Animal Encounter—Gold: A Grizzly Tale

by Libby Lubin

Let me tell you about the grizzly bear I ran into last summer in Alaska.

A bear in Alaska, you snicker, what did she expect, chipmunks?

True, there are lots of bears in Alaska, but the ones most people see are either silk screened on tee-shirts, mounted in airports, or so far away that you need binoculars to make sure you aren’t actually looking at a very large dog.

To be honest, prior to the trip I hadn’t really given much thought to bears, grizzly or otherwise. I’d been too busy buying, borrowing, and resuscitating all the recommended rain gear, rubber boots, polypropylene, gortex, sun screen, insect repellent, and hiking boots to focus on anything other than the inevitability of inclement weather.

And in fact, for the first couple of days, the animals were rather disappointing. A 5-hour train ride from Fairbanks to Healy at the edge of Denali National Park provided glimpses of several ground squirrels, millions of pine trees, and one very distant moose that appeared to be either napping or stuffed. From Healy we flew into a wilderness lodge. No herds of caribou or packs of wolves were spotted from the windows of our single-engine plane. The next day, on a six-hour hike, we put rain gear to the test and stood for an awfully long time with our binoculars fixed on an empty bald eagle’s nest. Never mind. The vistas were inspiring and the wildflowers delightful. Moreover, after dinner, the naturalists showed slides of Alaskan wildlife that were, well, sort of like being there.

This come-as-what-may approach to sightseeing can be unsettling. With an art historian for a husband, I’m more accustomed to seeing things that have stayed in one place, more or less, for five hundred, two thousand, however many years. Imagine if the Mona Lisa slinked about France so that only a few lucky tourists could catch glimpses of her. Of course artworks do travel to different museums, and there are always restorations, renovations, and state holidays to muddy the program. But for the most part, tourists can assume that no matter when they choose to travel the Colosseum will be exactly where it’s been for the past two thousand years. The grizzlies of Denali are less accommodating. Perhaps this is part of their allure.

On our final day at the lodge, Patty, one of the naturalists, suggested we hike out to an abandoned beaver’s den. We’d enjoyed the abandoned bald eagle’s nest. Why not? Now it should be mentioned here that one of the jobs of a naturalist for high end tours is to show people astonishing things and, in the absence of genuine astonishment, to persuade them that what they are seeing, while perhaps subtle in impact, is, in fact, highly unusual or rarely observed or in some way very much out of the ordinary.

“We have never seen the likes of such unrelenting rain.”

In the end, what counts is hyperbole since relentless showers, while uncomfortable at the time, make for far better dinner party conversation back home than constant sunshine or even a persistent but unremarkable drizzle.

But with grizzlies in Alaska, it’s difficult to put a positive spin on their refusal to make an appearance.

Back to our trip to the abandoned beaver’s den. The trail we were on followed a creek bed, and it wasn’t long before our party of six became strung out as we stopped for photos. I was somewhere in the middle, when all of a sudden a moose raced across the trail with her calf close behind. I dashed back to find my teen-aged daughter, Molly, staring through the lens of her camera at a distant peak.

“There was a moose!” I exclaimed while simultaneously noting a very large animal swaying, weaving, and snorting behind a nearby alder bush. “And there’s another!” I gasped, hopping up and down and casting about for a pair of trees behind which to station myself. I’d once heard that if you stood behind two trees that were close together, a moose would get stuck if he tried to charge at you.

In cataclysmic moments such as these, time passes in slowly. Molly turned from her camera to give me a queer glancewhat is her problem?and that very moment the large animal sidestepped from behind the brush. It was not a moose, and certainly not a dog. The massive hump-backed bear turned his great head upward as if puzzling over our unfamiliar scents. Catching my eye, he shot me an icy look of anger tinged with alarm. We’d scared away his lunch.

