Me and the bear

Alaska is home to over 100,000 black bears, but I’ve only met one of them. I was too terrified to catch his name, so I’ll call him Bob. There were no witnesses to what happened so you’ll just have to take my word for it … or go ask Bob.

The 49th state has three types of bear, the brown or grizzly bear, the polar bear and the black bear. Polar bears are only found in the far north of the state and grizzlies are the larger of the two remaining bears and smaller in number by about a third, but all three species are dangerous. When my group’s tour bus stopped to take a hike to Exit Glacier on the way to Anchorage, the sign said, “If you are attacked by a black bear, fight back. If you are attacked by a brown bear, roll into a ball and play dead. If a bear starts to eat you, fight back.” Duh. There’ll be no need to remind me of that, and I hope that bears don’t read signs.

Further posters warned us to never take the mile hike to the glacier alone. “Walk in groups and make plenty of noise,” the warning advised. An elderly member of our group wasn’t feeling up to the walk, so I told him I’d sit and wait with him as our group went on to the glacier. He insisted that’ he’d be all right, so after about 10 minutes, I took off down the trail … alone. I thought that I’d surely catch up with my group soon. Just my luck to be traveling with a group of very fast walkers, led by a lady named Judy from Virginia, who even though she was older than me, could outrun any bear.

Let me begin by saying that you feel pretty silly walking down a trail in Alaska by yourself while making noise. The path had many twists and turns and I was afraid that I’d be walking along shouting, “Hey bear!” or singing the Triopia Fight Song and run smack into a group of hikers who’d assumed I was suffering from altitude sickness. So I made a little noise … just a little … just enough to drone out the beating of my heart. A quarter mile into the trek and I started asking myself just what the heck I was doing. This was crazy. The sign specifically said to not do what I was doing. Was it just a warning advised by the park’s lawyer to cover them and no real danger was present? Then, I met Bob.

Black bears range from 220 to 1,200 pounds and from here on my recollection cannot be trusted. If you run into a black bear on an Alaskan trail, he suddenly expands to the dimensions of the fish that got away. My emotions may have increased his size several fold, but this looked like a darned big bear to me. The scene: I was strolling along a straightaway humming “Oh Lord, I Want To Go Home,” when Bob crossed my path, perhaps 10 yards away. At that moment, I completely forgot everything I’d read about how to handle a bear attack and I had no desire to keep on singing. The warnings tell you to never run from a bear and there was no chance of this since my legs weren’t about to cooperate in any direction. I looked at Bob. Bob stopped and looked at me. We faced off for perhaps eight hours. Okay, maybe 10 seconds.

I’d always heard people talk of time standing still, of their lives flashing before their eyes, of out-of-body experiences. I had none of these. I simply wanted to very badly be somewhere else. I couldn’t tell what Bob was thinking and I didn’t want to know what Bob was thinking. All I know for sure is that the bear sniffed in my direction, then continued on his cross-country journey, and I know that I didn’t make it all the way to Exit Glacier, choosing instead to hightail it to exit bus. An hour or so later the rest of my group returned from their hike, high on alpine air and with an air of exhilaration. Judy’s grandson, John, showed me the picture he’d taken of a bear in a tree. When I told him that I knew that particular bear and that his name was Bob, John just laughed. I saw nothing at all funny.

And here’s the crazy part … this summer my group again stopped to hike to Exit Glacier. I really wanted to see the big chunk of ice this time and was anxious to again walk the trail, this time with company that I hoped I could outrun. The driver of our bus asked me to stay a moment to go over the rest of the tour so I chatted a bit then turned around to find that my group had already taken off. So, lacking the brains that God gave a goose, I took off down the path alone.

If you ever consider sending your children, your uncle or grandmother with me on a vacation, think twice. My judgment can’t be trusted. Just ask Bob.

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