Monday, August 9, 2010

Heading out to the Brooks Range for three weeks: Arctic Nostalgia Part 2.

Laboring under packs with food enough for 600 miles, we’ve traveled close to 12 hours today, well into the chill gray of an arctic evening. We walk wordlessly beneath our loads and eyeball the diggings for Eskimo potato, the fat, grassy scat, and tracks marked by 3-inch claws. The three of us share the suspense of fresh sign.

We are following an old gravel bar. It’s firm, level and dry, with willows leafless and sparse. Out in front, I mistakenly suppose that Ryan and Jason follow close behind me. My heavy pack prevents even a quick glance backward.

The bar narrows between two patches of head-high, felt-budded willows framing a strange lump twenty steps ahead. Weird. I stop to study it and the lump stands up to show itself as a mottled blonde and chocolate grizzly.

The barren ground bear steps toward me with assertion. Reflexively I take two steps back, expecting to see Jason and especially Ryan right there at my side – yes, I want Ryan with his bear spray in hand right there at my side.

But instead I hear Jason’s distant admonition, “Ryan! No! Don’t back off! Get up there with him! GET UP THERE WITH HIM!!”

I yell, too but not at Ryan. “Go away bear! GO AWAY!”

I try prayer, too, something like, “Dear God, don’t let this bear charge me.”

The bear is so close that a charge could end only one way.

Waving a 6-ounce carbonfiber walking stick, looking tough, forgetting the past winter when every dog in town had it in for me, thinking, This animal runs toward hikers from a mile away, swims after rafters in rapids, kills campers with food safely stowed.

This animal, a barren ground grizzly, stands before me on two legs, its mouth open, its teeth long and yellow, so close that I sense his breath smells very bad.

I want to run like the wind but instead hold my ground, shouting and praying, waving my stick and wondering, Where are Ryan and Jason? Why does this bear show no fear of me? Why, like every other bear I’ve ever seen in thirty years, doesn’t it leave?

My throat aches from howling. I feel impotent, vulnerable. I want -- not bear spray -- but an automatic weapon, a bazooka, a howitzer, a hand-held atomic bomb.

Now the other two are at my side, howling, waving sticks, probably praying, and finally, reluctantly the bear drops on all fours, turns hesitantly and saunters off, looking menacingly back as he does.

We yell and waive our pathetic sticks until the animal climbs off the gravel bar, circles downstream, then heads back our way.

It’s time to go.

Twenty steps later I look and there’s a moose carcass, chest cavity ripped open like the pages of a book, authored by a bear, left there for us to read.

Thankfully for us the story ends well.


  1. "...a moose carcass, chest cavity ripped open like the pages of a book, authored by a bear, left there for us to read."


  2. So that is the story when you went too light with nothing more than trekking poles between you and the bear. It's a incredible encounter and one I am glad you got to tell the tale about. You should share more of the photos you took Roman. Have a gallery on the blog maybe.

  3. Martin -- you motivated me to post a-pic-a-day....


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