“It’s a bear,” I shrieked as I spun around and, like the mother moose who went before me, sprinted down the trail leaving my child to fend for herself. (My daughter is both faster and stronger than I. Moreover she knows you’re not supposed to run from a bear.). The bear, fortunately for us, decided to cut his losses. He lowered his head and sped off in the opposite direction, with a palpable sense of purpose, like a seasoned sprinter bursting from his blocks.

Our party of six regrouped, counted heads, and circled back to check for tracks. Sure enough, it was a grizzly, and a large one at that. Indeed, our naturalist seemed more shaken by the encounter than thrilled. Fortunately, whatever worst-case scenario she envisioned, she chose to keep to herself. On our return trip to the lodge, we cut a trail through the wide open creek bed lest we surprise the bear who was most likely still nearby and still interested in lunch. Back at the lodge, guests and staff alike crowded round to hear my tale. After all those ground squirrels and wild flowers the news of a grizzly in the valley created quite a stir.

The next day, in Talkeetna, a little town at the base of Mt. Denali, we signed on for a boat ride on the Suisitna River. Our guide was carrying a rifle . “Is that for bears?” I asked. He nodded solemnly. “Have you ever looked a grizzly in the eye?” I asked. He hadn’t, so naturally I told him my story. Now you may accuse me of bragging, as indeed my family did. But in fact, my motive had more to do with finding a context for this unexpected encounter. Imagine, if you will, a tourist visiting England. He catches a cab from the airport, gets stuck in traffic, looks over at the next car and sees Queen Elizabeth smiling from the back seat. In the course of his brief morning in Britain, he’s already seen her face on each of his pound notes, on rows of airport souvenir tea cups, and on the postage stamps he bought for his post cards. If he doesn’t ask, he might assume that spotting the Queen in rush-hour traffic is, well, just sort of ho hum when in fact many Britains live their entire lives without spotting a Royal. Such can be the case, I discovered, with grizzlies in Alaska.

There are, of course, other tourist attractions in the forty ninth state. But like the bears, actually seeing them requires timing, patience, and a bit of luck. On our last day in Talkeetna, the clouds lifted to disclose a magnificent view of Mt Denali that we very nearly missed altogether. And while we didn’t bag an aurora borealis, we did see blue skies in Juneau which, we were told, is a phenomenon of even greater consequence.

On a week-long cruise through the Inside Passage, finally, we hit our mother lode: harbor seals, humpback whales, puffins, sea otters, glaciers, moose, beavers, and bald eagles. The bears, however, remained elusive, a fact the lent even greater luster to my tale of the grizzly. Indeed, by the end of the week, it’s safe to say that each of the 70 passengers on board our ship had heard my storysometimes even second hand. “Now aren’t you the woman who saw that. . .” I’ll admit that through the process of continual retelling, the bear worked its way ever closer to me, and our moment of eye contact took on increasingly profound, even existential meaning.

Based on how quickly my tale of the bear circulated through that ship, I’d say there’s a high likelihood that it’s been carried back to the Lower Forty Eight. By someone other than me, that is.

“Well, no, we didn’t actually get terribly close to a grizzly, (read: we didn’t even see one except through the lens of a highly powerful binocular.) but let me tell you about a woman I ran into up there . . .”

Or was it a beautiful young woman, who saved her child from a grizzly then ran like the wind?

And why not? Alaska is the land of high mountains, vast forests, and tall tales. According to Alaskan lore, in 1910, the Sourdough Boys are said to have climbed the South Peak of Denali with nothing more than a couple of ropes, a thermos of coffee, and a dozen doughnuts? I’m willing to bet that even if they climbed that mountain, their packing list whittled itself down over time. Not that it matters.

Once the journey’s over, when all that’s left is the nagging aura of mildew or a file of digital photos relegated to a hard drive or even a handful of stale donut crumbs rattling in the bottom of a rucksack, what remains most vivid and intact are the stories. So at least let’s make them good, exaggerated, apocryphal or otherwise.

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