Bears Behind Trees in Alaska
by Amanda Castleman
The floatplane trembles over the firs and fjords of southeastern Alaska. I shift – slack pounds in the cockpit – trying not to elbow the yoke.
“Mine cave-in,” bellows the bush pilot over the engine’s revs. “Flood! – whroooooarrrr – only mules died – rrrooooowwwww – one man disappeared, though. Wwwwrraww … gambling debts.”
Wow. The license plates don’t lie, I think: truly, Alaska is the last frontier.
Later I discover the Treadwell Mine collapsed in 1917, not last week, as I’d misheard. The swimming pool drained five feet in “one great gulp” as the gold-diggers’ wives basked like a sea lion harem. These details temper my Call of the Wild fantasy somewhat. I didn’t weather three nights outside on the world’s longest ferry route – Washington to Alaska – to hear about a Ladies’ Auxiliary.
The Auxiliary, however, finds me aboard the MV Columbia. Big women from Minnesota watch me groom in the head. Most wear matching windbreakers. All open doors with pinched squares of toilet paper. And I – cranky little Exhibit A – long to shout: “why aren’t you people on a cruise ship?”
Except I respect that the Duluthians are here: they’re trying to see more than a movable feast aboard Holland America.
The cruises are Alaska’s meal ticket, along with the oil pipeline. Both industries leave a shameful streak of pollution; these feet-per-gallon vessels have been known to flush sewage into the sage-green seas, freshly melted from glaciers. And they also dump 10,000 tourists a day into seven-block-square towns with 500 year-round residents. Oh, it ain’t pretty, believe me.
But people need to buy tanzanite, so the show goes on. Why, exactly, they motor up the Inside Passage to purchase a southern African gemstone remains a mystery. The crafty shop owners, by the way, don’t head north to sell refrigerators to Eskimos off-season. Instead, they fly south to their Caribbean boutiques each winter and peddle more tanzanite to cruisers there.
Finally, one spectator gathers her courage: “Are you sleeping on the deck, dear?”
Yes. Because whale fins slice the sea in the dishwater twilight of 10pm. And heat lamps grill overhead at dawn – sinister and ember-orange – as the landscape unfurls in grey-blue sheaves: sea shading to mountains, then clouds and beyond.
The scent of this coast –saltwater and cedars and a base note of mudflat sleech – signals home to me, more clearly than any channel buoy.
My explanation gains steam. I even quote John Muir, the grandmaster of conservation, also driven to new heights of hyperbole here. This landscape made him “contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop … flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty,” he wrote in the 1915 classic Travels in Alaska.
I lose the Duluthians around the dewdrop. They want a vicarious thrill – maybe some solarium sleeping-bag-hopping gossip – not a great load of mystic yak.
“The hash browns are really good in the café,” one finally announces. With enthusiastic murmurs, all seven exit stage left.
“Wait,” I almost call. “Just think about the last frontier. Ponder why you’re here – and how this land might change you – for just one naval-gazing, hippy-dippy moment. Please?”
My answer is obvious. As Kent Nerburn so capably expressed in Road Angels: “I’ve watched the light go out of too many of my friends’ eyes as their lives turned from a crazy garden of weed and wildflowers to a well-manicured lawn. I’m not ready for that yet.
“I need ‘bears behind trees’ – surprises in life that are bigger than a plugged sewer line or an unexpected finance charge on my credit card ... If I don't have them, my life becomes just a long-term maintenance project.”
In Alaska, I hope to miss the forest for the bears. And indeed the state wantonly strews them everywhere: bears prowling through coastal waterfalls, bears nosing in roadside berry patches, bears charging across tidal flats.
Only one teenage brownie attacks, but that’s still an exciting day at Pack Creek Sanctuary.
I’m already giddy from Baby’s First Floatplane Experience: a Cessna 206, which launches from the tarmac of Juneau’s airport and skims into an Admiralty Island cove. The pilot wades in his Xtra Tuffs – the ubiquitous brown rubber boots of Alaska – yanking the Amphib’s tail until it grounds 15 feet from the cobblestone shore.
“Don’t you dare carry me,” I grouch. “I used to be a wilderness guide and I haven’t degraded into a complete cream puff.” I crunch barefoot across the barnacles. Scratches tendril pink into the clear water: smoke signals from my childhood on a Pacific Northwest beach.
A freckled woman welcomes us to the South Sand Spit, a.375 H&H Magnum rifle over one shoulder. Maggie – more formally Margaret Auble of the Tongass National Forest – began training on firearms at age five. But guns are a necessity, not a passion, the Alaskan native stresses. “We’ve had no pesty bears this year, no curious subadults. I’ve never even loaded a bullet into the chamber.
