Yes, there are bears. Most years when we get to the cabin, we find some evidence that bears have visited while we were away: claw marks on the front steps, rain barrels pitched into the forest, swipes taken at the lid of the cold hole (the in-ground chamber where we store food that needs refrigeration), our spruce picnic table flipped end over end as though it were made of toothpicks.
Bears can’t break into the cabin itself because Stewart takes great care to close it up each year. Heavy plywood panels fit flush against every door and window, screwed down tight so there’s nowhere for claws to slip in and start ripping. Also, for each window and door, Stewart lays out a “welcome mat,” a sheet of plywood pierced with hundreds of roofing nails, screwed face up to the deck. No bear would want to cross one of those — or at least that’s what we count on.
A grizzly comes calling
Even though the cabin stands smack in the middle of grizzly territory, I’ve never laid eyes on one nearby. We did once spot a sleek, small black bear on a ridge not far from us, but I’ve seen grizzlies only from a helicopter on the way in to the land, and those were a good distance away, out in the park. My sense is that the bears know when the cabin is occupied, and prefer to keep their distance. I also understand I would be stupid to take that for granted, and I don’t even walk to the outhouse or the compost hole without keen awareness and bear spray in my back pocket.
Strengthening our belief that the bears don’t want much to do with us, in the forty years or so that Stewart has had this land, he’s had only one experience with a bear approaching camp or cabin. That had to do with a miscalculation involving a snowshoe hare that had drowned in a water bucket. Stewart put the hare carcass out on the tundra and tossed the box that had contained the hare onto cabin’s burn pile, planning to take care of it later. Not so smart.
The scent of a dead animal can draw a grizzly from miles away. A female bear and her two cubs came to eat the carcass, then decided to investigate the box that carried its scent. I can only imagine how I would have felt if I saw that shaggy, golden trio shambling up the trail toward the cabin. As it turned out, the encounter was fleeting. When the sow sensed a shadow of movement in the cabin, she turned and ran, cubs following behind.
A grizzly comes calling, a little louder this time
Stewart tells another story of meeting bears nearby:
One summer while Birch and I were working on the cabin, three friends from San Francisco came to visit. We got up early on a beautiful morning and decided to hike up the ridge behind us. As we were climbing, we watched a big bull moose foraging in the valley below. When we crested the ridge, we saw a group of five caribou grazing — softly colored gray and brown, they had great racks of antlers and moved with such grace. We watched them for a while before they caught sight of us and trotted away to the east.
We continued hiking and came over the crest of another ridge that looked across a broad, lush valley with a stream slicing down the center. Across the stream we saw movement. Looking more closely, we saw it was a big grizzly sow with her three cubs. They were the blonde grizzlies with shaggy, straw colored fur that are so characteristic of bears in the Denali country. The cubs were probably yearlings, quite large, and they were frolicking in the pasture. They ran playfully through the meadow, jostling each other and rolling end over end. We watched until we lost sight of them in the bush.
Hiking on, we were talking about how lucky we had been to see such a variety of wildlife when we noticed something moving at the very base of the ridge where we walked. The grizzly sow with her cubs was coming directly toward us — straight to the spot where we stood. She was still a good distance away, but we were alarmed. You don’t have much defense from a grizzly on open tundra. We were above tree line and grizzlies can travel very quickly; some have been clocked at 40 miles an hour for short sprints. So you don’t run from a grizzly. And there were no trees to climb. Grizzlies rarely climb trees, so that would be a possible solution, but there were only a few paltry three-footers nearby.
We didn’t have a gun. We had bear spray, which is a type of long-range mace — pepper spray — that can shoot about 30 feet. It’s known to be effective, but you don’t feel too smug out there when you see a grizzly bear and all you have is a little can of spray, one you can use only at distressingly close range anyway.
The bear kept coming and at a certain point she stopped and got up on her hind legs with her paws outstretched, raising her nose to sniff the air. She had caught our scent. We watched in fascination, and then in horror, as she hit the ground running right at us.
When you enter Denali National Park, if you take the time to watch the video on bears, you can get pretty good training on how to respond to grizzlies in the open country. First of all, they really don’t want to interact with you. They’re wild, not habituated to people as sources of food. At the same time, they can be unpredictable. They sometimes use a type of behavior called “bluffing.” Being king of the tundra, at the top of the food chain, they have to exhibit their dominance. So anything that’s out there, including humans, they will often charge, stopping 20 to 30 feet away. They huff and puff and growl, but don’t often attack. The video shows you how to respond to that sort of situation: You speak in a low, monotone voice; you look down so you don’t challenge the bear with direct eye contact, and you slowly back away. You don’t move quickly — you do not run. As a last resort, if the bear attacks, you fall to the ground and curl up with your backpack or hands over your neck, exposing as little of yourself as possible.
Thankfully, most of the time the charge is a bluff — except when there are cubs! Obviously, a mother bear will be more aggressive when she has cubs to protect. Also, the sow may know to bluff when the cubs do not. One of the most dangerous situations is being charged by a sow with cubs, because cubs may come barreling in once the sow has stopped, and then of course the sow has to continue after them.
All of this flashed through my mind as we were standing on the lip of the ridge looking at this mama bear charging us followed by her three cubs. Instinctively, without thinking, we gathered together and jumped up and down waving our arms and calling out to the bear in the loudest voices that we could muster: “Hey! Hey, Bear!” Even though it was just me and three therapists from the San Francisco Bay Area, we must’ve looked intimidating, because she stopped dead in her tracks, did a 180, and hightailed it out of there followed by her cubs. To say the least, we were quite relieved and felt that indeed, this had been a special day. We’d experienced something of the wildness of Alaska — even better, we were going to live to tell about it.
If you’re in the mood for another bear story, one of my favorite episodes from The Moth storytelling podcast is Alone Across the Arctic, by Pam Flowers. For twenty completely engaging minutes, she talks about her 2,500 mile trek across the arctic with a dog team — the longest solo dog trek by a woman in recorded history — including a memorable meeting with a polar bear.
Next I think we’ll talk about exciting topics like water, food, and the Internet.
Also in the Cabin FAQ series: