Karma saw it first. We had just turned around on the rocky riverbed of Eagle River and headed back to shore, when she sensed something and turned around and froze, looking intently up and across a thin braid of the river. There a grizzly moved casually across the shingled flats. Even from 250 yards away we could see its wide, powerful haunches swinging back and forth behind its black and brown head. By grizzly bear standards not big, making it seem perhaps a year or so old. Still, big enough.
I called Karma back to my side. Then, for a long moment I stood watching it.
Its presence stopped time. Its movement changed the landscape. The entire world immediately around us—the bare woods on either shore standing free of snow and the wind and mists blowing through the still snow-covered mountains, massive 5,000-, 6,000-, and 7,000-footers, overhead —served only to frame the bear.
For a brief moment I thought about turning right around and climbing with Karma back into the trees. If it saw us moving away, though, it might charge. If so, it would overtake us in a matter of seconds. Given the distance and the water between us, it seemed best to warn it of our presence and stand our ground.
“Hey, bear!” I yelled.
It stopped. It half-rose into a crouch and looked toward us. Rocking its head back and forth, it seemed trying to count and judge. Then it dropped back to all fours. We waited. But it didn’t charge. Instead, it turned and ran. We watched it lumber quickly back to the far shore. There it paused, looking back once, before climbing slowly into the woods.
Karma took a step towards it.
“No!” I ordered.
She turned and we climbed back into the trees on the near side.
So spring has come.
Now until next winter anyone venturing into the wilds of Alaska becomes part of the food chain. That first bear of the season only reminded one of that fact.
Usually—and I stress usually—grizzly bears want little to do with us humans. If we allow them enough space and time, they will usually run from us. Many times I have come across evidence—such as fresh scat or prints—that indicated a bear, upon hearing someone coming, skedaddled. A number of other times I have, with much relief, watched the rear ends of grizzlies, both males and sows with their cubs disappear out of sight after they heard us coming.
Once, on a near 24-hour climb of Mount Rumble at the headwaters of Peters Creek, Jim Sayler, Niles Woods and I came to the edge of a hanging valley which dropped to Peters Creek. Looking 500 vertical feet down the lip of the hanging valley we saw a sow and two cubs by the creek.
To warn her of our presence, Jim called out, “Hey, bear!””
Even with the noise of the creek, that sow’s head jerked around and looked right up at us. All three of us knew of bears’ incredible senses of smell and hearing. Still, her sudden and exact pinpointing of our location knocked all three of us back on our heels.
She didn’t charge us, though. We had given her enough space to gather up her two cubs and crash across the creek. But one cub wouldn’t follow her across the deep, swift creek. She had to cross back two times before this second cub finally followed her across. All the while, we stood watching with wonder as this sight unfolded below us. Five minutes after she and her brood disappeared around the front of Mount Rumble we started down off the lip of the hanging valley.
We do, however, remain on a black bear’s diet. As a result, they sometimes investigate our presence, sizing us up for a possible meal. Often they just leave us alone, often fleeing from us, and sometimes just ignoring us, seemingly aware of the fact that while we may prove too difficult to kill, neither can we easily kill them—making for a rather nervous balance of power. But a hungry bear can do desperate things. Many people have reported the eerie and scary experience of having a black bear stalk them. Some people get attacked and killed after such a stalking. Others sometimes successfully fight the bear off, proving to the bear that they will take too much effort and trouble to make a meal of them. In some ways this proves a relief: we can seemingly fight back by yelling, throwing rocks, swinging sticks, and generally making ourselves seem too dangerous to attack.
Wolves will also eat humans, but usually—and, again, I stress usually—only in packs. I have come across solitary wolves a number of times in the wilds, making for a usually and spooky experience. Once while climbing a steep grass gully behind Harp Mountain in the central Chugach, I had such an encounter.
As the gully rounded up into the notch at the top of the ridge I sensed something watching me. Turning around, I saw less than 100 yards away, a wolf standing in a snowfield eyeing me, perhaps weighing me up.
As it stood, I managed to click one or two pictures of it. Without a telephoto lens, the photos make it hard to differentiate it from a dog. If one could have seen it turn away and turn down the valley on the opposite side of the ridge, they would know it a wolf. It had that unmistakable easy lope by which wolves move over the landscape, seeming without effort gobbling up big chunks of terrain in but a few hours.
I have seen many other wolves and bears up close, which always makes the heart go pitter patter. Luckily, I have only seen wolves traveling alone and not in a pack. I think if I happened into the ken of a pack I might not now sit here writing.
Many a moose has charged me. Many a tarn has dive-bombed me. And even one or two black bears have stalked me.
Some of these fellow creatures acted to defend their young. Some acted to make me lunch. They would have acted the same in confronting most any creature. The bones of many creatures that one comes across in the wilds—sheep, moose, caribou, rabbits, birds, and fish—remind us again and again of this fact. To them homo sapiens remain just another creature of the wilds—rare in some places and now far less vulnerable than millenniums ago—but still just another creature. We may make some bears more wary of us and some wolves choose not to attack us, but that doesn’t make us any less a part of the food chain—just an uncommon link in it.