Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about traveling to Alaska is that it is the capital of what is known as “bear country.” In much of North America, signs at rural campsites warn that YOU ARE IN BEAR COUNTRY, but what they really mean is that you cannot leave the leftovers from the night’s meal on the KOA picnic table, lest a hungry and intrepid black bear decides to slide through the buffet line while you sleep. What they do not mean is what is implied virtually everywhere in Northern British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, and the State of Alaska; that bears may appear any time without warning, day or night, food or otherwise.
Not only may bears appear, but these are real bears. The bears that appear in movies and once haunted the infrequent newswires that came out of the Last Frontier as gold miners worked their way across the inhospitable reaches of Northwestern North America. An Alaskan black bear makes a Yellowstone Grizzly look like a house cat, while a properly fed Alaskan Grizzly Bear makes every other land animal look as friendly as a puppy dog. The reality is that surviving above the 49th Parallel requires a level of grit and cunning that us people and bears in the “Lower 48” simply do not ever exercise. And so, the bears up here are bigger, smarter, and far more opportunistic.
Of course, like everything, the idea of bears is far more dreadful than the reality of them (that is, unless you do happen to meet one in a circumstance that leads to your mauling). From a dinner party in Texas, some rich oil man whose teeth are stained with red wine will try to warn you with a cheap George Strait smirk, “That’s rough country up there. Those bears are no joke. What gun are you carrying?” And when you say, “None,” he will suck air between his teeth and sip from the glass of whisky he is holding, and he will look you up and down and try to decide whether to laugh or gift you a gun, because he has so many to spare. “It’s complicated driving into and through Canada with a gun,” you might offer in hopes of using diplomacy to diffuse the situation.
“I just think you could have a lot of adventure without going somewhere so dangerous.”
There is only one way to reason with the world-fearing, gun-toting mentality that presumes control of surroundings by brute force. “I just figure I would rather know what it is like to be truly alive than to spend another day wishing I were dead, fighting with traffic and liberals in the big city.”
His face contorts as the whisky burns his throat. “Well, ok. I hadn’t thought of it like that.” And he nods and raises his glass, and the next day you are on your way North.
In Colorado bear country, you lock up your food in a cooler and perhaps shut it in the trunk of the car before going to bed. You mountain bike freely and roam the trails with ease, and still perceive your greatest existential threat to be a violent afternoon thunderstorm and the small-but-real possibility of being struck by lightning high in some mountain meadow. Black bears are more of a novelty nuisance, which you might watch through the front window while drinking your morning coffee wearing a robe and slippers. Occasionally, the papers will report a bear was aggressive towards a police officer, and thus it was “put down,” as is the parlance for killed, with no real indication of the means. Typically, one imagines an officer in a quaint mountain town patrolling the demure streets and noting a suspicious ruckus, only to find a bear opening a “bear proof” dumpster. There will be no official investigation into whether the bear was armed or acting aggressively towards the officer, because we all accept that they are fearsome and should be eliminated as soon as they entire our city limits, as soon as they walk our streets or seek to benefit in some way from us. Because bears are scary, and we would rather let the police deal with them than ever get to know them ourselves.
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It was not until Northern British Columbia that the gravity of the bear situation sank in. And it happened rather insidiously, the same way a fifteen hundred pound mammal manages to somehow silently slink through the thick forests that blanket millions of acres in every direction. I reached the town of Smithers sometime in the late afternoon, during the time of year when the sun does not set until ten PM and it is not so crazy to hit the trails at five. After a long day of driving, I quickly changed into mountain bike gear and found the local trailhead, just across the train tracks and into the woods at the base of the seemingly endless mountains. To my distinct relief, there were no warning signs about bears here, which I took to mean that the issue was not prevalent enough to warrant signage. I strapped Hank’s bear bell to his collar just to be safe and we embarked down the trail, up the mountain, into the woods.
I followed various offshoots and challenging climbs and lost myself in the activity of riding in truly rugged country, until I stopped at the top of a very long trail and tried to use my hand pump to add just a bit of air to the tires. A piece of the nozzle broke and caused the rear tire to go completely flat, so I had no choice but to hike a couple of miles back to the truck to use my full-size pump and start all over. This is hugely annoying, but I was in the middle of British Columbia with Hank by my side, so there was nothing to be upset about. I began the frustrating downhill hike-a-bike, and after about a mile reached a trail junction that I had not seen on the way up. There were the bear warning signs. There was the trail system map that I had wondered about at the trailhead. Indeed, there was the whiteboard where trail users could leave notes about bear activity. And most every day that week, someone had left an entry like “Sow and Two Cubs on Hawk’s Blues” or “Big, funny looking squirrel near the parking lot.” I surveyed my surroundings. Suddenly, every rustle became nefarious and I was far less permissive of Hank’s wanderings. I moved my bear spray from inside my pack to a strap near my waist.
From Smithers northward, there was a distinct change in attitude. One did not simply follow whichever interesting trail to see where it led, at least not without bear spray and some consideration. Every bike ride or hike required incessant singing aloud, and it was amusing to note which songs came to mind as tunes I thought bears might not like. When I wasn’t singing, the silence felt more pronounced than normal. Simply taking Hank for a walk felt like an exercise in badassery and survival. With tangible, animalistic threats comes a heightening of the senses; one feels more alive simply by virtue of being aware of the tenuousness of it all, and by having an easily-identified opposing force.
