My eyes moved with them through the binoculars. The golden, shaggy-haired cubs bounced ahead of mom; their movement like a teeter-totter – front paws first, then back. Front, back. Front, back. They stopped to wrestle with each other whenever the feeling struck. Mom lumbered behind, looking worn from keeping up with the rascals. Grizzlies… three of them.
It was my first experience with a grizzly in the wild, Keenan’s too. Deeply buried, ancestral brain waves re-established themselves in the presence of such great creatures. The mind of the hunter became the mind of the prey, the food chain suddenly less factual. But our distance felt safe, and we were able to relax and appreciate their majesty. Keenan spoke first, “McD, I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.”
It was late September. The bliss of being in Alaska was pounding through our bodies as we explored trail-less wilderness, all alone, two days from the van. The spines of the Alaska Range and the glacial headwaters of the Teklanika River in front of us, every other thing somewhere behind us. This country shined with a pride that only untouched land can.
We knew we would pass this area again on our out-n-back hike, we didn’t think it was possible that the grizzlies would still be there.
A Grizzly Craze
You don’t need to go to Alaska to see a grizzly, but your chances increase greatly if you do. A month earlier, while driving from Washington to Alaska, I watched the wildlife grow larger with every northward mile. What were deer were now moose, crows now bald eagles, coyotes now wolves, black bears now grizzly bears. These animals became a part of daily life, not an exhibit at the zoo.
In their land, you alter your behavior, having lost your status as the most important creature. You yell and make noise wherever you go, you think about any scent you may have picked up. Every twig snap and leaf rustle is definitely a grizzly bear! You develop a plan for everything, like say, turning around to see a 30mph charging moose. It’s possible to quickly lose your mind in these scenarios.
Our grizzly friends steal the media show, I think because of their majesty and because of their name (death by one seemingly defines the adjective). Great white sharks and other large predators get swooped in too, and let’s not forget the mountains – the minute you tell someone you’re climbing one, they can’t help themselves, they must remind you of the last death on one. These things capture our fear and our imagination, yet they care little about us (and of course kill us at statistically insignificant rates).
Naturally, there’s a false perception about the danger of grizzlies – 5 people in the last 4 years have died in North America. I choose to live by experience and statistics on the road; if I took the .01% the media chooses for us as the full truth, I would never go anywhere, and I happen to like going places.
So the grizzly death numbers didn’t bother me so much… what bothered me was not being prepared to defend myself.
Guns and Grizzlies
I was very close to buying a gun before Alaska. Turns out everyone has an opinion on what gun it should be, or if a gun should be taken at all.
If a gun is taken, it should be a big, heavy, powerful gun to have any effect on such impressive animals – a .44 magnum or 12-gauge slug-filled shotgun or large-bore hunting rifle. These guns, in their weight alone, fundamentally clash with concept of wilderness travel. I quickly reached a mental impasse on the issue, but kept shopping around anyway, mostly because I was curious and I was meeting some great characters in the process.
It was a July day that my gun-grizzly perspective shifted. I was searching for a cheap used gun and advice from a gun-lover… no better nor stranger place to find those than a pawn shop. The small-town Montana shop I entered had vertical white bars over blacked-out windows. A man named Gary greeted me. He greeted me with a single front tooth and a single question: what was my gun purpose? I told him. He reached back and plucked a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun off the rack. The way he handed it to me made it clear this wasn’t a gun to him in the way it was a gun to me.
Gary asked about my gun experience. Basically zero. We talked through the different bear scenarios, and a moment of clarity hit Gary… “Unless you are absolutely sure that you can hit that sucker in the head from 20 yards out while he’s charging you… unless you’re absolutely certain you can steady those hands and nerves, I wouldn’t take a gun.” These words coming from a man like Gary made me perk up. He continued, “You know, your best weapon is always between your ears." Well isn’t that the truth! I thought.
I owed Gary for the wisdom and told him so, then walked out. I would carry bear spray, which was statistically more effective anyway. I would bring a preventative mindset towards bears, not a reactive one. But a great friend of mine once joked that Alaska was the land of B&Bs – not Bed & Breakfasts but Bear & Berries. Prevention would only go so far.
Back to September in Alaska, back to Denali, back to walking along the Teklanika with Keenan. We were headed back to camp after a day of photography that will be hard to find again. We were late, the sun was making shrinking light patterns and growing shadow patterns. Temperatures were plummeting and the purple evening sky was near.
We came to a bend in the river and I paused. I pulled up the binoculars to confirm what I thought I saw… yes, it was our grizzly family again. Shit! was my first thought. My thought after Shit! was You guys sure move slow. We had covered in an hour what had taken them four. I suppose they had no reason to move quickly.
This was not an ideal situation… we had to get north, and they were blocking the easy path – a rock bar that extended to our camp with only a few shallow river crossings. To our right and to our left were an unknown number of river crossings of uncertain depth. After the crossings, an elevated tundra plateau.
