A Glibertarians Exclusive: Bear at Fortymile III

September 5th

As on the first two days, the beeping of my watch awoke me early.  It was still dark, and I could hear pellets of snow hitting the tent, and the wind was snapping the nylon.  It wouldn’t be as pleasant a day as the first four had been.

I grunted, stretched aching muscles, looked at the time; four hours of sleep would have to do.  I crawled out of my sleeping bag into the frigid air, dressed as quickly as I could, and scrambled outside.  The stars were gone, the sky only beginning to show the first light of a dull dawn.  The wind was blowing low, gray, scudding clouds overhead, and a steady spit of wet pellets of snow filled the air.

No fire, no coffee this morning.  I munched a bagel and grabbed my pack frame, and this time I took my bow and quiver along.

In retrospect, I probably should have abandoned the rest of the meat – I already had a good hundred pounds or so out at the pickup site.  But we don’t always follow our best instincts, and it goes against my grain to leave meat in the woods, even though nothing out there really goes to waste – this certainly wouldn’t have, not with a hungry grizzly in the area.

But I had killed the moose, and it was my responsibility.  It strikes me as unethical to leave good meat in the woods when I’ve killed an animal.  Most hunters I know feel the same way.

The snow died down to the occasional spatter as I hiked towards the kill site.  The clouds glowered down at me, so low in the sky that it seemed I could reach up and touch them.

The kill site was unchanged from the day before.  Maybe he’s had his fill of moose, I told myself, and set about lowering and tying up another load of meat to pack out.  The load was ready, and I had just got the pack frame back on and was adjusting the straps when the bear showed up.

Unusually for me – I’ve got great hearing – I saw him before I heard him.  He had approached silently, from downwind, and I never knew he was there until a big, brown head, the size of a washtub, poked up over a clump of scrub willows.

I froze.  The grizzly and I made eye contact.  He was no more than twenty yards away.

He was a magnificent animal.  His damp fur looked almost black, but his face was lighter in color than the rest of him; even on the gray, dull day I could plainly see the dished face and humped shoulders that marked the species, grizzly, the first such I’d ever seen in the wild.

I had sixty pounds of moose meat securely fastened to my back, and I was a good twenty feet from the nearest tree.  The bear was, maybe, sixty feet from me.  My bow lay at my feet, the quiver next to it, an arrow still nocked and laid across the rest.

Whuff.  The sudden noise from the bear made me jump.  The slight breeze was blowing directly from me to the bear.  His nose worked furiously, I could see his nostrils pulling at the air, and I realized that he knew I was there before he ever came in.  Even here, in Alaska, bears are hunted, and I was surprised that this one would be so bold, especially here; the Fortymile isn’t really all that secluded as Alaska goes.  There are people on whitewater expeditions, hiking, camping, boating and even gold panning all summer in the very area where I stood now.

But today, I was alone, under the lowering clouds, face to face with a grizzly that seemed to regard me as no more than a not-too-troublesome obstacle between him and his breakfast.

As slowly as I could move, I squatted down and retrieved my bow.  The grizzly watched, seeming only mildly interested.

I started to back away, slowly.  The bear whuffed again and took a couple of ambling steps towards me.

This isn’t good, I thought.  Try something else.  I raised my arms, stood tall, and shouted, “get on out of here!

He took a step backward.  Cocking his head to stare at me, for all the world like a gigantic dog, he shifted his weight from one forefoot to the other, back and forth, back and forth, still watching.  This time, when I started to back away, he sat on his hindquarters and let me go.  After I had backed away about a hundred yards, he turned and headed for the pile of offal that still lay a little ways away from the tree where the meat was stored.

I beat it out of there.

It was about lunchtime when I got to the gravel bar.  I felt like I had walked backward at least half the way, but the bear had obviously chosen to stay at the kill site and enjoy his breakfast.  While I was hanging the meat up in another good-sized spruce, I mentally reviewed what I knew about grizzlies.

What surprised me was that the bear had stood so quietly and let me leave unchallenged.  I had been given to understand that grizzlies, once they had taken possession of a carcass, guarded it viciously, attacking any and all that came too close.  That bear had not only refrained from an attack, it had stood by calmly while I walked away with sixty pounds of meat.  Maybe this bear was different.  Maybe this bear had learned the tricks of scavenging hunter’s leavings.

