Outdoors & Recreation

Living in Bear Country

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NPS Photo / Daniel A. Leifheit

We rolled into Alaska on the Alcan Highway midsummer of ’92. My wife, Pam, our nine year old son, Aaron, and I drove our old Ford pickup, pulling our four horse trailer, stuffed to the gills with things we figured we had to have to start our new life in the Alaskan Bush. By early evening we stopped at a small backwoods store to pick up a couple of odds and ends. I saw a little newspaper and grabbed that too, then we found a spot off the highway and set up camp for the night. After eating and settling in by the campfire I picked up the newspaper and started flipping through it to see what was happening in the country we were about to live. After some wandering through the pages an article caught my eye. While I don’t recall the exact wording, the headline said something like, “Woman Killed by Bear.” It certainly got my attention. It appeared a black bear had broken into a remote cabin while the husband and wife were inside. They had no gun or anything for defense. The couple exited the cabin, and the wife went up on the roof while the husband ran for help. By the time he returned, the bear was on the roof and had killed the woman. A tragedy, to say the least. A sobering reality for someone about to take his family into the wilderness. But, what are the odds? And we, while not experienced with grizzly or brown bears, had some experience with black bears. We would certainly not be unprepared, or unarmed. We came from Montana, and had enough firepower to stand off a small army.

It was several days later, after a lot of shuffling, unloading, reloading and prioritizing of our supplies, that we hired two float equipped bush planes to fly us to our new remote property. We were home, what there was of it. Years later, one of the pilots told me when he and the other pilot were flying back to their base, talking to each other by radio, they said, “How long do you think they will last? … I’d give them a couple of months …” Between the two of them they both agreed we would not make the winter, that was for sure. But we fooled them. We’ve been living out here for almost twenty-two years now.

After being dropped off we promptly went to work on the place. The priority was not to make it nice, but just survivable through the winter. The second day, in the late afternoon, we took a break from work and hiked up to a rounded knob that looked like a good place to “see where we lived.” At the top the view was breathtaking with Denali and the Alaska Range to the west, the Talkeetna Mountains to the east, and miles and miles of surrounding mountain tundra. Pam said quietly, as we took in the view, “It’s beautiful.” In her second breath she said, “There’s a bear down there …” Sure enough, about three hundred yards to the south and a bit below us was a good size black bear feeding by a small lake. I replied, “Yep, sure is …” keeping my tone casual. In Pam’s next breath she said, “There’s another one over there …” “Yeah, I see it too.” I replied, then followed with, “There’s ANOTHER one …” Long story short, in just a couple of minutes on our first hike in our new Alaska home we had four bears spotted and I recall asking myself, What have I brought my family into?

There were black bears all over the place that first year. We saw them almost daily, but they gave us no problems. While they came close to the place, they did not get too close or bother anything. The black bears did not worry me too much. We were watchful of them, always packed a firearm to deal with a problem if it arose, but mostly enjoyed watching them. But the brown bears were on my mind for sure. As a kid (and into adulthood, I admit) I dreamt of living in the wilderness someplace and read many stories of people who had. All of these stories at some point seemed to involve brown or grizzly bears and all had everything from extreme excitement to flat out terror. Their reputation had me a little “edgy,” no doubt about that. So it is of no surprise I remember well the first brown bear we saw a couple of months after getting here. We looked out the window one fall day and about three hundred yards away we observed a fair sized bear, brownish/blond in color, walking by, picking berries as he went, fattening up for the coming winter. It was kind of anticlimactic really, and I was glad it was. At the time I thought, Maybe this bear stuff ain’t as hair-raising as it was made out to be? But, I knew we were just getting started.

We saw quite a few bears over our first couple of summers, both blacks and browns. Most at a distance, some closer, but of the ones that were close, most departed the country as soon as they knew we were around. We came to call them “Good Bears.” If I remember correctly, it was into our second spring break-up when we had our first real bear encounter. Although it all turned out fine, I think all three of us will remember it for awhile …

