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.”

The Cold Here Can Kill Yah

Hauling supplies up the Coleen River
Bundled up in my many layers.
During the downpour
During the downpour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I talked about my upcoming trip to Arctic Alaska, most people assumed I would be spending my summer suffering from, not the mosquitoes or sun-stroke, but from the infamous Arctic cold. At the time, I had laughed it off, telling them that was another Lower 48 myth: there were no penguins or igloos where I was headed, and in fact, in July, it could get up into the mid-80s. I would be experiencing Alaska at its best and brightest, in summertime, when the whole world would flower under a never-ceasing sun.

That was before we went downriver.

The truth of it is that on the day we canoed to Heimo’s lower cabin to get supplies, it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit, cold but, I thought, tolerable. But then, we began paddling into a driving rain and into the teeth of a biting wind. Though I was wearing nearly every piece of clothing I’d brought, I was still shivering. My joints ached like an old woman’s. “It is the middle of summer,” I muttered to myself, “and I am freezing cold. What happened to the sun?”

I’m from Wisconsin, I’m a Nordic skier, and I’m accustomed to cold and crappy weather. But not in the middle of July. My sisters were tubing and water-skiing. My friends were sun-bathing in their bikinis and playing volleyball on the beach with the sun on their backs and the sand beneath their feet. But not me. I was bundled up in 4 layers of clothing: a Smartwool shirt, a fleece pull-over, a rainjacket, and a lifejacket. Kate Upton may have been able to strip down to a swimsuit in Antarctica, but even a fat-modeling contract could not have convinced me to shed a stitch. I was cold, miserable, my fingers were already numb, and we’d yet to catch and clean fish for dinner.

When Heimo saw me shivering, he gave me a serious look and told me that if I didn’t put on some fat before winter, I would be one unhappy girl. “It is only gonna get colder,” he said. “When you come back in October you will be lucky if it’s 10 below. That will be `a nice day.’  In winter, it’ll be 50 below. The cold here can kill yah. You gotta know that.”

Two hours later we were on a gravel bar, and I was stripping the guts out of our 3rd grayling, my hands colder than ever. As we fished, Heimo entertained us with a story about a friend in Fort Yukon who invited him to play cards one night in his garage. The man was Fort Yukon’s casket maker, which meant that he fashioned wooden boxes for the deceased. They were having a good time, when Heimo’s friend gestured to a blanket next to Heimo and said, “Hey, Heimo, there’s Roy.” Heimo was confused.  The man repeated himself, “Heimo, there’s Roy.” This time, Heimo looked closer. Still confused, he lifted the blanket and jumped back. Under it, hand outstretched, eyes open, frozen still as a statue, was Roy.  The casket maker explained that a week before, poor Roy had suffered a heart attack and lay unconscious on the floor of his cabin. The fire in his stove had gone out, and Roy had frozen to death. Days later they found him. Chuckling, Heimo’s friend informed him that they were still trying to thaw him out.

The moral of the story? Heimo never said. He was laughing too hard.

Conditions in Fort Yukon
The closest town, 100 miles away

Bathing in the Cold Coleen

Ready for a river bath?
Ready for an ice cold river bath?

After spending my first week in Alaska in the same sweat-soaked, sap-stained, and sawdust-coated clothes (little did I know, this would be my every-day outfit for the next month) I finally took a bath in the river. For days, I’d been smelling dead animal. But it wasn’t until Day 7 that I finally realized that, lo and behold, the dead animal was me. I smelled worse than the monkey cage at the zoo. So while my dad and Heimo fished for supper, I stripped down to nothing and took an ice-cold bath in the Coleen River.

Bathing in an Arctic river is not easy. It’s a painful experience and has to be done in increments. First, the feet, then the legs, and finally the rest.

I began by wading ankle-deep into the river. When I could no longer bear it, I dashed back to the gravel bar. I gathered my courage and returned to the water. Gritting my teeth, I watched as the water rose up my legs, to my belly button, to my chest. Again, I ran back to the bar, my body numb. This time, I lathered up, did a few pre-plunge jumping jacks, sprinted to the river, and dove in like Olympic Gold Medalist Missy Franklin springing from the blocks. Every part of me was screaming. My head throbbed with the most painful brain-freeze I’ve ever experienced.  After only 20 seconds, I leapt out of the river and made a run for the beach, clutching my head like a mad woman.

