Beware the Bears

Making peace.

When we arrived at the Fairbanks airport, with our backpacks and fishing rods, an airport employee took a look at us and asked where we were headed. “To the Arctic,” I said. He grimaced and then proceeded to launch into a bear story, sparing us none of the gruesome details.

“My friend and I were hiking in the mountains,” he began, “and we saw this bear in the distance, but you know, it’s Alaska, this is bear country, so we just kept walking. Anyway, I hiked up ahead a bit, and then I heard a scream in back of me. I turned around, and there was a 800-pound grizzly attacking my friend. The bear took a swipe at him and he went down. I ran back yelling as loud as I could and somehow I chased the bear off. It saved him, but his face is a mess now.”

The brutal story was one I didn’t need to hear. I already had bear on the brain. Even before we left Wisconsin I was having bad bear dreams; they were following me through the woods, stalking me. I’d wake up whimpering and clutching at my pillow.

My dad told me, we didn’t need to worry, unless we came across a grizzly guarding his kill, or a sow and her cub. Bears, he said, would be more afraid of us than we’d be of them. It was cold comfort. So on our first morning in Fairbanks, I woke early and surfed the internet, determined to learn everything I could about Ursus arctos horribilis before heading for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My goal: to have a bear-proof plan for survival.

What I learned was unnerving at best. There is little hope of out-running, out-swimming, or out-climbing a bear. An angry grizzly can out-sprint Usain Bolt and swim faster than Michael Phelps. As for climbing, there are few trees at 67 degrees latitude that a grizzly in hot pursuit couldn’t uproot as fast as a bulldozer.

Later that day, we talked with a bush pilot who laughed when he heard that I would be wearing bear bells. “That’ll help us with identification,” he said. When I gave him a puzzled look, he added, “When we find a big pile of bear shit with bells in it, we’ll know it’s you.”

On our second day in the Arctic, I learned that the wide, well-packed trail we were camped near, was neither a caribou trail nor Heimo’s snowmachine path, but a veritable bear highway. I felt like Goldilocks, but instead of three genial porridge-eating bears, I had a big, bad, potentially man-eating grizzly to worry about.  I could only hope that Papa Grizzly wouldn’t find me asleep in my tent, and wonder, “Who’s camped on my trail?”

That night, before I went to bed, I placed a can of bear spray next to my pillow. Nevertheless, I tossed and turned until finally I rolled over and whispered to my dad on the other side of the tent, “Daddy, you up?” He groaned in his sleep, and slowly opened his eyes.

And that was when I had my revelation. I felt guilty because it was so foolproof, my ace-in-the-hole. And I slept well for the rest of the night. I knew that if we encountered a charging grizzly, I needed to do only one thing to stay alive: I needed to out-run my old man.

Bush Eyes

Our staple, Arctic grayling.
Our staple, Arctic grayling.

I was 2 ½ weeks into our trip, when the first sign of food-deprivation set in.  My dad, my uncle, and I had nearly finished off the last of our chocolate. We had one bite-sized Snickers bar left, which, after supper, we’d agreed to split three ways. After that, there’d be nothing sweet till Fairbanks. To make matters worse, I had to conserve my cocoa, my lone indulgence. I had just enough for the mornings. So while my dad sipped his coffee and Heimo cradled his cup of Raman broth, I sat empty-handed.

Heimo glanced at me as I sat pining away, and smirked, “Someone’s got a bad case of bush eyes!”

“Bush eyes? What’s that?” I asked.

“I’ve seen that look on your face; your head’s full of food.”

It was true. I was not homesick or lovesick; I was foodsick.

All week, I had been dreaming of frappes, chocolate malts, cheese, juicy watermelons and fresh-baked bread. I couldn’t wait to get back to Fairbanks and eat something other than fish and pancakes.

Heimo continued, “I remember my girls, Rhonda and Krin, going through the same thing. Understand, they weren’t here for just a month. We were out from August till June. And in winter, there’d be nothing but meat. All they could think of – dream of – was food.  I remember them writing long grocery lists and making up menus. Man, were they happy when they got to town.”

I thought of what my life had been like compared to Heimo’s daughters. I grew up with access to restaurants, stores, supermarkets, where anything my heart desired was just a shelf away. And now I had bush eyes – and I had ‘em bad.

I wasn’t the only one. My dad had them, too. Like a good Cheesehead, he craved dairy. Even Heimo had his cravings. He wanted salmon and moose tacos and Diet Cokes.

When we finally did get back to Fairbanks, I walked through Fred Meyer eyeing the mountains of food. I wanted it all: fruits from Chile, Alaska-grown vegetables, 20 kinds of cereals and sodas, nuts, chocolate, and cheese! I marveled at the selections and the excess that most of us never think twice about.

That evening, after doing our laundry, my dad and I made our way down to College Road and found a Thai restaurant and ordered chicken skewers with peanut sauce, spring rolls and rich, spicy curries. Then we made a bee-line for Hot Licks Homemade Ice Cream and bought the biggest chocolate malts they had.  Nothing ever tasted so good. We walked back to our hotel, sipping our malts, with full bellies and bush eyes temporarily sated.

The Bathroom Ritual

 

Keeping my sense of humor.
Keeping my sense of humor.

Before I left the bush, and returned to the world of niceties, I had a little discussion with my father. I made him promise, regarding the bathroom ritual, that what happened in the Arctic, stayed in the Arctic. I would much rather have left the memory buried away in the tundra, but, somehow, my mother convinced me that this is the kind of thing people wonder about, but are too polite to ask. So I’ve decided to put aside my dignity and bare all.

First – peeing. If were a guy, it wouldn’t have been an issue. But, as a girl, peeing involved exposing my backside to hoards of hungry mosquitoes that, by the final tinkle, left it red and spotted. There was also my secret terror. I lived in fear that a bear would come charging out of the bushes when both my guard and my pants were down.

Now (let’s be blunt here) – pooping.  At Camp Coleen River there was a special screen tent with a 5-gallon honey bucket inside that my uncle set up for Job #2. The tent was just twenty feet from the campsite, where my dad and Heimo discussed dinner plans – baked, broiled or fried grayling — and even closer to my uncle’s tent, so that when he got the urge, which he often did, he didn’t have to walk far. I would’ve preferred to have slipped discreetly into the woods, but Heimo explained that the woods was his backyard. So, when it was my turn, I’d have to surrender my pride, and announce to my dad and uncle that I had to “go” and that they would have to politely turn their heads.

Sitting on a 5-gallon pale, within spitting distance of the fire pit, was anything but comfortable. No bathroom door, no cushioned seat, and hardly an ounce of privacy. Just a mosquito screen, a roll of toilet paper, and an all-purpose bucket. My goal was to get in and get out as fast as I could.

Once I was finished, I’d pull up my pants and haul my business through the buggy brush to a hole, 50 yards away. After delicately dumping it, so as to avoid the splash, I’d make my way back to camp, the empty bucket swinging from my hand. Then, I’d buckle on my hip waders, trudge to the river and wash out the pale, downriver of Heimo’s drinking hole, for the next honey bucket sitter.

I came to dread the call of nature, but on a diet of berries and fish, I realized that there was no refusing it.  As Heimo often said, “When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.”