Trudging slowly through the thick stands of willow and alder trees, my calm exterior belied my shivering insides. I was three miles up a small but vigorous creek in Hallo Bay, Alaska, some 100 miles from Homer and more than 300 miles from Anchorage. A guest of Hallo Bay Bear Camp, I was there to gather material for an article in Alaska Coast Magazine. I'd been there before; a day trip last June left me curious about this camp so far off the grid they used solar, wind, and occasional generator power to function with 20 people in a safari-like atmosphere. I wanted more. What I didn't count on was a whole lot more.
Those who know me best know I have had a strong aversion to bears over the course of my lifetime (I've gotten over the small plane thing; this is Alaska, and if I ever want to get anywhere cool, I've got to fly. So be it.). Bears are big, they are unpredictable, and they are known for doing things on their schedule at their whim. It is not my nature to be in Nature with these beasts, sharing the same trails and creekbeds, and yet there I was.
Hallo Bay guides work endlessly to establish a sort of rapport with these bears, meaning they stay out of their space if at all possible. Guests are drilled on a set of instructions before, during, and after each "encounter" to ensure safety and preparation for the next one; because at Hallo Bay, there is always a next one.
Fortunately or unfortunately depending upon who you talk to, Guide B. and I were the only two-legged people out on the creek that day. It was incredibly stormy, with rain and wind swooshing against our hip waders and rain jackets. It was also noisy; recent rains had left the creek high and water boiled and rushed, leaving us, and the bears, with less warning should the other suddenly appear. My reticence to enter the green, creekside thicket was not unfounded.
As Guide B. slowly led the way over logs, through leafy underbrush, and across smaller stream channels, my brain screamed over and over and over "We.should.not.be.here," an internal monologue I kept up despite B.'s attempts at chatting about our various college degrees, football season, and travel.
Some spots were simply too rough to navigate on land and necessitated a return to the creek where, at our final count, eight bears had been seen fishing or sniffing or scavenging along our three-mile hike. With every bear we spotted and passed on the way up, we knew that the gauntlet would need to be run on the way back, so we ticked off bears; Silver Ears, Scaredy Bear... numbers dwindled as we got closer and closer to the creek's outlet near the beach.
I was nearly there. Faced the giants, even. Damn, I was good.
A sow with her three-year-old cub came ambling around the corner, he (?) slipping in and out of the chilly water, playing in the grass, like all youngsters do; she carefully watching his every move yet allowing some freedom, since this was likely the last year he'd be under her protective wing.
B. eased us out into a sand bar to watch their progress and ensure visibility, knowing that bears, with eyesight comparable to ours, would be smelling us soon and our popping out from a willow grove would not be appropriate. We crouched quietly on the shallow sand, and waited.
Cub strayed up to the trail we were standing upon minutes before and Mama remained in the water, but both kept heading our direction; she on one side of us, he on the other. B. took out a flare all guides carry for protection (no guns or spray are allowed at Hallo, but flares provide heat and light and are reliable methods of deterrant) and said "Just wait here, and we'll see what she does. I'm pretty sure she'll cross in front of us to get in between us and her cub."
Pretty sure? Unprintable words rose in my throat as I froze, hunched over on the sandbar which suddenly seemed way to small and infinitely vulnerable to something so, so large.
"Good bear. You're a good bear." B. crooned with the smoothness of Bing Crosby as Mama and Cub came close enough for us to smell their fishy hides. "You're sure she'll cross over?" I quavered. "Sure I'm sure," B. replied, his eyes not leaving Mama for an instant. I did notice, though, that his thumb was heavy on the top of the flare and a large raincoat was within reach of his other hand, something I found out later was also a deterrant (bears hate the noise of flapping fabric).
Seconds felt like hours as the two bears indeed met at our sandbar's point and proceeded to pass us at about 20 feet, so close I could look into Mama's eyes as she warily, but steadily, lumbered by.
"Keep on going, bear. Nice bear, good work, keep moving." B. kept up his one-sided conversation until the two were well on their way upstream, then he slowly placed the flare back in his pocket, strapped the raincoat on his pack, and said, "Let's go."
So we went, our footprints seeming more than a little out of place on the wet sand next to the two other, larger sets.
It was only later that night, sitting in front of the woodstove at camp, that I realized something.
If a mother bear could walk past something so potentially dangerous as two unfamiliar creatures very obviously in her space, and with a cub to boot, then would it not make perfect sense that I could do the same?
Be not afraid.