Thursday, August 7, 2008

By request (with lots of pictures)

My friend Simon wanted me to chime in and tell a story involving people and bears. Given that she is probably the only person reading, I thought I'd better comply.

This is the picture in question. It's now my user pic in several places because it's just brilliant. You have to know one thing about me before I tell this story. I have two things that I am incredibly afraid of: guns and bears.

When I started looking up information about Aialik Bay, I kept reading phrases like this: "All food and drinks must be kept secured in the cabin at all times. Black and brown bears frequent this area." That wouldn't be nearly so frightening if there was more civilization, but as I've said before, the human population in Aialik Bay is sparse at best.

It's not that I haven't faced this issue before. When I was little and we went to go climb Flattop, Mom, in order to keep my brother on the path, mentioned the true story of another little boy who the year before had been mauled by a bear while wandering off the path. Intended result: My brother would stay on the path. Unintended result: I was scared to leave the car and wanted to race back to safety as soon as possible. While tenting in Denali, I wouldn't let so much as a crumb in the tent for fear of being attacked. Girl Scout camping was the same. My final year at church camp (Bingle Camp) we decided the last night that there were bears outside. (No memory as to if there was data to support this conjecture.) But we were safe, because we were in cabins. Then our helpful counselor told us about a bear who had essentially smashed down a house and mauled the people inside. None of us slept that night. So needless to say, my fear of bears is very deeply ingrained and rational at times, to a degree. (In that bears are, in fact, dangerous and like the smell of food and toothpaste.)

I had been intellectually gearing up for this for several weeks before leaving. I bought a bear bell and we picked up some bear spray in Anchorage. However before leaving for the wilderness, I had several test runs. Ben's co-worker (and our neighbor) Scott and Scott's fiance Tricia were also in town for the conference. On Saturday, Scott and Ben headed to the conference while Tricia and I headed to have breakfast with friends of mine and then explore the zoo. The Alaska zoo is pretty cool (more on that some other time). Standing around by the black bears, I thought it would be great to get a fake terror shot. Me facing the bears, very scared. So we took some shots. The photo above was the best of the bunch, although an earlier try is below. (The bear is so small though, it's just not as impressive.) It's just as well we did this with the black bears as the brown bears were all asleep. So that was my first interaction with the bears.

The second was a hike on Winner Creek Trail at the base of Mount Alyeska. Scott and Ben picked us up at the zoo and we headed to Girdwood for this hike. (More on that another time.)

This was the trail head. Opposite this was the bulletin board with all sorts of notices, most of which involved bears. But Tricia had her bear spray holster and there were four of us and we didn't see any bears.

Then we were camping in the Mat-Su Valley where I had never seen a bear, so I was pretty relaxed. Heading down to Seward, we stopped at the Russian River where we saw this sign on sturdy fencing:


Then we went on a hike to Exit Glacier, without our bear spray or bell, but with plenty of other moving pieces of food with us on the trail. We made it out just fine.

I was at peace about bears when we stepped on the boat in Seward. Then the captain started telling us about all the black bears that were always around Aialik Bay and near our cabin. I began tensing up. He proceeded to tel us about a friend of his, who, a week earlier, had been mauled by a brown bear in Seward. (The friend survived.) Then he dropped the subject and we picked up some kayakers from the cove next to ours. They'd had a black bear cub poking around their camp the previous night for 30 minutes. I went tense again. Then we got to our cabin and we were alone, supposedly, with the bears. For the first few hours, I was tense, but then I realized that the chance of me being mauled while walking to the outhouse was slim, especially armed with bear bell and pepper spray.

The ranger came by that evening and informed us that there were "lots of black bears in the area." Again, my nervousness returned. No signs of bears the first day. The second day (the gray day, described below) I went out on a walk on my own and then decided that the seal in the middle of the bay was, in fact, a bear and it was going to come get me, so I went back inside and read my book.

By day three I was a little mad at the bears. I'd showed up, we'd bought bear gear galore, I'd mentally prepared and now there weren't any bears? Seriously? That wasn't fair. I decided that I wanted to see a bear with the following stipulations. I wanted to be in the kayak, I wanted to be far away from the bear, and I wanted the bear to be in another cove. (I had forgotten that if a bear had wanted to enter our cabin, it definitely could have.

