Virtually every Alaskan or visitor to Alaska, who has spent more than 40 seconds out-of-doors, has a bear story. And while the settings and species vary, every story has two things in common:
1. Each bear — black, brown aka grizzly, or polar — is the largest of it’s species ever encountered by any human being.
2. Every adventurer, be it a housewife picking peas in her garden, a motorist driving down the highway in an 80-foot Winnebago, a passenger in the bar of a Princess cruise ship, or wilderness camper in a rain-filled tent, comes within the width of mosquito’s antenna from ... well, that's why it's their story.
Those are simple facts of every bear encounter that cannot be disputed. Period. Other details can vary in infinite directions as long as bears play a central role. Karen and I are no exception to the rule.
One of our adventures began with a two-week planned (note planned) kayak trip to a seabird rookery on a Pacific Ocean island south of Cold Bay, Alaska. That’s the last you’ll hear about the seabirds where I, as an aspiring wildlife photographer, planned great things.
Kayaking down the salty Cold Bay as differentiated from the urban Cold Bay, we encountered Thin Point, a sandy spit laced with bear trails and vegetated with nothing taller than waving blades of grass. Beyond lay the rolling Pacific. There, Karen and I paused. Umm, we could get a bit damp launching our kayak in those waves. Could we land on the island? Could we get back off? My camera equipment costs $$. Lots of $$. Could there be a hole in our plan? Maybe two.
We pitched our dome shaped tent “camouflaged” in the color of a grizzly and cached all our food plus anything that might have an odor in the tallest tree. Oops, there weren’t any trees. There weren’t any bushes. So we wrapped it all in multiple layers of plastic plus one more and stashed it in a low spot in the sand dunes well away from our tent. Safe!
The wind blew.
A night passed. We took a hike. Wow, bears. So many! I stood guard while Karen bathed in an icy pool of water in a creek draining Frosty Peak as a sow and cub brown bear grazed in a distant meadow above her -- an idylic Sierra Club calendar shot.
Another day, more wind and I noticed the blowing sand and my shotgun had become good companions. It felt gritty.. Time to clean it. I unloaded the gun and laid the shells on my sleeping bag. I took the gun apart and searched for the cleaning supplies. Oh dear, the oily and thus smelly gun cleaning equipment nestled among the freeze-dried food in the food cache.
I strode out into the dunes with the two section of the disassembled shotgun, peeled away the plastic, and found the oil and a rag. That’s when I glanced towards the tent.
There a rangy Volkswagen-sized brown bear, not a pleasant-looking creature, stood, it’s nose to the tent door with Karen, totally unaware, engrossed in a book inside. Now the bear had possession of my wife and worse, my ammo. Or should it be vice versa?
What to do?
I had no choice.
I charged the bear — okay slowly, but a meaningful charge, a noisy charge probably registering on the Richter scale, waving the two halves of the gun over my head, never considering that the bear may have dined on a creature or two with big thingies over its head — caribou antlers. But, I had no plan B. Actually I had no plan A either.
And with a calm glance, with no malice, the bear looked up and simply exited stage left.
The wind blew.
We moved stage right as we packed the tent the other direction down the beach to a place where there must have been an old cabin because some weathered gray boards lay scattered on the sand. We re-pitched the tent so the boards lay in front of the tent. We propped the kayak paddles on two sides and the kayak on the other as a defense warning system. Safe. Sort of.
That evening our bear “friend” cornered a sow brown bear with a watermelon-sized cub on top of a nearby bluff. His apparent plan — dine on her cub. We fell asleep that night to the sound of the two bears bellowing at one another as darkness enveloped Cold Bay.
Sometime in the night a paddle crashed to the sand. I leaped out of my sleeping bag to peer in the darkness out the two tent portholes, the door. Nada. Surely the wind. We returned to peaceful slumber.
The scenario repeated as the other paddle crashed to the sand and again, nada. Wow, some “wind.” Back to those dreams.
Then … Creak. something large, something heavy stepped on a board. That wasn’t the wind. In dawns early light I peered out the tent door straight into the amber eyes of that Volkswagen-sized brown bear. I yelled. The bear, that creature ten times my size, with jaws that could crush a jar of peanut butter, simply turned, and once again, never displaying the loss of a shred of dignity, waddled back down the beach.
With adrenalin flooding every cell in my body I emerged from the tent to find a well-worn bear trail circumventing it. A sandy bear paw print that dwarfed the size of my hand showed proof he had tested the nature of the fabric. Just once. He had bitten our Klepper kayak so the hole punctured the air chamber. Just once. We peacefully slept through all that — the repeated walking around the tent, the testing the tent, the chomping on the kayak. And I claim to be a light sleeper.
Our food cache? Down the beach I found piles and piles of bear scat full of freeze-dried foods, peas, lentils, beans, carrots, shredded plastic, in fact all of our food and wrappers except half a jar of peanut butter and a packet of instant cocoa. Everything. The freeze-dried food had shot through the bear’s digestive system virtually unscathed. In truth we really could have salvaged it. We didn’t. He must have had quite some night. Oh, for the record, the bear didn’t eat the gun cleaning rag and oil either.
The wind stopped blowing as we gathered up the remnants of our food cache and lit a bon fire. It stopped blowing as we patched our kayak with the ubiquitous duct tape. And it stopped blowing as we launched our kayak to retreat to Cold Bay paddling all evening and night to arrive in time to see the most glorious crimson sunrise over Pavlov Volcano, a sunrise that quickly yielded to a horrendous storm, a storm with horizontal sheets of rain that flattened our tent into our faces and defied all our illusions that it could repel water — a storm that would have pinned us on Thin Point with no food, soaking wet and that Volkswagen-sized bear had we not retreated the previous evening.
By the way, for the record, it was the biggest bear we’ve ever seen. Just say’n.
Now Karen wonders what that bear tells his grandchildren about those odd two-legged kayakers.
Lacking any photos of any of the bears we saw on that trip (three were too close and the rest, not close enough) and those were the days before digital photography, I'm including a painting of a smaller brown bear on Chichagof Island I did a few years ago.
Termination 18 x 24 inches Alkyd on Canvas