The summer I moved to Anchorage with my girlfriend, Rich and Kathy Huffman celebrated their sixteenth wedding anniversary with a kayak trip down the Hulahula river in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Huffmans were a well-seasoned backcountry couple, the kind who floated down the Hulahula on two-week trips, who grilled their bush pilot on his credentials and emergency equipment, who stopped their kayaks at one spot to eat dinner and at another, miles downstream, to camp. They traveled armed, as one should in that country: cans of bear spray and a .45-70 Alaskan CoPilot, a shortened, lever-action rifle popular with Alaskan hunters and campers because it could blow a hole through an elephant. The Huffmans knew exactly what they were doing. And they were, precisely, what Sarah and I wanted to be: smart, prepared, mobile; as wise to the country as one could possibly be without forfeiting the joy of being in it.
Our first spring trip as Alaskans was into the Chugach Mountains, 900 miles south of where the Huffmans had celebrated their anniversary. On our third day, we hiked back to the car from a place we camped at called Willawaw Lakes, a steep taiga valley with small kettle lakes carved out in a cul-de-sac; cliffs and snow rising a thousand feet from both sides and in between a rocky lawn painted with lichen and forget-me-not and salmonberry. The valley was ten miles from the car and felt secluded, safe, all this rock surrounding us and nothing but Dall sheep scattered in the heights. I had slept well in the tent the night before, after navigating a long, muddy trail that wound through mazes of alder. Wide drifts of late snow gathered as the valley climbed. At some parts we had to stop to put snowshoes on or risk postholing—where one of your legs crashes through the snow, a cheap joke. You have to curse loudly and remind yourself to lighten up, you’re in untouched land, then unhook your pack to dig yourself out.
The previous day we had seen brown bear tracks and some scat near the trail, but no bears and none of the territorial signs—scratches on trees, ravens or crows scavenging a food cache. At one point as we crossed a stream on the hike in, the mud looked as if a dozen bears had been there, deep scratches in the ground and a mess of paw prints as wide as my size twelve boots were long. But Sarah pointed out that the paw sizes were uniform and it was probably just one waddling individual, dopey and fat, sniffing around in circles.
I thought myself pretty wise to bear country then. Before we’d left New York, Sarah and I studied as for an exam, in the way that those diagnosed with rare diseases will consume as much information as they can about it. To control by familiarity. To tame. And what remained, after training on how best to avoid a naïve, scornful demise, was a profound, almost mystical fear of bears. Not wolves or inclement weather or bush crazies or the alarming rates of rape and sexual assault in the Great Land. But bears. Browns and polars and blacks. The places we headed were full of them.
By the time we were hiking out of Williwaw lakes, Sarah was calling this bearanoid. There were dozens of rules for bear safety that fed bearanoia: don’t run, don’t be alone, don’t feed bears, don’t carry a small-caliber weapon, don’t keep anything with a scent in the tent, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. We ate all this up. We read account after account of attacks, notes from naturalists, and the exhaustive biology of the Ursus genera, as if scientific knowledge of this creature would keep it from eating us.
But there was little control, after a certain point, which made all of that control we were planning on exercising seem a bit like a charm or spell. No matter what we did to prevent it, any of the state’s 120,000 bears could lumber into our camp or surprise us from the brush or stalk us down trail. We could take every precaution, pack every means of defense, be as wise to the country as Rich and Kathy Huffman were that summer we had moved up—everything done expertly right—and still, like them, get mauled and dragged out of our tents in the early morning by an otherwise normal grizzly, with no time to chamber a round, or dose pepper-spray, or even, despite all prevailing wisdom, to run.
Logically, I can point to my fear of bears as a result of statistical irrationality, like playing the lottery; when you know the odds are stacked wildly against you but you fall prey to the fantasy of slipping through them. More people get struck by lightning each year than get attacked by bears. Far more people get shot by other human beings, or physically assaulted; raped, robbed, murdered, fatally crash their cars, slip in showers, mauled by dogs, crushed in elevators. In my hometown of Syracuse, NY, more people were murdered in a five-year period than were killed by bears in all of North America in the last century.
