Negotiating with The Bear
This story is mostly true, at least the part about going on a hike in Alaska up the Falls Creek Trail. And the part about bear safety lessons. And most of the details about my life and climate change. The encounter with the bear is purely my imagination.
I had set aside five days in Alaska, prior to my 30th high school reunion, to create my own version of a hiking ‘retreat.’ I stayed in an Airbnb in a mediocre part of Anchorage, and each morning I would awake to take on a new hike in the Chugach Mountains just South of Anchorage. My last day in Seward I scampered up the Exit Glacier trail, then lumbered up the strenuous Bird Creek Ridge trail, then covered the Portage Pass Trail. As I pulled up to the trailhead for the Falls Creek Trail, I was eagerly anticipating day four of my solo hiking retreat.
My car was the only car parked there. A trail to myself! Huzzah!
The trail was mostly straight up. The average grade was above 20% the entire hike, and so right off the bat, my heart and legs got to work quickly.
The trail quickly narrowed and plunged into sections of overgrown brush — ferns, fireweed, devil’s club, and more all crowding the trail. Insects galore streamed from the shaken plants as I hustled up the trail.
The trail followed Falls Creek, and the roar of the river, from the rapid melt of the snow and glaciers above, was loud and intense. I grew up in King Salmon, Alaska, a town of about 400 people, until I was 9 years old. Instead of learning, “Don’t talk to strangers”, I learned, “Talk or sing out loud as you walk home alone from the bus stop so you don’t surprise a bear.” Brown bears would come harass our trash barrels from time to time, and seeing a bear was not uncommon.
As I rounded a bend, where the foliage thickened, and the roar of the river drowned out the ambient sounds of the forest, I put my hands to my mouth and yodelled, “Heeeeeeey Beeeeeaaaaaaar!”
25 years earlier, I hiked through Denali National Park with three friends from university. We attended the required bear-safety lessons, which covered the all important rules of how to prevent bear encounters with unhappy endings. We learned ‘the triangle’ — you camp, cook, and store your food in a three different points of a triangle, where each point is 100 meters away from the other.
We covered how to avoid surprising a bear by making noise. Bear’s have a great sense of smell and hearing, but their eyesight is just okay. Lots of hikers wear bear-bells, which means constant ringing, but the common technique taught in Denali was to yell “Heeeeeeeeeey Beeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaar!” every few minutes to announce your presence to any furry behemoths who might not be aware of you in their territory.
25 years later, I was proud of my “Heeeeeeeeey Beeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaar” call. I giggled a bit.
[Author’s note: This is where I start making things up.]
As if summoned, a medium sized brown bear, a.k.a., a Grizzly, emerged from the brush, onto the trail. Looking directly at me, the bear snorted once and shook his head back and forth.
Fear would be an understatement. Despite growing up around bears, being less than 10 meters from a brown bear evokes pure terror. I tried to breathe deeply, and my training came back to me.
I kept talking to the bear, while waving my arms, and taking slow steps back. You wave your arms to let the bear know you’re not a deer, or anything that looks like their normal prey. “I’m not a moose!” I proclaimed. “These long arms mean I’m clearly human, and we taste horrible! Especially me! I’m all bones and very little meat! I’m like the worst six-foot long spice-less buffalo wing ever!”
You don’t want to turn your back and run from a brown bear, because then that announces that you are prey, and the chase will be on. I took a deep breath. “I am respecting your ground, and backing up slowly,” I declared, my heart rate staying so high my voice kept cracking.
“I don’t think we need to get into who the apex predator is here,” I said, rambling nervously. “I know this is your territory, and I’m a guest here, and I am happy to cede the trail to you. Any conflict between us will only be bad for both of us. If you kill me, then they’ll come after you and at best relocate you away from your friends, and potentially you’d be put down. You should read up on game theory. This is a lose-lose conflict.”
The bear took its first step forward. I could not tell if it was a he or she, and I wasn’t about to ask. But my arguments didn’t seem to be landing.
“Listen, I know there are plenty of reasons to be angry with humans. We’re ruining all your habitats and shrinking them. Now only 1% of animals on the planet are wild, when it used to be 99%! And hey, I did not vote for the current US president, who is doing everything he can to screw up the situation even more. Lots of humans are still denying climate change. But I’m not! You shouldn’t eat me, because I understand! I’m on your side!”
