It was a very bear-y summer.
All around me, I heard tell of bears galore. Bears in the road, bears in the yard, bears blocking the trails.
Perhaps because of the prayer. You see, I do a little silent prayer as I walk about these woods:
“Please let me see something…safely.”
And so, perhaps my timing was off or perhaps the prayer was working because I hadn’t had hardly any run-ins, safe or otherwise.
Where were all these bears everyone was talking about?
Our two friends, a brother and sister duo by way of CA, came to visit late July. They came bearing a full Costco/Freddy haul I was almost embarrassed to ask for and they shopped for our entire Summer re-supply like pros. They navigated the unfamiliar Alaskan terrain in a swift 1-2 punch and made it out with barely a layer of dirt. They were stocked and stoked and ready to…
See a bear.
Every day my girlfriend’s wish was the same:
“I want to see a bear.”
“Safely.” I would add, either under my breath or aloud in a sort of micro-managing OCD attempt to put a little gold safety light around her. It’s a funny sort of strange to live in a place where an invitation to visit comes with a quick and dirty death by bear or moose disclaimer. You know, just FYI.
But she was hell-bent and so I wished we may and wished we might see a bear tonight, or today or anytime before their week-long woodsy retreat, well, retreated, melting back into the California sunshine.
And then, we went for a hike.
Not just any hike.
The day before, we had gone for a hike.
First steps on The Glacier
We had hiked out to the glacier and stood amongst that frozen fantasy in awe and then hiked home.
The next day, we ramped it up a notch. Without ever having ridden a 4-wheeler, we made our friends brave driving up to our next hike: the mine.
Driving a 4-wheeler, not such a big deal. Driving a 4-wheeler for the first time up a muddy, rutted, sometimes split in half with deep ditches running through the already narrow road up a couple thousand feet of rocky terrain? Well, that’s quite another thing. So, in typical Alaskan fashion, we geared them up and pushed them out of the nest and…
Up, up and up for an hour until we finally reached our destination point: the beginning of our hike.
Not a bad parking place.
Apparently, I had forgotten to mention that a hike would follow the harried path we had already tread but, again, they jumped right in.
Up, up, up we climbed. It’s the kind of hiking where you (unless you happen to be far more fit than us) take about 30 steps and then take a break. 30, break. 30, break. Repeat, repeat.
An hour in and we’d identified endless plants and flowers, already found copper rocks, found fresh water and snacked and rested on a mossy knoll.
And then it set in.
A pain my girlfriend had been experiencing on our hike the day before suddenly turned into a searing pain. Going up was not an option, but going down? That felt pretty good. And so, she decided to head back down. We would finish the hike up and circle back to pick her up on the way down.
We were pretty close to the top at that point, it would be a quick turn-around and then we’d come to her rescue and swoop her up in our 4-wheeler chariots.
Apparently, laws of physics and all, going up is a lot slower than going down, especially when the grade is such that in going up you feel like one with the ground because of the angle. It looks like you’re in a fun-house mirror.
An hour up and we had finally made it.
And soon, the top.
I’d been to this mine the year before but I had been terrified to reach the top. My knees got wobbly just looking at it but this year, it was my goal. I was to see the other side.
And we did.
The same family of white ice we had been on the day before.
It was an amazing view of the glacier I’d never seen though the wobble in my knees returned and I had to immediately sit down once we’d gotten up. The Chief bounced around like the gazelle that he is while I tried to take it in, turning tummy and all.
Soon, we decided to putter around the mine and made the journey down from our perch.
Inquiries and a few sketchy maneuvers later and we had seen all that we had come to see.
Two mountain goats I ran into.
It was snack time (obviously).
And then, the clouds started to roll in and it was time to leave.
What time was it anyway?
We hustled back down the mountain to our rain gear and fired up the machines, picking up a wet walker along the way, keeping an eye out for Sis.
Just then, I got a text:
“Holy shit saw bear”
The sheer lack of punctuation made my stomach turn.
I tried to call.
I texted back:
“Where? How close?”
The invitation disclaimer rang through my head. I kicked myself for not having gone with her for fear the boys would turn back too and miss the mine. I thought it would be a good esteem builder, a mini vision quest of sorts.