But alas, no bear. So I had gotten all intellectually prepared and physically prepared and we never even saw a bear in the wild. (We did see a wild moose and humpback and orca whales...) That is my anticlimatic story of bears in Alaska. As a special preview, I'll let you know that tomorrow, also by Simon's request, I'll talk a bit about Mount Marathon and the annual fourth of July run.


SapphireCrab said...

I was reading this thinking, how silly to be afraid of bears...and then I remembered every hiking trip/walk in grass anywhere and my fear of snakes, and I understand COMPLETELY. In fact, I think you handled your fear rather well. Good for you.

Katie said...

I didn't know who you were until the snakes comment :) I guess the advantage to bears is that you can see them more easily than snakes. But instead of just biting you they will tear you to shreds. Hence my fear.

Ivan said...

I've met several people here who are actively afraid of sharks in the drains of swimming pools. your fear of bears sounds more rational... and screaming "bears! bears!" is legit. "sharks in the drain! sharks in the drain!" is not.

Katie said...

Sharks in drains of swimming pools. That seems quite odd.

I was actually reassured last week that my fear of bears is a fear shared by many others, including Stephen Colbert. So I figure I'm in good company.

Reid said...

Bears scare the crap out of me too. Did you know this?

Also, we had a bear in camp in the Boundary Waters last month. Did you know this?

Katie said...

I did not know that bears scared the crap out of you, Reid. That is good background knowledge to help me revenge you for doing whatever you plan to do to my desk before my return.

I did hear via Erin about the bear in your camp. I would like to think in that situation I would have been tough, but I probably would have been paralyzed with fear or screaming and running around like a maniac. Luckily my "what I would do if approached by a bear" plan has never been tested.

Simon said...

Clearly I am not the only person reading!

Once again, I have several comments.

1. What is a bear bell?
2. What does bear spray consist of?
3. "Moving pieces of food" hahahahahaha
4. A bear taking down a house and mauling the people inside is really scary. The fact that bears would be even capable of doing that is really scary. I totally agree with your fear of bears. I think now I might be afraid of them, too.
5. Nevertheless, I always get really excited when a bear is spotted in this area (which happens on average probably once every five years) and kind of hope I will see one. Although in this scenario I am in a car ready to floor it, and the bear is far in the distance. I suppose it would be less exciting if I were in the woods with it. I'm not good at climbing trees.
6. This whole thing reminded me of some movie that I saw when I was about ten that involved a long scene where a bear tries to get into a remote cabin to eat the person inside. I do not recommend that you see this movie.

That is all.

Reid said...

This is a bear bell:

This is bear spray:


Katie said...

Simon, here are real answers to your questions. I would never want anyone to be misinformed about bear safety and I feel that your interest is genuine. So while you could accept reid's answers, likely they will be difficult to implement or will not result in the desired outcome.

is the bear bell I have. It is the fancy one because the magnet turns it off, so to speak, so your ears aren't ringing all day. The idea behind a bear bell is that bears don't really want to eat/attack you. But they don't know that you're there. So if you don't have a bear bell, you are supposed to talk, sing, or make noise so that you don't surprise the bear. (Wikipedia argues against the effectiveness of bear bells, but I hadn't read that before I left.) Because a surprised bear is not a happy bear.

2. If the bear bell doesn't work and you end up encountering a bear, you want, likely, to protect yourself. For some, this means carrying a gun. The pacifist Canadian in me is against that (and also extremely scared of guns) so I opt for the mace of the bear world. It's basically mace except it's in a larger container. Supposedly it can be used from 35 feet away.

3. The first 50 feet down the trail are the hardest. Then you forget you are food because you are too busy being a tourist. Devastation can strike when you become tourist food because bears enjoy the sweet tangy aftertaste of tourist.

4. I don't know how true the story was, but it would be possible. Mind you I think the only advantage of being awake would be that you would be slightly more aware as you were being attacked.

5. Bears in populated areas have a way higher coolness factor than bears in the wilderness. I think this has a lot to do with them straying on our turf, us having more troops than they do, and the general fact that they are probably an isolated incident. (Plus you would be WAY closer to the hospital.)

6. If you ever find out the name of that movie, please let me see it. I will then avoid it like the plague until a bear actually does eat me. If they have dvd players in whatever sort of afterlife exists, I will watch it then. (Really, at that point, how scary can it be? They already got me. I'm dead. Katie 1-Bears 1