My father, an avid outdoorsman, once told me “you always smell a bear before you see one.” Years ago, while hiking the John Muir Trail, he claims to have chased away lots of bears that snuck into his campsite in the middle of the night hoping for an easy snack.
Nothing represents a true wilderness experience like seeing a bear in the wild. For all the hiking, camping and backpacking I did in my life, I was always disappointed that I had never encountered a bear.
I only knew bears by reputation. In my mind, they were big, lumbering beasts that slept all winter, splashed in rivers, and ate fish to grow fat all summer.
This year was going to be different. When my husband and I made plans to visit Alaska, I knew this was my chance in a lifetime to See-a-Bear-in-the-Wild-or-Bust.
To prepare for our trip, my forward-thinking husband searched Google for information about Alaskan bears, including behavior, characteristics, scat, and how to use bear spray. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t watched all those YouTube videos of people getting attacked by bears, because they scared the bejeebers out of me. However, it was helpful to know what to do if we did run into a bear, especially since we were planning on hiking a lot in Alaska.
Bottom line: if you encounter a grizzly, look big, don’t run, and play dead if they attack. For a black bear, do the same, but don’t play dead. Fight back. Punch him in the face.
I hope I never get into a bear brawl. I’ve been told I hit like a girl.
Fortified with this knowledge, we flew to Anchorage, rented a car, and drove to Denali National Park. On our second day there, my dream came true. Riding the shuttle bus into the park, the driver spotted two light brown specks way out on the tundra, which, upon magnification, turned out to be two grizzlies lying in the grass.
What a thrill! Through binoculars, they looked massive. But they puzzled me. They were just lying there, resting, not moving. I thought that as soon as skinny, hungry bears woke up from hibernation, they immediately began a frenzied search for food. So why weren’t these grizzlies scavenging for berries, chasing Arctic ground squirrels, and stalking caribou, which roamed the Denali tundra in big herds? Later we saw two more laid-back grizzlies that were also lying around, doing nothing.
Our best bear sighting was a full grown male that came within 40 yards of the bus and he appeared to be hungry. He was pawing and poking the ground, looking for food, barely caring that a bus full of tourists were capturing his every move with their cameras and cell phones.
In places like Yellowstone, a bus full of people might attract a bear that had developed an unnatural hankering for Tastykakes, but a forest ranger told us that Denali bears are completely wild. They’ve never eaten people food or gotten into a garbage can, so they don’t associate humans with food. The bear we saw was perfectly happy with whatever delicacies he was digging up on the tundra.
That was good to know, because if it weren’t for that one industrious bear that was sniffing out food, I would have thought that all Denali grizzlies were big, lazy blobs.
We hiked every day we could. In Denali, Seward, Juneau, and Ketchikan, we climbed thousands of feet, up steep mountains, over boulders, and through snow. We never encountered a bear while hiking. The place where we had the greatest chance of seeing a bear was the little town of Hoonah, but that was the only place where we weren’t allowed to hike. A townsperson told us it’s not safe.
“There are more bears than people here,” she said.
Case in point, a few days ago, four Hoonah residents were attacked by a bear, and were saved by an 11-year old with a gun.
I experienced more excitement at a salmon bake at Taku Lodge, near Juneau, when we saw a female black bear hanging out in a tree, waiting for everyone to go inside the lodge to eat so she could lick fish oil that dripped into the sand below the grill.
On our trip to Alaska, I can’t say that I got close enough to smell a bear, but I’m not disappointed. It was wonderful to see wild bears up close, but not too personal.
Besides, I’m grateful nobody’s watching me in a YouTube video right now.
Ann K. Howley is the author of the award-winning memoir, Confessions of a Do-Gooder Gone Bad. She is a regular contributor to Pittsburgh Parent Magazine and is a contributor to the most recent HerStories Project anthology, So Glad They Told Me – Women Get Real about Motherhood. She teaches writing courses for CCAC’s Community Education Program.