It was a nice spring day and there was still quite a lot of snow on the ground around the place. We had our little two-seater airplane on skis pulled up onto the bank, off of the slowly deteriorating lake ice, getting it ready to switch from winter skis to floats for the open water of summer to come. Our then ten year old son, Aaron, was running back and forth from the lake shore to the cabin, picking up parts and pieces we needed to do the job. “Here’s the rope Dad.” “Thanks. Hey I forgot the come-a-long, would you …” And off he would go. Saying he was running for parts, might be a bit of an overstatement. Wandering for parts might be a better description. While getting the job done well, no direct route was taken. He would make the few hundred yard trip back to the place for a needed something, with his young husky pup, Mac, in tow, and his trusty pellet rifle in hand (not much for bear defense, but when you’re ten … hey, it is some comfort). He came back by a different route each time. It was several trips into the “parts runs” as Pam and I worked at the plane, when Pam said, “I hear Aaron hollering. He’s up on Blueberry Hill.” I was not worried at all. “He’s probably hollering at Mac,” I replied, and kept working. Pam was … let’s just say very attentive and said, “No, I think we better go and check …” While really not feeling anything was wrong, I learned a long time ago to trust a mother’s instincts. They seem to know things when we dads don’t have a clue. So, with Pam already started that way, I set down my tools and fell in behind her. The “walking” picked up rather quickly and without a word, broke into a trot, which quickly broke into a flat out run. About halfway I noticed Pam veering to the right up toward Blueberry Hill where Aaron was. I continued straight for home thinking, rifle. I had just about reached the front porch when I heard Pam holler, “What is it? What’s wrong?” I looked to see her halfway up the hill and gaining, and saw Aaron standing right on the top. He turned to Pam and said, “It’s Mac. He’s chasing a moose.” I thought to myself, See, told ya so, he was yelling at his dog. I stopped running for the gun, turned ninety degrees and started walking toward Pam and Aaron. I hollered up to Aaron, “Did you call him off?” Aaron replied that he had. I asked if Mac was coming back and Aaron replied that he was. I was halfway across our yard when I stopped and told Aaron to scold Mac when he comes back for chasing the moose and send him home, to me. Mac came back and practically sat on Aaron’s feet. Aaron scolded him and told him to “Go home!” but Mac would not go, which was odd; our dogs usually mind pretty well. So I hollered at Mac and said firmly, “Mac! You come here!!” He was reluctant, but he did as he was told. Once he reached me I walked him across the yard to his doghouse, scolding, “You bad dog, you don’t chase moose. Bad dog.” I had just tied him up and was walking away when I heard Pam yell, “Grizzly bear!” I looked up to see Pam and Aaron less than fifty feet from a bear who had just come over the break of the hill. The bear stopped and looked straight at them. I saw Pam, with the instinct of a mother, grab Aaron and move him behind her, putting herself between him and the bear. I ran as hard as I could for the house and a rifle, and Pam and Aaron began to turn down the hill. Pam pushed Aaron to go, go, and they broke out into a run away from the bear. The bear had turned away, then I saw him turn back toward them, which scared the hell out of me. I yelled at them, “Don’t run! Don’t run!” which was easy for me to say. I rounded the corner of the lodge, busted through the door, grabbed my .338 Winchester Mag, and was back out the door in half a heartbeat. As I ran off the porch I saw Pam and Aaron walking slowly down off the hill, the bear was not in sight and a tense situation was over. We met in the yard, after Aaron had to backtrack and retrieve his lost boot stuck in the snow, and had a brief family conference, which consisted mainly of: NEVER run from ANY bear. Everyone settled down and we chalked up our first bear learning experience.

While over the years we have had many other experiences for sure, in this particular case, I think the bear was chasing the moose. It was calving season and bear are ALWAYS after the new calves. Mac had somehow gotten involved. He did come back when Aaron called, but we realized he was reluctant to leave Aaron because he knew the bear was there. The reason the bear came to us, was because he heard us hollering back and forth, and was simply curious. Which to this day is why, if we are in open country where we can see around us, contrary to what most bear “experts” will tell you … we hike quietly. A bear who has not been around people much will sometimes come to noise. If you’re in the brush, or with poor visibility, by all means, make noise.

There are a lot of people in Alaska, and I’ve always thought it was interesting that, while the “rules” for how to act around bears are fairly common you will get a little different take from different people on exactly how to act around them. However, each bear is an individual, and different environments result in a little different bear. A Denali Park bear is a bit different than a Brooks Falls bear. And both are a bit different from bears around our country. For one, if a bear out here ever saw a bus load of tourists … I don’t think it would stop running for a week, and that makes perfect sense to me.

 

Story by Mike Nichols

Categories: Outdoors & Recreation

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