Then again, I also knew that animals, particularly wild animals, are anything but predictable.  The question that faced me now was simple.

Should I go back for more of that meat?

Mister Grizzly had already taken sixty or seventy pounds in that one bag that I hadn’t hung quite high enough to be out of his reach.  I had maybe a hundred and fifty pounds of moose meat and the antlers already hauled out to the pick-up point, and it would be forty-eight hours before Wayne would return with his bush plane to pull me out. There were two more bags of meat left, maybe another hundred to a hundred and twenty pounds, two trips worth.  My camp was in a pretty secure spot, just up the hillside.

In the end, I decided to leave it until the next day.  The sun was beginning to peek through the clouds, and I had not yet taken any time to tramp around and explore.  I spent the afternoon hunting spruce grouse with my bow and some blunt arrows I’d brought along.  By suppertime I had a big, soft-feathered bird, which made for a nice dinner.  I roasted and ate my grouse, and munched an apple from my pack.  Then I built the fire up high, and sat reading a book I’d packed in – Hal Borland’s When the Legends Die, it was, a fact that lingers, oddly, in my memory.  By nine o’clock, my eyes were trying to close, so I crawled in my tent and went to bed, feeling more relaxed than I had in several days.


September 6th

I snapped awake suddenly, trying to focus on something in the pre-dawn darkness.  Glanced at my watch.  It was about ten minutes before my alarm would have gone off.

What woke me up?  I didn’t know.  I rolled over, unzipped the tent flap a few inches, and peered out.

The sky had cleared off completely overnight, and a trillion stars sparkled overhead.  In the faint light, I could see a hard frost glittering bright on the grasses and brush around the tent.  In the east, the very faintest traces of the dawn to come glowed, ever so faintly.

Cold.  I huddled back down into my sleeping bag.  There was no hurry today; I’d stay warm a bit longer, maybe until the sun came up.  I lay there, looking out through the little opening at the stars, until the sky brightened and blued; when the full rays of the sun finally hit my tent, I pulled on my wool pants and boots and scrambled out into the beautiful Alaska morning.

A quick scout around my camp revealed nothing disturbed.  My moose meat hung, untouched, in the spruces where I’d left it.  Of course, no traces remained of my dinner; I’d dressed the grouse down at the river, and taken the remains a few hundred yards downstream and buried them.  I keep a clean camp.  There was nothing around to attract any local wildlife at all, much less a bear.

Remembering, now, I looked nervously around at the far horizons, and then laughed at myself.  You’re getting a little paranoid, Nick, old man, I told myself.  I walked around the camp a few times, slapping my arms up and down to loosen up.  My campfire still had a few coals going, so I added some wood, got the flames going again, and boiled up a pot of coffee.  Two cups of coffee and an apple later, I felt ready to face another trip back to the kill site, so I strapped on the pack frame, grabbed my bow, and set out for another load of meat.

Sun, trees, grass, birds, all seemed very alive that morning.  Maybe it was just the wilderness rebounding after yesterday’s dismal weather, but I know that my own mood reflected the brightness of the Alaska outback morning.  I whistled and sang as I walked, partly because of the beauty of the morning, partly to let any large, brown, carnivorous animals know I was in the area.  When I approached the area where I’d killed the moose, I first climbed a ridge about a quarter-mile away and looked the site over carefully with my binoculars.

Sure enough, there was ample sign of the bear in the area.  He had pretty much polished off the offal pile, but the remainder of my meat – hung high in the trees – looked untouched.

I didn’t see the bear around, but the area was brushy and boggy – he could have been lying in any of a number of brushy spots, unseen.  I circled in, slowly, singing and shouting the whole way, arriving finally at the tree without incident.  It was just as I was lowering the next bag full of meat that he showed up again.

This time he didn’t mess around.  He came in at a run, whoofing with each bound.  I dropped the meat and scurried up the tree like a squirrel; I still don’t remember exactly how, but when I stopped I was perched on a limb a good twenty feet up.  Beneath me, the grizzly – I could see now that he was a young male, probably his first year on his own – sniffed the bagged meat over carefully, picked it up, shot a look up at me and headed back into the brush.