“Every ranger has their comfort limit for a charging bear. I’d shoot at 10-20 yards.”
She also briefs our three-person group on sanctuary survival tips. All food, even gum wrappers, disappears into underground bunkers. If we encounter a brown bear – a coastal variant of the humpbacked, bad-news grisly – we should stand our ground, look large and speak firmly.
Then she radios north. The estuary trail is clear, so we pick along the high-tide line, alert for ursine grunts and rustles in the brush.
The cinnamon bear romps on the beach. She bellyflops across the mudflats, plowing through channels in cartoon starbursts of spray. Then she rears onto two legs – bruin rampant like a knight’s crest – with a rose-and-sage-fleshed salmon bucking between her teeth.
Maggie’s voice fuzzes through the walkie-talkie, manned by wildlife technician Paul Converse of the Department of Fish and Game.
“I had a bear encounter,” she observes.
“What type? Over.”
“Uh. The charging type.”
A half hour later, the young ranger arrives at the Windfall Harbor observation point. Her preternatural calm is dissolving into chatter and maybe even a few shakes, as all that sour, jittery adrenaline flushes.
“I was helping some people cast off their boat,” Maggie says. “This subadult bear was eating and moseying nearby. Maybe 10-20 yards off. Suddenly she wheeled and charged. I talked firmly to her. I said, ‘you turn right around, Missy!’ – I’d seen her pee so I knew she was a girl.”
Two hours ago, Maggie told me her panic-zone was 10-20 yards. This bear – probably the teenager called Pokey – started from that distance. And the ranger’s so highly trained, so alert to the moment, she’s sussing the animal’s gender and addressing her accordingly, as she chambers her first bullet ever on Admiralty Island.
“I was watching her frontal muscles, to see if they bunched to move forward more,” she says. “It was beautiful. Scary, but beautiful. I was slowly squeezing the trigger, when she stopped that far away.” Maggie points to a log maybe three or four yards from her boot.
“It was a false charge after all. Both of us had faux-fronts on, but I won.”
Good gravy. Beside this superwoman, I’m Duluthian: a creature of comfort ambling towards the hash browns on life’s buffet.
And then I realize that Alaska teaches many lessons, each tailored to the pupil. Maybe those Minnesotans remembered the ocean’s primordial pull, as humpbacks spyhopped beside the ferry, their breath blossoming like wildflowers on the waves. I stood straighter, bare toes in ancestral mudbanks, ready now for new dangers, fresh adventures, clean socks. Maggie proved twenty-plus years of firearm training – and her ranger schooling –proud. She saved several lives today, most notably that of a teen bear too foolish yet for the shelter of trees.
“A venturesome minority will always be eager to get off on their own,” the Idaho Law Review once observed. “Let them take risks, for God’s sake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches – that is the right and privilege of any free American.”
And Alaska, the last frontier, is still a playpen big enough for all our shaky steps and false starts. Even Pokey’s.
IF YOU GO....
Glide along the coast on British Columbia on the world’s longest public ferry ride: three days up the Inside Passage from Bellingham, Washington to Skagway, Alaska (800-526-6731; www.akferry.org). Pitch a tent or slumber in one of the boat’s recliners for the best views and adventures. A cabin nearly doubles the base rate (around $350 one-way in high season). The Alaskan Marine Highway system also links to Aleutian Islands.
Travels in Alaska by the grandpappy of conservation, John Muir, lends any journey a rugged, romantic mood. The Adventure Guide to the Inside Passage supplies excellent, if somewhat snarky, advice.
Bears sometimes pad beside the hot tubs at Pearson’s Pond, an elite Juneau B&B that bills itself as a “an adventure spa”. The outgoing owners Diane and Steve can arrange dog sledding, river rafting and glacier weddings, as well as on-site aromatherapy massages. Like spoilt college students home for the holidays, guests enjoy fresh-baked bread and 24-hour access to the fridge, complete with microbrews and decent Chardonnay (907-789-3772 or 888-658-6328; www.pearsonspond.com).
Around 95% of guests spot a bear at the Pack Creek Sanctuary on Admiralty Island. From June 1 to September 10, a permit is required (adult $50 per day, peak season). Arrive by boat or 30-minute floatplane ride from Juneau: Wings of Alaska is a reliable outfitter (www.wingsofalaksa.com). Rangers assist visitors on-site, but for help planning the whole trip, hire a guide.