We had avoiding this tundra plateau because of earlier experimentation… the brush was higher than our heads and our feet sank 6 inches with each step. There were mazes of animal trails… and from the tracks, grizzly and wolf trails. You can’t call travel on that tundra bushwhacking, it was some other word completely.
We had tried our damnedest to stay dry all day, and so far we had succeeded. The tundra option meant certain wetness, which meant certain cold (and potentially hypothermia) if we didn’t get to camp quickly afterwards. With a grizzly in our way, nothing was certain, so we threw out the idea of getting wet… for now.
Ideally if you encounter a grizzly, you can just avoid it… just walk the other way. Since we couldn’t, the next option is to try and scare it away. To yell at it.
Yelling at a grizzly bear goes against everything that the human race has ever learned. Every instinct, every brain cell tells you no, yet the noise is still coming from your mouth… Heeyyyy oooohhhh wuughhhh uhhhghh uhhhhhhh.
We emitted a great clamor, and during it, the grizzly mom turned and looked at us. My heart raced. Keenan lined up behind me. My hand was on the bear spray, safety off. Then she turned and ran at us! But only for a moment. Since her hair was the same color as the brush, we quickly lost her in the fading light. We both took shallow breaths, waiting for her to emerge from the brush, waiting for the charge. But she never came, and slowly, Keenan and I assumed a non-fighting stance.
We advanced reluctantly, hoping we had scared them into the surrounding forest and could sneak by. I was navigating fully by binoculars now, unwilling to let my vision be anything less than 500 yards out. We advanced… there she was again! Her golden hair poked through the golden leaves in the river bed brush. I thought about her magnificence, but that thought wasn’t allowed to stay long.
We again filled our bellies and made terrific primal noises, and during them, we both watched as momma grizzly rose from four legs to two legs. You don’t get a sense for their length until you see them stand. She towered above everything else. Six to seven feet is their average length, but in that moment, she seemed 12 feet… 15 feet. She rumbled back down to all fours, then rose up again on her hind legs. She stared directly at us.
Her stare put us in a very different mood… it put us in a mood to get wet.
There was just enough light to navigate without headlamps. The temperature was about 20-degrees on its way to 5. I cursed myself for not bringing the stove; starting a fire would be significant project in this soggy country.
Our first three river crossings went well… knee deep. We had defined our route all day by taking the direction that ensured dry feet; now they were squishy soggy wet.
We climbed up to the tundra plateau, found an animal trail, and took it. We were running. The eeriness of the trail forced our feet into something faster than a walk – fresh snow revealed fresh wolf tracks, and to our left a caribou cache… all around us unseen eyes felt locked to us. Maybe I let my mind run wild, maybe that’s exactly what this place was.
After 30 minutes of an uncontrollable mind, we came to an overlook. We saw no bear in the river. Yet we reserved our celebratory notes… for all we knew, the family was just down around the bend.
"Fifty fifty chance the bear’s not around the bend.” Keenan said. “I think we go for it.”
“Yeah, I agree. Let’s go for it.”
We bounded down the dirt embankment onto the rocky river bed, crept around the corner, and got a glimpse of a wide open expanse. No bears. We still weren’t celebrating, for the deepest river crossing was next.
It was impossible to tell how deep the Teklanika River was at this spot, but it was quite possible to tell it was 30-40 feet wide and moving fast. The glacial headwaters were three miles away, so we knew its temperature. We tossed a rock into its glacial-silted grey abyss, and it seemed to thunk bottom in a reasonable amount of time. You can either think about these types of decisions forever, or you can go for it. Only one of them keeps you moving.
Keenan went first and went carefully. He bottomed out in the middle of the river with water closer to his waist than his knees. After he felt the deepest spot, he hustled through the rest and encouraged me on.
Every time I know I’m about to do something that is questionably safe, I say a few quick words to myself, a little pump-up. Don’t fuck it up are the words I use; they hit at the perfect extremes – half playful, half serious – leaving me right in the middle with my thoughts, the ideal zone – a state of hyper-awareness without the over-thinking part.
I stepped into the river. It was hard to find good, solid rocks on the bottom for foot placements. It required forcing one leg forward and balancing on the other, while identifying a suitable landing zone. A landing zone was only discovered by tip-tapping away with the toes of the front foot, and (hopefully) finding a rock that could support my weight without rolling over. It was an act of brute force and ballerina balance.
But we both made it across, and on the camp side of the river, we finally celebrated. I don’t remember how, but it was a good long one.
We had endured our grizzly experience in the wild, almost two hours of it. We had remained somewhat calm, I think because we had few other options. The grizzly stories we would read would no longer be just stories that inspired fear or wonder… we were a part of them now, they were a part of us. I felt strangely calm in this grizzly country.
[All photos taken on 9/20, the day of this story. Portrait of me by Keenan Newman]