I was an idiot.
Now, my friend was out there, by herself in this very bear-y Summer that she had suddenly tapped into.
We put the hiking into high-gear and made it to the 4-wheelers in time to put rain gear over our already wet clothes.
Finally she got back to me. She was O.K.
We hustled down the mountain, picking up a very wet walker along the way and finally made it back to her.
Incoming! Rain time.
She had beat us to town, a fact that seems obvious now (again with the physics and all) and had made her way to some well-deserved wine at the local lodge.
Finally, we were able to get eyes on her and know she was O.K. She described her encounter with the bear in the bushes, gorging on berries and how she had done the very right thing of making herself known as she skeedadled around it. All four back together again, we saddled up for a rainy ride to the restaurant and then home. We were pooped. An unexpected double-day unexpected hiking, rain and heights with a very bear-y topping had worn us out.
A Summer without bears for me and suddenly, my guest of all people had a solo run-in. I was both proud of her and mortified of my lack of hospitality all at once. While I was conquering (read toying with) my fear of heights, she was face-to-face with a berry-lovin’ bear.
And it wouldn’t be the last time. It turns out she had opened up the waterway. Finally, the very bear-y Summer came our way. In fact, all the wildlife did. The next few days were chock full of the wilds. Swans and moose appeared as if they had finally gotten their invitation to the party, bear poop appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
They had arrived and the next bear we saw was right in our “backyard”.
“Jules, that’s awful close to your house, isn’t it?”
It was. It was on the River Trail that Lou and I walked on the daily. But hey, we live in bear country, that’s the deal, right?
We watched it devour a bush of Soapberries in minutes, thrashing the poor thing about with its powerful swings. It unearthed small boulders in the blink of an eye looking for goodies and we all just sat there watching. Cinda, looked on from the back window of the truck unconcerned. This was no bear run-in, this was a day at the zoo and she was content with our safety enough to let us explore without so much as a yip.
Welcome to the neighborhood, bears.
And so, the very bear-y Summer made its way to our neck of the woods. A few days later, our friends left and soon after I followed with Cinda and the loss of our Lou began the journey we are still on.
But the bears stayed and now, home without my girl, I was on my own.
A couple of weeks after she had passed, I was forcing myself to take a walk. Walks these days without Lou have taken on a sort of double-edged sword because walks are one of the few things that can lift a hard mood or ease a sadness but when I’m walking, I miss her the most. Our walks were a comfort only she could provide and her presence is irreplaceable. But still, I went. This particular day was extra bear-y, I could just feel their presence but I was crying so hard that I set it out of my mind. On my way down to The River, I stopped in to borrow Cinda’s brother, which made me howl even louder, missing those two peas in their odd pod together. There’s nothing quite like walking while crying to make you feel reduced down to your inner toddler and that was where I needed to be.
Bat dogs, back in the day. Pups in the snow.
Until it wasn’t.
Because suddenly, as I rounded the corner to drop down onto the River Trail…
I was face to face with a bear.
The same bear, most likely, that we had seen unearthing small boulders with the swing of a paw. The same bear that decimated the bushes in one fell swoop. And there I was, less than 12 feet away without my sense of security, false or otherwise. Her Brother had gone on ahead but as I whistled back he came, charging around the bushes, catching sight of the bear and quickly leading the way home. Although I’m not fluent in his language as I was hers, it was easy to decipher:
“Let’s get out of here!”
And so we did.
Tears were replaced by adrenaline and my pumping heart got me home in a jiffy. Her Brother followed me home to drop me off and then went to his own abode to tell his Dad the day’s tale.
And often since then, her Brother or the rest of the neighborhood dogs will watch over us. They patrol our yard, chasing moose or bear through the night. For we live in the woods, amongst the wilds…
and it’s been a very bear-y season.
Thank you to our friends for coming to share this amazing place with us, disclaimer in full-effect and all. I can’t explain how much it means to us that you made the journey, jumped right in and swam.
Cheers to the end of a very bear-y season, and to facing your fears, even when you don’t mean to. And cheers to our safety nets that at some point set us free to see if we fly without them.
And the sun sets on another Summer.
Love to them.
Love to you.
Love to Lou.
Waiting for me. Leading the way.