We spend so much of life numbed by routine and comfort and such utter safety that we conjure up distant, complex, unlikely threats as a way to fill the space in our souls that was once used to conquer the daily beasts and floods and famines we faced. And indeed, some people choose to become the very threats we dread, because in the absence of something to work towards or against, we simply turn on ourselves.
In a way, it is a refreshing feeling to be constantly aware of your surroundings, to know what it is you are most afraid of. To have a common fear with all fellow men, to have a lingua franca that everyone speaks about dangers and preparations and the haughty laughs we must have if we are to survive it at all. In the Yukon, everyone has a bear story or ten. In Alaska, people speak more in “how bad” bears are than whether there are bears at all. In some parts, tent camping is out of the question. In most all, traveling alone is ill-advised. In Fairbanks, pamphlets and flyers advertise GRIZZLY ENCOUNTERS and GUARANTEED BEAR SIGHTINGS, all either in float planes or helicopters or gated wildlife sanctuaries. People who come this far want to gawk at the threat from a safe distance and feel rather disappointed if they fly from Seattle to Anchorage and do not have a single blurry iPhone photo of a bear to show for it. And at Denali National Park, visitors pile into official park buses in hopes of catching a glimpse of a bear or moose out the windows of what were intended as shuttles but have become tour buses. With my helmet in my lap and my bike mounted on the bike rack, I become as much a tourist attraction as the bears they are here to see. “You are going to go out there, by yourself?” and “Aren’t you afraid of the bears?” they all ask. These questions rank right there with “Don’t you ever get lonely?” on the list of things people ask more for their own self-assuredness than for my answer.
The landscape of Denali made me feel so small that by the time I actually saw grizzly bears, it was more of a factual sensory input than a shocking fear. I had also grown accustomed to the sight of bears, to the point that I regarded their constant threat as both somewhat annoying (in stark contrast to the tourists who all flock to whichever side of the bus might be facing the wildlife sighting of the moment) and also a reassuring presence, an uninvited guest whose company I welcome nonetheless, a reminder that I exist at all simply because of my relationship to another thing. I saw many bears on my forty-something mile ride along the Park’s sole roadway. And I saw only one other person who was outside of the park buses and away from any semblance of what most would regard as “safety.” A woman in her seventies who was committed to wildlife photography and laughed as she told me a story of watching two backpackers scramble out of a river bed and ostensibly abandon their plans after noting a grizzly across the river. She was small in stature and extraordinarily large in life, and we shared a conversation in the empty, wind-whipped, endless, enveloping surroundings, before I pedaled off and left her to photograph the bears hunting rabbits with the fervor that early autumn brings.
I saw bears at the end of the earth, nuisance grizzlies that haunted the oil camps of Deadhorse; as apex predators in the Arctic, they had no reason to be afraid of anything but polar bears. To them, the dumpsters and cafeterias of this stubborn outpost were an astonishing gift, and so the signs taped to every building’s doors urged extreme caution when stepping outside. In the Arctic, extreme caution is a relative term, a fact which I learned quickly. I hiked with a trio of girls who were all transplants to Anchorage, seeking the novelty of camping inside the Arctic Circle on Labor Day Weekend. We all fed off each other’s nervous reassuring and nervously chattered against the silence and the massive piles of fresh bear scat as we bushwhacked through the thick foliage in search of a nice peak to eat lunch on. Finally, we retreated to a glacial river bed to cook and eat, and after being in dense undergrowth, we felt strangely safe in a place that was still quite in the heart of the wild.
There were Jasper and Banff, both of which have grizzly bear population densities that rival Kodiak Island, where I went on some of my favorite hikes and bike rides of the entire trip. Perhaps they were favorites because of the recent snowfall, or the unique, otherworldly waters of all the glacial lakes. Or perhaps it was the way I felt somewhat at ease because there were always other people within fifteen or twenty minutes of me, yet my senses were fully engaged by the sights and sounds and smells and constant threats to evaluate.
Then there was Grand Teton National Park. I felt tough and jaded after so much time Up North. Still, it was late fall, and snow was already on the ground, which would push bears into pre-hibernation overdrive. So I played Shotgun Willie on my cell phone and sang along at times, then grew frustrated with my shouts into the abyss, and paused it and hiked faster and quieter. Still, the memory of singing along to ‘Bubbles in My Beer’ while traipsing in double time up Paintbrush Canyon is etched into my mind eternally; the realness of the situation somehow allows it to stick in my memory bank where many other such moments in life have fizzled into the brain-damaged ether. I remember virtually every inch of my mountain bike ride in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory for the same reason. As I sang aloud to an entire CAKE album I had downloaded to my phone, every unfamiliar turn and dip required at least twice the focus it usually would. In Denali, I conjured up Jimmy Buffett’s Songs You Know By Heart and sang aloud intermittently. I feel like I’ve drowned, gonna head uptown. I feel like I’ve drowned, gonna head uptown.
What I notice in the absence of bears to watch out for is that our fears begin to occupy the shadows, even when we cannot name them. We cannot sing songs we know by heart aloud and scare them away before we run smack into them. We cannot wear spray on our belt loop and at least have a fighting chance, or at least the myth that we might. In the absence of bears, the days blur together, and we grow frustrated at the muddy trail or the nagging headache or capital M Malaise and trudge through our days instead of being hyperaware of every passing second, both grateful for it and anticipating the next. As much as I dreaded the presence of bears and the precautions they required, I sure do miss them.