I was getting tired, the adrenaline wained for a moment, and walking backwards down the rugged trail was no easy feat while keeping my eyes on the bear. The bear took another step forward, sniffing and snorting.
I spoke calmly and plaintively. “I know it’s really hot this summer in Alaska, the hottest on record, and that while I don’t want to extrapolate from a single data point, the warming trends in Alaska are really clear over the last 100 years. This might be shortening your hibernation periods, and I know I am really grumpy when I don’t get enough sleep so I totally empathise. I’m trying to walk a mile in your paw prints here, can’t you see?”
Now, brown bears are known to bluff charge — they run right towards you, and stop right in front of you. It’s quite a test to see if you’re prey. If you run, they chase.
The bear took a few strides towards me, but was not charging. I continued pleading my case, backing up with each step the bear took towards me. “I know I haven’t been recycling much during the last year, but in 2016–2018, I was soooo good — composting, recycling, you name it! My waste footprint was so small! Yes, I know none of the plastics really get recycled in Australia and that Asian countries are sending our own plastic back to us. But is that my fault…? I suppose I could just use less plastic… I promise I’ll figure out the whole bulk shopping thing when I get back to Oz?”
The bear sniffed at me. Wondering what he or she smelled, I looked at my shirt. “What? Oh yeah, this shirt was in the dryer. I shouldn’t use a dryer — huge waste of energy. I do hang a lot of my clothes — well, I hang the ones that you shouldn’t put in the dryer.”
The bear lowered its head.
“Hey hey hey! I’m really trying to be good about emissions, too. I haven’t owned a car in 10 years. Okay, it’s more like eight and a half. And yes, my last car was an SUV. But now I bike to work a lot — okay, not a lot, but some! And I know the ferry is the most polluting form of public transportation, but come on — am I supposed to take the bus from Manly? And… I put a deposit down on an electric car — so no emissions! Right, good for the global forest and for all bears! It’s a Tesla. Do you hear that, bear? — for nature’s sake, a Tesla!! I’m on a wait list! That shows you how much I care… that I’m buying a new car?”
The bear looked unfazed.
“I know the last year I’ve been really bad about air travel — two trips to the US, a poorly optimised flight path all over South America, and for the last 10 years I’ve had some kind of status on a major airline. But I promise, pinky swear, no more international flights for the next year.”
Don’t feed the humans
The bear shook its shoulders, as if loosening up for a prize fight. A kingdom of insects took flight and quickly re-settled as it took a few more powerful, slow strides towards me.
“I’m vegan!” I exclaimed, almost giddy that I had forgotten it, but now remembered. “Well, vegan-ish… I still eat eggs, and sometimes fish if I need to gain weight. And the doctor told me I had to eat chicken when I had gastro in Chile… And not eating animal products is great for the planet, right? I know you eat meat, but it’s wild game and I’m down with that… Factory farms are cray-cray, you know what I mean — or maybe you don’t? Bottom line, I’m really trying to help you! Can you help me, and maybe let me… go…?”
The bear looked more focused than ever. It stilled, all four paws on the ground. Our eyes met, and locked.
I exhaled, and began to speak with less panic. “Okay, maybe you’re trying to help with over-population, but I don’t think eating one person is the right answer, especially when that person is me! I’m not having kids, so it ends with me anyway! I won’t accept any life prolonging medical procedures, so my life span will be natural. Although, of course I did have a kidney transplant, but I was a younger man then… And, I support charities that are helping with overpopulation by educating young women about family planning. Come on, bear — how good is that? Girls Education!!!”
The bear exhaled, and even with the distance between us, I could feel the heat of its breath. My knees almost buckled, but adrenaline held me upright.
The bear slowly turned, and began to trot back down the path, away from me.
I almost collapsed from relief.
I kept backing up slowly, back towards the trail head. As the bear disappeared into the brush, I raised my chin and called out — “Just so we’re clear, I do have a wedding in Europe I need to go to in a year. So I will need to take a flight then. And of course I need to visit my mum at some point….”
Author’s Note: If you’re confused about the point of this silly narrative, it highlights the flailing attempts by many of us to figure out the right things to do, that we verbally commit and play lip service to making a difference but still fail to understand and make the hard choices, and let go of consumption as our default mode of existence. I’m not perfect, but trying to be better each day.