My Great Alaskan Bear Encounter

Let’s just get this out on the table now. I don’t like bears. I don’t see any benefit to having bears in the vicinity. Yes, bears are beautiful animals and they can look harmless in TV documentaries; however they’re also ruthless killers.

I recall reading one particularly horrific bear attack story in Reader’s Digest when I growing up. A man who encountered a bear while hiking through Alaska promptly had his scalp removed.

Of course it wouldn’t have qualified to be featured in Reader’s Digest unless he somehow managed to survive the ordeal. So something positive can come out of being attacked by a creature 5 times the weight of the average human.

Those of us from the Pacific Northwest have our own opportunities to interact with the bears, since they roam the expansive forests and mountains from Oregon to Alaska. On occasion bears like to visit us in the city, but for the most part, if we want to increase the remote possibility of encountering a bear, we can choose to trek into the nearby woods.

People say the best thing to do when a bear is about to have you for lunch is to play dead. I’m sure a bear would like nothing better than to have you give up the fight so that he doesn’t have to put as much effort into making you his next meal.

The guy from the movie “Grizzly Man”, based on a true story, had the right idea. Just go hang out with the bears and pretend you’re one of them. This tactic apparently worked fine for about three years – until the bears finally realized one of us is not like the others and chowed down on him and his girlfriend. So much for bear tomfoolery.

My dad worked for Alyeska Pipeline Co. in Alaska back in the 1970’s. During the summers, my brother and I used to hop on a plane from Seattle and fly to Alaska to stay with him and explore wild Alaska.

Dad’s approach to life was unorthodox at best. No one would ever have accused him of taking the road most traveled. The road less traveled seemed fine to him, and he always managed to come out no worse for the wear.

I had little appreciation for the effort required to put food on the table until fishing the beautiful Alaskan rivers became one of our favorite weekend activities.

Our weekend routine consisted of packing Dad’s Volare (a car glamorized in TV commercials by the popular entertainer, Ricardo Montalb√°n) with fishing gear, driving a couple of hours from Anchorage or Fairbanks to the Kenai Peninsula, finding a place to park near the Russian River, and then spending the entire weekend hauling in fish out of little pockets on the side of the river where the fish rested before continuing their journey upstream.

The road less traveled meant accommodations only a boy scout could appreciate. We never pitched a tent; we simply drove the Volare into the makeshift, backwoods “parking” lots and that was our mobile hotel. The minivan hadn’t been invented yet, so sleeping accommodations were simply dad and older brother reclining in the two front bucket seats, and me squeezing my skinny, pre-teen body into a horizontal position in any remaining space in the back seat.

The Alaskan wild obviously provided minimal creature comforts that we were accustomed to from living in the city.¬† I don’t recall now how we brushed our teeth, took “bio breaks”, or managed to eat regular meals, but the fishing was simply too good for us to worry about the details. I do remember that after waking up in the car and taking care of the morning logistics, we set out for the best fishing spot on the opposite side of the river.

Since we were young and lightweight, Dad used to take each of us boys individually via piggyback across the river. The river was shallow in spots; however, it also was like the name implies – a rushing river – in others. If bears weren’t enough of a concern, we also had to worry about Dad losing his footing on his way across, dropping one of us, and then being swept away by the river.

We successfully crossed that river many times, made our way to what became our regular fishing hole, caught as many fish as we could legally catch, packed them up in a cooler, and made our way back to the city in time for Dad to start another work week with Alyeska. Somehow we survived Dad’s mother-unapproved method for traveling to our prime fishing spot, avoiding danger on the road, or river, less traveled.

Oh, yeah. So isn’t this story supposed to be about a bear encounter? Yes, where there are fish, there are bears!

One weekend we headed toward the river to cross to the other side and hike up the river to our favorite fishing location. Another fisherman just on the other side had his pole extended over the water and appeared oblivious to a dark creature approaching him from his back.

My heart began beating rapidly, as my instincts told me that this fisherman was about to be in very big trouble. A few us on our side of the river tried to warn him, waving our arms and yelling that he was about to be face to face with a bear!

During those few seconds, I questioned why he wouldn’t turn around to face his soon-to-be nemesis, why he appeared so casual when he was in obvious danger. Furthermore, he was perched on a high bank that did not provide an easy escape route, other than jumping several feet down into the river, which I expected him to do.

We soon discovered this fisherman was a true Alaskan grizzly man, at one with nature, not panicking for even a brief moment. I’ll be darned if that bear didn’t just stroll up to the man, casually take in the aromas populating the area, and then proceed to saunter up the river bank in search of fish or scraps from people cleaning the fish they caught.

It was quite a rush to see a bear, but I was even more impressed at how the grizzly man remained perfectly cool in a precarious situation. Alaskans will probably tell you that you don’t need to fear the bear, just respect it. Perhaps my fear had been overstated and bears weren’t so bad after all?