Upon reaching the gravel bar, I grabbed my handkerchief-sized towel (I was not allowed to pack my big soft, fluffy one) and attempted to cover myself. I failed miserably. The towel served better as a loincloth. I dried myself off as best I could and then sat butt-naked in the sun, not caring who could see me. I was a 130 miles from the closest village. Who might be watching? A bear, a moose in the willows, an osprey flying overhead, a grayling rising in the river?

As my body thawed, I picked up my clothes and slipped a chocolate from my pants pocket. Sitting there under the Arctic sun, free of dirt and mosquitoes and stink, fresh and clean and sugar-happy, I read the inside of the wrapper. It said, “Life is good.”

Beasts of the Northern Wild (yes, yet another entry about mosquitoes)

Off on an adventure

In Arctic Alaska they say that summer is nothing but a sweet dream, a six-week window of sun and warm breezes, when flowers bloom and berries ripen. But what they don’t mention are the mosquitoes. And believe me they need to be mentioned. Minus the grizzlies, they are the real beasts of the northern wild.

July is known to be “mosquito month” and it was just my luck that this year happened to be one of the worst years on record. In fact, most people like Heimo, who live in the bush and survive winters of 50 below, usually leave during the month of July, just to avoid the skeeters. I had been warned about the bugs. A biologist in Fairbanks told us stories of clouds of mosquitoes driving huge herds of caribou to stampede into the waters of the Arctic Ocean and of driving grizzlies to the point of madness.  So I came prepared with a Thermacelle, countless cans of Deet, anti-itch cream, headnets, and the illusion that I could keep the mosquitoes at bay. Now, I know just how deluded I was.

I’m from Wisconsin, mosquito country, but nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught. No matter how much bug spray I wore, no matter how many layers I had on for protection, the mosquitoes still managed to leave every last inch of me–most annoyingly, my behind–covered in red, itchy dots. But gradually, I got used to the fact that I could never pee in peace. I learned to pick out mosquitoes that had flown into my water bucket, my pancakes, my nose, my mouth. I accepted that every time I walked through the brush or hauled water from the river I was mosquito meat. But, though there wasn’t a cute guy within 200 miles, I was NOT OKAY with big red bites on my face. So I spent my days in a hot headnet. I had to remember to lift the net to drink, eat, and spit. Had there been a cute boy, I still wouldn’t have taken it off. When we finally got out, I inspected myself in a full length mirror. My body was full of bites and blotches, but my face—perfection 😉

Thank god for the tent
Thank god for the tent

Blueberry – and Skeeter – Pancakes

Early Mornings in the Arctic
Grin and bear it!

Every morning by 7:00 A.M. I am sitting by the fire, sipping a cup of cocoa, while my Dad or Heimo makes breakfast (I am the camp’s lunch cook). Usually we have oatmeal for breakfast, but for a treat my dad fixes his special crispy pancakes with fresh-picked blueberries. After a steady diet of Arctic grayling (fish), I gobble them up like a ravenous grizzly coming out of hibernation. The mosquitoes, it seems, are as hungry as I am. Whether it’s warm or cool, I’m dressed in layers, determined not to leave a stitch of bare skin for them. They swarm around me as soon as I leave the tent and no amount of swatting or spray or smoke from the fire discourages them. They also like the pancake mix, so along with the blueberries, the mix usually contains a dozen or so mired mosquitoes. “No big deal,” my dad says. “We need the protein.” When they drive me to the point of madness, I jump through the fire like an exotic circus performer. I hear that sizzle and crackle and I am filled with a sense of satisfaction. I’ve gotten those “dirty little bastards” (Heimo’s phrase) back.  Inevitably some of the dead mosquitoes end up in my pancakes. Though I’d prefer pancakes with sun-soaked blueberries from the Arctic tundra, blueberry and skeeter pancakes are pretty good, too. They taste sweet – like revenge.

Gritty Gal at the campsite
Me at the campsite