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BEAR USING A SPRUCE TREE TO SCRATCH HIS BACK NEAR SKAGWAY

Black bears in the Yukon during a Skagway Van Tours day excursion

by Greg Klupar

A month ago


Matt Summers, originally from Corona, California, first visited Alaska during the summer of 1993, when he was a college sophomore, to work at Big Creek Fisheries on the coast of Bristol Bay. Over the next 9 years Matt worked summer jobs in Alaska as a bellman, front desk agent, security guard, waiter, bus driver, tour guide, janitor, animal handler and chauffeur. Like many visitors, Matt couldn’t escape Alaska’s magnetic allure and moved here in 2004, driving his van up the Alaska Highway through British Columbia’s Prince George, Port St. John, and Watson Lake, until he couldn’t drive any more.

Matt ended up in Skagway where the road meets the water. Matt has driven stretches of this breathtaking road hundreds of times and enjoys sharing one of the last truly untamed wilderness regions in the world. During a trip with Matt, who locally owns and operates Skagway Van Tours, you are sure to have a good time, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot a bear!

Bearly There

Skagway is one of the few cities in Southeast Alaska connected to the rest of the continent by a road system (Juneau and Ketchikan aren’t so lucky). The South Klondike Highway is a single two-lane highway that climbs 3,292 feet to the summit of the White Pass at mile 14.4 of the road before it reaches the Canadian border at Fraser, B.C. en route to Whitehorse, Yukon, the capital of Canada’s westernmost province.

This is bear country — the Yukon alone is home to an estimated 10,000 black bears and 6,000 to 7,000 grizzly bears. So, fittingly, it’s one of the best locations to spot a bear. It is not uncommon to spot at least a handful of bears in the early summer between late May and June, although bear sightings throughout the summer are more common. The best time to catch sight of one is during dawn or dusk when the bears are awake and foraging for food.

Matt has been encountering bears for more than 13 years with his tour company and he knows all the best places to find them. On a van trip with Matt, a good first stop is between miles 25 and 30, which offer good black bear and occasional grizzly bear sightings. Many black bears in this area are actually brown, and many people confuse them with grizzlies. In the spring and early summer, Matt loves visiting the Southern Yukon region after mile 65.6 between Carcross and the Whitehorse turnoff where bears commonly feast on dandelions. Later in the year, as bears become more difficult to spot from the highway because they move farther inland, Matt likes to visit Teepee Valley (commonly called Tormented Valley because of the glacial activity that carved out the area 10,000 years ago), between the Alaska-B.C. border and Log Cabin.

At mile 26.3 sometimes you can see bears eating from the many blueberry bushes ripening in August and at mile 44.3, the summit of the pass between Tutshi Lake and Windy Arm, you can see black bears from late April through mid-June, eating the first emergence of spring grass – bears require greens to get their digestive systems back in order after hibernation.

If you are looking to spot grizzlys and can spend more time venturing into British Columbia and the Yukon, you may have luck along the Dempster Highway, the Atlin Road, the Haines Road, or the Alaska Highway near Kluane Lake in early spring or late fall.

Here is a mile by mile breakdown of the stunningly scenic 2-hour drive from Skagway to Whitehorse on the South Klondike Highway.

Matt has had several spectacular encounters with bears. One time he was out on a tour when the van came upon a black bear using a spruce tree as a back scratcher. Matt told us, “I was recently out on a tour with a group and we came across a black bear using a spruce tree as a back scratcher. The look on the bear’s face was just pure relief. I could relate to how good it must have felt. It was the most authentic bear experience I’ve ever seen.”

Doing a day trip drive from Skagway to the Yukon is a great opportunity to see bears. We recommend:

(1) Skagway Van Tours

(2) Klondike Tours, owned and operated by Greg Clem

(3) Frontier Excursions, owned and operated by Cris Siegel