A Glibertarians Exclusive: Bear at Fortymile I
You’re not supposed to watch the plane fly away. I did. Maybe that’s why things happened the way they did.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon, and I was standing on a gravel bar somewhere on the upper stretches of the Fortymile River, watching the little white Cessna buzz overhead. Wayne Johnson, the bush pilot who’d flown me out for a seven-day moose hunt, waggled the plane’s wings once at me before turning back towards Tok.
The river ran through a well-defined valley beginning just upstream from the landing site, with forest of spruce rising away from the banks. Willows lined the river. The sun was shining, and the temperature, while not exactly balmy, was comfortable; I would certainly not be cold while hiking upstream with my big trail pack and assorted gear.
Hours of daylight left, this far north, this time of year. I picked up my backpack and put it on, adjusting the straps carefully, and buckled the waist belt as tightly as was comfortable. Then I grabbed my bow and started up the river.
It was rough walking. The willows grew up thick along the river, and higher up it was thick with brush. I had good maps; about four miles up from the landing site, a small spring-fed creek wandered off to the north. I stuck to the riverbank, walking on gravel bars wherever possible, enjoying the scenery. Colorado had some wild places, but nothing like this.
“You don’t want to camp anywhere along the river out here,” Wayne Johnson had warned me. “The river’s a buffet table for bears. Stay away from it at night. Camp up on higher ground.”
Wayne had also warned me to carry a firearm of some kind, for the same reason. He carried one himself, a big stainless steel .44 magnum in a shoulder holster. He wore several bad scars on one leg from a bear that chewed him up a few days after his eighteenth birthday, and I figured he was just a bit more than normally paranoid. I figured a few normal precautions would keep me safe from bears.
I hadn’t been in Alaska that long.
Four hours, eight o’clock, and I finally made it to the little creek on the map. I turned north there, following it about a half-mile upstream until I came to a little pool. A small bald ridge stood nearby, maybe fifty yards and twenty or thirty feet above the pool; I headed that way.
It felt good to drop my pack at last. I laid my bow down carefully on a lichen-covered rock. My little nylon tent was tied to the pack frame. I removed it, pulled the tent out of the bag, spread it on a level spot and staked it down. Two springy plastic poles went in fore and aft, forming bows to hold the tent up. Then four cords, front and back, ran to four more stakes and pegged down tight to draw the nylon tight as a drum. I got my old down sleeping bag and unrolled it inside the tent, and arranged a few more items from my pack.
A big spruce stood a few feet away. I took a spool of line from my pack – actually, old Army “parachute cord” that I’d had around forever – tossed it over a limb about fifteen feet up, and tied the other end to my pack. Before I went to bed, I’d use the cord to pull the pack up into the tree, keeping all my supplies sheltered up off the ground.
It was starting to get dark. Somewhere off in the distance, a wolf howled, once. Another answered, farther away.
There was one more thing to do. I scraped out a shallow hole in the dirt with a small folding shovel, and gathered a few rocks to surround it. I had to hurry to gather some dry wood, but after about ten minutes of that, I had a nice fire crackling merrily away in the new fire pit. I stuck my wire grill over the fire, and walked down to the pool with my coffeepot to dip up water.
I sat on the ground for a while, waiting for the coffee, watching the fire, and listening to the occasional howling from the wolves. Above, the stars blinked on, one by one.
Silence, all around me, except for the barely audible bubbling of the creek, fifty yards down the hill. I was seventy miles by air from the nearest road, and four and a half miles from the nearest gravel bar big enough to land a plane on. A lifetime in the wilds, and this was the farthest in I’d ever been, my first fall in Alaska.
A sudden hiss: the coffee boiled over, spilling coffee and grounds down the side of the pot into the fire. I laughed. A cup of coffee, I thought, and hit the sleeping bag. I had a big day ahead of me.
I’m a light sleeper. The first tiny beep from my watch woke me up at five, and I scrambled out into the glittering, frosty Alaska pre-dawn. Overhead, the stars glittered like chips of ice.