So, for this trip: no gun, despite the .357 magnum our friend Jerry had left at our apartment before we’d departed. I was sold by the statistical wisdom that says you’re more likely to die of a gun accident in the backcountry than a bear attack. In fact, statistical wisdom could have sold me anything at that point. My fear of the possibility pushed me further and further into the welcoming arms of probability. I felt that our sound choices—the way we camped, the way we hiked, wind direction, commonsense—were enough to keep us out of trouble. If we stayed bearanoid, we’d ride the bell curve through the backcountry.
We hiked that morning in flat light, and before the valley emptied us I must have taken fifty photos: lakes like pools of mercury, boulders covered in the green rust of lichen, pale dots of Dall sheep a thousand feet up the granite. On the trek out we had met a couple in their mid-thirties, rosy cheeked and NorthFace clad, who said they’d seen a big brown bear a few hours earlier where the trail leaves the valley and winds its way past one of the peaks. They had taken a break on a small rise of land halfway between Williwaw valley and the trailhead, a place I knew from our hike in.
“Came out twenty yards behind us on the trail,” the man said, “sniffed, then moved right along.”
“He must have been 1000 pounds,” the woman said, widening her arms to demonstrate girth.
Of course it was 1000 pounds. No one tells you that the brown bear they saw was the runt. We thanked them, but I wished they had said nothing. What would we have done differently? We reached down into the well of bear wisdom and moved on slowly, making as much noise as possible, trying to keep a loud conversation going over our out-of-breathness. I could tell Sarah was nervous. She wasn’t really making sense as she told me about the greatest meal she had ever had—just grunts and ands and uhs—but we had planned on all of this. I suspected, hoped might be the better word, that maybe beneath the surface she was as secure as I thought I was. I thought about that, took pride in it even, this collective coolness we carried as we trudged through black mud and the trail came out on a small ridge over Williwaw creek, a shaver of a stream that ran the bottom of the valley. We stopped and dropped the packs, did that immediate lurch back up to stretch our backs, and settled in for jerky and sunscreen, right along the trail. She was catching her breath, and I was catching mine, and as I bent over and dug through my pack for the Coppertone, Sarah said, “Oh shit. Bear.”
I laughed before I looked up, began to say real funny, but when I finally did, I saw a monster of a brown bear across the creek, twenty or thirty yards away, close enough to see black mud caked on its legs, the cloud of flies following it. It was sniffing at grass and lumbering slowly, the fat and wet fur bouncing back and forth like Jell-O across its back. I put the jerky away and released the safety on the pepper spray and realized, immediately, how hopeless a weapon it was. If there was any wind, as there was that day, you were missing your mark, and probably suffering, one way or another.
Sarah grabbed my hand. I flashed, briefly, to Jerry’s unregistered firearm. To the narrative of our naïve death back home in the Syracuse newspaper. To the snickers of all the high-shouldered Alaskans who doubted everyone else who showed up out here. The bear circled his snout around, feeling for scent. We ducked down on the trail—I have no idea why, there was nothing we could hide behind—and I watched as the bear caught our human fragrance, edging its nose in the air and looking downstream for a moment before rotating back and freezing on us.
My heart to my throat. My stomach quickly into the lower half of my body. An unseen cloud of terror out of Sarah, her legs weakened, face pale, the feigned confidence she squeezed from my hand. The thing was enormous, had to be eight feet tall, moving its snout around in circles to get a better taste for us and swinging its paws at its sides to keep balance. It went back down on all fours and then popped up again and watched us. It stood, catching its balance, and watched us watching it.
I hadn’t been thinking then like I was supposed to. There was an idea that if you could swallow your fear somehow, your pheromones would communicate some kind of confidence to the animal and it wouldn’t treat you as prey. The thought arose, but it was as foreign as getting up and flying home. I was no sociopath or Zen master. I was a guy who, a few months before, had been an accountant in Syracuse.
