers into their territory. Fanciful and absurdly anthropomorphic though this might seem it did somehow hint at a thinly disguised warning – a re-purposing of man-made signposts to advertise the bears’ own potential threat: ursine semiotics. The day had, of course, been characterised by a total absence of bears – and woodpeckers too, despite numerous dead trunks riddled with their excavated holes – but their unseen presence in this secretive bosky world was nonetheless all too tangible. All the signs were there to be read.We ventured on to visit the springs at Burumi i Picamelit where underground water emerged straight from the limestone to race downhill in a fury towards the Valbona River below. Tucked away in a crevice beneath one of the rocks was another Ramonda growing just inches from the fast-flowing water.Heading back we become temporarily lost in the woods and spend ten minutes walking in circles looking for the trail before finally rediscovering it. Shortly after, we met the German reptile enthusiasts from the guesthouse walking the other way. We stopped to compare notes. None of us had seen any sign of bears in the flesh (in the fur?) but we had all seen the evidence that beckoned us: the claw-scratched trees, the mauled signpost. We concurred that it was probably best that way: an absence of bears on the ground but a strong sense of their presence as we politely trespassed their territory.
Petersburg. No, not that one – this Petersburg is in the Alaska panhandle, south of Juneau, north of Ketchikan. This is the first time in a week there has been any phone signal or internet access; the first time since leaving Juneau almost a week ago that there has been any sort of town in fact. Petersburg is named after its Norwegian founder Peter Buschmann who settled here just over a century ago to found a fish canning business. The town still has a Scandinavian character, with Norwegian-style rose-mailing prettifying its streets.
The Alaska Inner Passage cruise began in Juneau last Friday. Getting to Juneau was fun – taking 34 hours of travel time between leaving my front door in Norwich and checking in seriously jet-lagged at the hotel in Juneau. Three flights, one overnight coach journey, a long layover in Anchorage and at least of couple of hours sitting on runways awaiting permission to take off. The biggest chunk of the travel was the flight between Frankfurt to Anchorage, which instead of flying west across the Atlantic as you might expect, headed almost due north into the Arctic Circle and arced west close to the pole. It is, after all, a three dimensional world and flight routes don’t necessarily follow Mercator’s projection. Flying non-stop Frankfurt to Anchorage takes 9½ hours and because of time zone changes you arrive in Alaska thirty minutes before you left. But, if this was the secret of eternal youth then it certainly did not feel like it.
We flew over Denmark, southern Norway and then the North Sea before curving west over the northern edge of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic to hit the north Alaska coast and pass over the Denali National Park before our descent to Anchorage. Just north of Bergen, the cloud lifted to reveal the glimmering sea beneath us, with little flecks of white that I thought might be fishing boats…or whales. Is it possible to see fishing boats from 36,000 feet up? Like a living atlas unfolding, under the clear blue skies of northern Greenland it was easy to see where solid rock gave way to the pack ice of the North Pole – nothing but mountains, ridges, snow, ice and water beneath. Halfway across Alaska we flew right alongside the peak of Mount McKinley, which loomed proud above the clouds, the highest mountain in the USA, before descending over glorious golden lake country down into Anchorage. I like to think that I saw my first Alaskan bear on the final descent – it may well have just been a rock but it is perfectly feasible.
Once US immigration decided that I was respectable enough to enter their country there was a whole afternoon to kill in Anchorage. I took the local bus into town – a modest grid of low rises against an impressive mountain backdrop, with a handful of shops selling tacky souvenirs in the city centre that advertised their presence with stuffed grizzlies on the sidewalk. These were not the bears I fancied I had seen from the air. The city has something of a frontier feel about it, with small clutches of native Alaskan drunks and shifty-eyed men with baseball caps and ZZ Top beards. A surprising number of blacks and Hispanics too – but perhaps it was my use of public transport that skewed this impression. Public transport in the US tends to be mostly the preserve of the poor and disadvantaged.
Where Anchorage was fairly humdrum, Juneau was pretty and quaint, with wooden houses climbing up steep streets beneath tall bluffs. Anchorage may have been a place that shot and stuffed its bears but Juneau, with its liberal nurturing atmosphere, was a town that seemed more likely to cherish them. Juneau was wet too, pouring that first night with pounding rain that looked as if it would never stop. Thankfully, it did, and the rain was followed by four days of glorious Indian summer sunshine – ‘a bluebird summer’ as they say here.
Since embarking at Juneau last Friday I have experienced the whole gamut of classic southeast Alaska experience: walking in temperate rainforests thick with velvety moss; hikes alongside waterfalls and even on glaciers like that at Baird Glacier yesterday afternoon. There have been hot springs and bald eagles; sea lions, countless orcas and hump-backed whales – one even appeared blowing a steamy plume whilst we were out paddling kayaks. There have been bears too – some black but mostly brown – and a couple of close (but not too close) encounters at forest streams and on beaches where they greedily snatch up migrating salmon from the mouths as streams as easily and as casually as if they were picking flowers.