Women in the Wild

Watching “The Revenant,” I was struck by the stunning cinematography, and reminded of how much I missed the Alaskan wilderness, at least aspects of  it–the scene in which Hugh Glass is repeatedly mauled by a bear made me thankful to be experiencing it second hand from the comfort of my movie seat. I was impressed with Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of  the legendary mountain man  and  surprised myself by finding DiCaprio at his most attractive as he crawled inside a horse’s carcass to stay warm. But still I couldn’t help but wonder, Where is our female Hugh Glass? Legendary women  have always existed, but if Hollywood has a minority issue, it also has a female heroine issue.

I want a movie about a woman who can brave a bear attack, eat raw bison liver, and find her way across the wilderness. How about a film dedicated to Fanny Bullock Workman, an explorer, cartographer, writer, and mountaineer? Or, what about Sacagawea? How far would Lewis and Clark have gone without her? How about Aliy Zirkle, currently running fifth in the Iditarod? Largely considered a male event, the Iditarod would lose roughly one-third of its competitors if it weren’t for female mushers.

In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to celebrate what the movies have not women in the wild. Woods women like Edna Korth who has lived in the middle of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for more than 30 years. Female mountaineers like Melissa Arnot who has summited Everest five times. Adventurers and explorers like Kira Salak who at the age of 24 became the first woman to backpack across New Guinea.

Hugh Glass might have been a tough mountain man, but these modern day women would give him a run for his money.

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Aliy Zirkle, champion sled dog musher

“We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”

100_0739100_0720100_0734When I was child, my favorite book was “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.” Every night before bed, I’d make my dad read it to me. I got so good that I could finish the sentences for him. To this day, I still remember it: “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day. We’re not scared. Oh oh! Grass. Long, wavy, grass. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve gotta go through it!

In Alaska’s Brooks Range, the words came back to me, but with a few new twists. This was my version: “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a miserable day. I’m sure scared. Oh oh! Mountains. Towering, jagged, cold, rugged mountains. I can’t go over them. I can’t go under them. Darn it! I’ve gotta go through them.”

I’d tramped through tundra, waded through rushing glacial streams, and wrestled my way through willows, but July 30, 2014 was the pivotal day–the Continental Divide. And, there was only one way to get over: through Gilbeau Pass.

The sky was dark and daunting. We were walking high up in a gray mist, following caribou trails through snow fields and talus slopes lining a cliff edge. I refused to look down. One misstep and I would be over.

Behind me, my father teetered back and forth, trying to balance his 70-pound pack and a 10-pound shotgun that was lashed to the side of it. His march was that of an oversized penguin waddling up the slope. Compared to him, I looked like a mountain goat. But, no matter how many times I offered to carry the shotgun, no matter how many times Chris and Dave, our backpacking companions, offered, he refused. He’d brought it along, so he was determined to lug it. Plus, if we saw a bear, he wanted to be the one holding the gun. “No bear in his right mind would be up here,” I told him. He smirked, “No person in his right mind would be up here.”

Coming down from Gilbeau, I spent a lot of time skidding on loose rocks. When the ground leveled out, I was eager to put distance between me and the high mountains, and I drifted ahead of the group. As I rounded a turn, there in front of me was the huge, brown-haired, hump-backed form of a grizzly. Ursus Arctos Horribilis! I wanted to yell for my Dad and Chris and Dave, but the words wouldn’t come. I felt like I had just fallen into “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.” “OH NO IT’S A BEAR!” Except this was the real thing. I couldn’t hide under the covers. I couldn’t bury my face in my dad’s chest and beg him to protect me. I couldn’t skip to the end, because this time I didn’t know the end. And, unlike the characters in my book who ran back to their house and hid, I had nowhere to go. My only escape was up the side of a mountain, but I knew I couldn’t outrun the bear.  Even Usain Bolt couldn’t outrun a bear.

Rather than chasing me up the mountain, however, the grizzly took one look at me, turned, and fled up the 60-degree slope, looking more like a prima ballerina than a 700-pound giant. I had just come face-to-face with my worst fear, the monster of my childhood nightmares, and what had it done? It ran. I never would have guessed.

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A Bear!?

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Prior to this trip, I’d never actually seen a grizzly. I’d been in bear country and had seen fresh tracks and steaming scat, but never a bear. So, on this trip, I was intent on spotting a grizzly. I didn’t need a long look at one, and I sure didn’t want one close up, but I was not going home without catching sight of a griz.

As we hiked up the Chandalar River toward Gilbeau Pass, I was constantly on the lookout. We tramped across gravel bars thick with willows, and I scanned the branches for a bear. When we stopped for a break, I looked downwind to see if one might be tracking us. While my dad, and Chris and Dave ( our two companions) quizzed each other about old 70s and 80s music to pass the time, I stayed silent and focused. They could have their fun, but I would be the one to spy the bear in the thicket ahead or to send out the warning call when one came stumbling out of the brush.

But after 4 hours of steady hiking over the tundra, always climbing higher, I grew tired. The only things on my mind were if we’d stop, how long we’d rest, and if I might dip into the trail mix or the hummus when we did. So, when I came up out of a ravine, I was not prepared for the brown-haired, humped- back form of a grizzly.

“Bear!” Dave yelled, turning to my dad who was carrying our only shotgun. Startled, I jumped into action. I pulled out my pepper spray and put my thumb on the trigger. I was prepared to stand my ground. And then, the bear turned.

It was then that I saw two very un-bear like horns emerge from the animal’s enormous head. This most definitely was not a bear. In fact, we had stumbled upon an even more unlikely beast — a muskox, thrashing its head back and forth as it browsed among the willows.

I felt surprised, thrilled, and then a bit disappointed. But I needn’t have worried. I was going to see grizzlies – a number of them – and quite possibly a polar bear, too.

Stay tuned for more bear sightings.

 

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.

Mumford and Sons to the Rescue

Cabin pole almost peeledCabin Wall

For the first 10 days of my Arctic adventure I peeled 25-foot log poles, using a drawknife, in a clearing 50 yards from the new cabin site and prayed that the mosquitoes that swarmed around me would keep the grizzlies in the high mountains. Dad and Heimo worked down a narrow trail at the cabin site, swinging axes, notching logs, driving in 12-inch steel spikes, and practicing their Wisconsin accents. Since we arrived, my dad and Heimo (a former Wisconsinite) had been performing their own rendition of the musical “Guys On Ice”, making jokes about ditching da wife and heading to the tavern to thrown down a few PBRs and cheer on the Pack with da boys. Though their humor was pretty feeble, they cackled like little kids, and I admit that the first few times I laughed with them. But by day two, I was completely sick of it and eager, despite my fears, to get as far away from them as possible. Though Heimo said that with all the noise, an animal wouldn’t get within half a mile of us, this was my first time in the Alaskan bush and my head was full of big bad grizzlies. I wore a bear bell around my neck that clanged as I worked and had a loaded shotgun leaning against a nearby tree. But what saved me was Mumford and Sons. I turned the volume up on my Kindle and blasted them across the Arctic landscape.

Do bears like British rockers?

bush plane drop-off
Bush Plane Drop-off
Coleen River and Brooks Range from the air
The Coleen River and Brooks Range from the Air