I was, I admit, as excited as I’d been in years. I’ve always hunted my own meat, but this was my first time in my new home, and my first time trying for anything as big as a moose. I didn’t bother building up the fire, just packed my little butt pack with water and sandwiches before stringing my bow and heading off towards the river.
It was a beautiful day for a hike. Were it not for the bow in my hand and the quiver of arrows on my back, it would have been easy to forget that I was out there with a purpose this time. I prefer wild meat, and a moose would last me a year – more than that, in fact, I’d probably end up giving some meat away. I’d been given to understand that was something of a tradition in Soldotna, my new, adopted home.
The bow felt good in my hands, too. It was a hand-made English-style longbow I’d had for twenty years or so, built by a Michigan craftsman I’d met a long time ago. My arrows were cedar, fletched with real feathers, tipped with four bladed razorhead points – the only part of the rig, in fact, that you wouldn’t have been likely to see on an English bow at the Battle of Hastings. I liked the traditional rig, and it had helped me bring in quite a few deer and elk over the years – even a couple of antelope. This year, my goal was to bring down an Alaskan moose with that old bow.
About noon, I saw the first track, in the sand near the riverbank. It wasn’t a moose track, though; it was a bear track. A big one.
Living in Colorado as many years as I had, I’d seen plenty of bear tracks. But this one was different. I laid my hand in the track, and there was room to spare on either side, in front and back, too. The marks of long claws were plainly visible, inches in front of the pads. It was the track of a grizzly, and a big one if I was any judge.
More disturbing was the pile of bear droppings I suddenly noticed, about ten feet ahead. They were still steaming in the chill morning air.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up suddenly. The sun somehow lost its warmth; every tiny rattle of the willow leaves in the breeze seemed carry a threat.
Slowly, ever so slowly, I reached over my shoulder for an arrow, nocked it. I started to back away, back down the way I’d come. Fifty yards, a hundred, I crept backwards, watching my footing, trying to stay silent while keeping my eyes focused on the brush.
After about two hundred yards, I turned and walked quickly back down the river towards my camp. I saw two cow moose on the way, both at some distance, but my tag was for a bull, so I didn’t even slow down. At the last bend in the river before the creek that led to my camp, I finally sat down on a large boulder, and gave in to the shakes.
All right, Nick, old boy, I told myself after a while. You’ve been around bears before. You’ve been alone in the wilderness before. That bear would probably be more afraid of you than you are of him.
I pulled a sandwich out of my pack, and after a careful look around, ate it slowly. Gradually, I stopped shaking. Pulled myself together. Even managed a little chuckle at my own expense.
Downstream, I thought. I think I’ll hunt downstream from camp.
And that afternoon, that’s what I did. I found plenty of moose sign; saw one small bull, explored lots of beautiful country. I almost managed to forget about the bear track. About nine o’clock that night, an hour after dark, I finally made it back to my tent.
Wolves were howling again, in the distance. The creek bubbled softly in the cold, still night. I made my supper, brewed coffee, and built the fire up high. I sat for maybe an hour, sipping my coffee, staring into the fire.
Alaskan outback nights are amazingly silent. Growing up in Minnesota, I used to camp by myself in the woods along the river near Prairie Ridge; summer and fall nights there were full of sounds, from crickets to owls and whippoorwills. Colorado mountain nights are quiet, but the silence is regularly interrupted by coyotes, owls and in the all, elk bugling. But this Alaskan night was the quietest I’d even experienced; only the crackling of the fire and the soft bubbling of the creek broke the stillness.
Tomorrow, I thought, I’ll go back to that meadow downstream where I saw the small bull. There was a lot of sign right in there.
I looked at my watch. Ten o’clock. Time to sleep. I crawled into the tent, took off my shoes and pants, and crawled into my sleeping bag. It had been a long and tiring day; I went to sleep quickly.