After a few minutes, I saw him again, a quarter-mile away, dragging the bag of meat over a ridgeline.

Just to my left, one bag of meat remained.  Well, I had to admit, he saved me two trips.  Figuring I had some time while the bear ate his fill, I managed to get down out of the tree, dropped the meat, and made ready to pack it out.  Ten minutes, and I was ready to go, and I didn’t waste any time – just a quick look around the place, the place I’d taken that first moose, and off I went for that last hike back to the gravel bar.  Wayne would be back in less than twenty-four hours to pull me out.  I figured on enjoying one last quiet evening in the wild, probably my last until next spring.

The hike back was pleasant, but not quite as enjoyable as the walk in; seventy pounds of meat is a pretty good load for a man in his fifties.  I whistled and sang, just as before, only not so much whenever there was a slope to climb.  I needed every molecule of oxygen for my bloodstream, then; the exertions of the last few days were starting to catch up with me.  A lazy afternoon lounging in the sun was starting to look pretty appealing.  As I thought of the river a short ways from my camp, my only regret was that I hadn’t brought any fishing gear.

The trip seemed at least twice as long as it had the day before, but at last I topped the last ridge, and my camp was in sight.

My back and arms felt like someone had beaten them with a two-by-four, but somehow I managed to get the last bag of meat hung in the big spruce with the rest.  Now, some rest and relaxation beckoned, but first I gathered some wood and built a pretty substantial fire.  Before I had hung up that last bag, I had cut off a good-sized steak, and I set this to broil on a flat rock near the fire.  Soon the air was filled with a delicious smell.

Eating is different in the wild, especially after a few days’ hard work.  They say hunger is the best seasoning, but woodsmoke and fresh air are pretty good spices as well; and just as trout tastes best when cooked right at streamside, a good piece of venison always seems to taste best cooked out of doors on an open fire.  Maybe it’s something primal in our ancestry that makes it that way; it hearkens back to humanity’s days as hunter-gatherers, or maybe it’s just the fresh air and sunshine that give that feeling of well-being.  Either way, I cooked that steak, seasoned it with nothing more than a little salt and pepper, and ate it off my old tin camp plate, with a fork and my skinning knife.  I hadn’t tasted anything that good since the last fresh steak I’d eaten over a campfire.  That had been an elk, taken two years earlier in the Holy Cross Wilderness, half a continent and seemingly a lifetime away.

A lot of water under the bridge since then, I thought.

After I ate, I brewed a cup of coffee.  I seated myself in the grass, leaning back against an old fallen log.  I thought about reading, but instead I sat with my cup and thought about many things.  I thought about Ceilidh Ross, presumably working back at her practice in St. Paul.  I thought about Jan, about what might have been if not for a truck with failed brakes, and felt a stab of the old pain.  I even thought about Elaine Carroll, the girl I’d lived with in college.

I remembered how the aspens in Colorado would turn a September mountainside to a glittering cascade of gold.  I remembered that first summer in Colorado, working on my first book and tending bar in the old Adam’s Rib saloon, turned now into a delicatessen catering to the ski resort crowd.  I remembered building my cabin on the Uncompaghre, sold now to a lawyer from Grand Junction.  With a bit of excitement, I thought of my new little house in Soldotna, and the warm welcome I’d received from that small fishing and tourist town.  I plainly wasn’t going to be allowed to be a hermit in Soldotna, and somehow, after years spent as a loner, that appealed to me.

The only consistency in life is that it’s inconsistent.  Things change, events ebb and flow around you; the only thing you can do is adapt.

Something about quiet afternoons in the wild brings out the philosopher in me.

As the afternoon passed, I sat, dozed a little, thought some more, and finally even read a little bit.

What an adventure this had been!  Tomorrow the plane would come, buzzing up the river, and take me back to Tok, where I’d left my old Bronco at the airfield.  Presently the sun went down, and I crawled into my tent to sleep.

I didn’t know that the excitement wasn’t over yet.