Backcountry bear

While boating across the lake once, we came across this black bear swimming across the bay. Although he didn’t mind too much when we approached for a photo, the set of his ears and way he’s pointedly avoiding eye contact told us he wasn’t completely comfortable, so we quickly let him go on his way. 

We had paused after a creek crossing below the Alaska Range some 20 years ago — Julie, the pack horses, trail dogs and me — when our lead mare Lilja opened her squinty eyes wide, gazing studiously toward a hillside a half-mile away. She did not look alarmed, but her intent focus attracted my attention. It took me a few moments to spot the grizzly, loping hurriedly along the distant tundra slope.

He was moving southwest, apparently fleeing our distant procession. Traveling northwest, we remained alert but unconcerned at the sight of one of North America’s largest and most dangerous carnivores.

Over the decades, Julie and I have had our share of bear encounters, yet the ones of real concern could be counted on one hand. While there can be no doubt that both black and brown bears occasionally prove deadly, the vast majority prefer to avoid human confrontation. Black bears, with their forest habits, tend to be so secretive that we rarely realize their presence.

We’ve walked a two-mile trail through birch woods near our Bush home literally hundreds of times without seeing one. With large bear-hating huskies ranging ahead of us, any bruins always cleared out before our arrival. But when I made this walk alone at the end of a long day, I traveled loudly, on guard against stumbling across a black bear. Indeed a half-mile into the hike I spotted one a couple hundred feet away, already fleeing my approach.

Figuring that was the bear for the day, my alertness and noise levels slumped as I trudged tiredly toward home. Clearing an alder thicket another mile on, I recoiled at the sight of a bear digging through a rotten log in search of grubs just 30 feet away.

The critter became aware of me the instant I saw him. I felt I could be close enough to potentially trigger a defensive charge, but instead he inhaled a much louder choking gasp than I had, spun, and tore away in such a panic I could hear his breath catching loudly in his throat.

Startling a bear (notably grizzlies) is one way to get into trouble. Threatening cubs (again, especially brown bears) is another and a third way is to stumble across a bear guarding a kill. Thankfully, that only happened to us once. Julie and I found ourselves less than 50 feet from a large black bear facing off with fangs bared, mouth frothing and eyes glazed a terrifying reddish steely hardness. The only reason I felt only mild alarm instead of wet-your-pants-terror was because the bear stood over his kill on the edge of a river bank while we remained safely in a running power boat in deep water beyond jumping distance.

Even at that, after a momentary stand-off the bear fled his valued dinner: a young bear he had apparently killed and half eaten.

I think the most scared I ever felt about a potential bear attack was the time I awoke from a deep sleep just as gray September light began brightening our teeny tent. Still reeking of blood and aching from butchering a moose until the previous midnight, I was awakened by the sound of vicious claws slashing Julie’s side of the tent from the peak all the way down to the ground.

I tell you, I was sitting up, rifle in hand and chambering a round, before even fully awake. Staring wildly with eyes big and round, I remember wondering how I could shoot an attacking bear when Julie lay between me and it.

Finally, I looked at Julie. Still lying down but propped up on her elbows, her eyes were big and round too. But she didn’t look scared, exactly. Finally, indicating the strangely intact tent, she said, “It was a grouse!” The bird had landed on top of the tent, and, unable to make a purchase, had slid clawing down the roof to plop harmlessly to the ground.

To me this represents a classic human psychology story about bears: The vast majority of the time, the danger is all in your head.

I remember once picking blueberries on a steep hillside above Kantishna Roadhouse. We’d been warned of a black bear in the area, and sure enough we soon spotted him only 100 feet or so away on the far side of a little gully.

“You pick over there,” we ordered in a loud but calm tone. “And we’ll pick over here.” That’s just what happened.

I think my favorite bear encounter occurred during another pack trip along the foothills of the Alaska Range. Our little outfit had stopped above treeline, backed up against a grassy bank alongside a wide, low valley. Trail dog lounged happily and the three pack horses ripped hungrily at the rich grass as Julie and I dug out the bannock and raisins and chocolate.

As we munched contentedly on our meal, a few hundred yards away across the valley a black bear did exactly the same, munching on succulent greens and the occasional grub. If aware of us at all, he didn’t care. Roly-poly and glossy-pelted, he seemed perfectly happy right where he was. Finished with our lunch, we moseyed on west, while he worked his way east, travelers contentedly passing in the wilderness.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.