I took my camera out and snapped a picture as the bear went back down. If we were to be mauled, I thought, someone could at least see the thing that did it. I don’t know why that would have mattered, but it struck me at the time as a very simple and sensible thing to do as a final gesture, as if the thing had already made the decision and was bounding its way through the stream and up the slope, snarling.
He watched us for five minutes. Five long, long minutes. Up on hind legs. Then down, as if ready to ford the stream. Then back up. We stood frozen, speaking to it like one would a dog. Get on going, buddy, get out of here, go home. And then it was back on all fours and lumbering along, giving us a few looks as it headed east toward the end of the valley, where we had just broken camp.
We watched the bear until we could no longer see it, until it had blended into the wildflowers next to the stream and became another piece of the valley.
“Is there a chance he comes back?” Sarah asked. She was pale, shaky.
“No,” I said, but that was just hope. Always there was the chance that he was circling back, that we were headed toward some decomposing fauna he was interested in keeping from us, that there were more nearby following path and scent, mates or friends or enemies, cubs or mothers, rival boars.
We tightened our packs and poked onward. Every time I looked over my shoulder, Sarah was looking over hers. And then I knew he was gone, and he was gone because we had done what we were supposed to. We hadn’t pissed our pants or peppered sprayed ourselves. We hadn’t made a headline in Syracuse’s Post-Standard. We hadn’t run. There’s a weird pride in a moment like this, and even now I can’t parse out whether it was from seeing a bear in the wild or not being killed by it. Are those separable?
We were calm in the aftermath, but unconsciously hurried, and as the trail wound through a patch of brush at the south of the valley, we found ourselves suddenly walking over bear tracks. Fresh. Tracks dug deep into the black mud. The moisture still settling into the hollows. When I turned around, Sarah’s hand was on her face, aghast, staring. The tracks headed in the opposite direction, toward us, and they belonged to our bear. They followed the trail for a half-mile through a maze of alder, a dense tunnel of three-inch thick branches that could have stopped a speeding truck. We walked slowly over the tracks. The trail so narrow that we walked in them. This was a path with no shoulder, no emergency pull-off. Head on collisions unavoidable. We had just accidentally missed one by five, maybe ten minutes.
“Fuck, are you kidding me?” Sarah asked, to no one in particular. And after that we must have hiked a mile without speaking, lost in our heads. That weird pride gone, probably forever. The feeling that we had done something right, gone—even though we probably had. It had just stopped mattering.
The alder thinned out. When we came out of the maze the valley widened to the west. The trail cut out ahead of us into a field of olive-colored patchwork, and one could sense the vast space that hung ahead of us, the slopes of the Chugach coming down steep into Cook Inlet, and Cook Inlet stretching slowly, massively, into the Pacific. I don’t know what I was then, a fusion of alarmed and grateful and withdrawn and humbled. I only remember thinking what we must have looked like from above: two backpacks moving along in silence; bright colors against the dull earth.
K.C. Wolfe is a founding editor at Sweet, and a nonfiction editor at Sweet Publications. He has worked as a freelancer, as nonfiction editor at The Journal, and in various editorial and management positions in corporate publishing. He teaches creative writing at Eckerd College and Syracuse's Downtown Writer's Center. His essays and short stories have been published in Redivider, Under the Sun, Gulf Coast, Swink, Joyland, and other publications.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: It’s length. There was a lot more research included in early drafts, which ended up in a different essay, mostly because it upset the tone. I think what surprised me most was that I thought I was writing a different essay when I began. I cut down continually to focus the story in this draft.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best advice I’ve received is that labor solves problems—story problems, character problems, voice problems, whatever. I’ve got a lot of techniques and methods and such that have paid off tremendously, but work has done the most to put those into action.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Barry Lopez. Annie Dillard. Charles Wright. Cormac McCarthy. Housekeeping by Marilynn Robinson.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I work out of a home office, pretty consistently, but public places do the job occasionally, especially if I’m travelling.