ROY MEETS AN ALASKAN BROWN BEAR NOSE TO NOSE
Roy and the Bears
Millie shrieked “Oh no! I just stepped into a pile of sh—.” She caught herself before she completed the sentence. Millie bent her leg and looked down at her hiking boot covered with soft brown stuff.
Brother Roy, who was right behind her on the trail, leaned over to get a look and a whiff. “Pee-ew! You just stepped in a pile of fresh bear scat, and it smells terrible.”
Their hiking companions gathered around and grinned while the Jamie, their Park Ranger guide plucked a handful of grass from the side of the trail and wiped the smelly brown stuff off Millie’s boot.
Jamie announced to the group, “This is fresh bear scat, very fresh in fact, which indicates that there is at least one bear nearby.” The reality of a near by bear quieted the group as they looked around into the heavy bush on either side of the trail.
Jamie was an experienced guide with the Alaskan Park Service. His job was to guide the hikers to Bear Creek in the Denali National Park, and do it safely. So far, everything had been going to plan. But now with a bear nearby he encouraged his group to make noise, even sing a few hiking songs which he led quite well. In addition, everyone had bear bells. They were sold at the Hiking Center, and had a picture of a bear printed on them, so they made great souvenirs. The bell hung from a leather strap with a clip that could be attached to a backpack or article of clothing. When tourists signed up for the hike to Bear Creek they were told that bells were essential for safety when hiking in bear country.
Earlier that morning, the hiking group had set out from the Bear Creek Hiking Center in a bus that had dropped them off within hiking distance of Bear Creek. Maggie and I, had started out with the group, but Maggie unfortunately twisted her ankle getting off the tour bus and I had to help her back her bus seat. Of course, we were disappointed that we would miss the day’s adventure, but I really had no choice, and encouraged the kids to go on without us.
The group of fifteen hikers reached Bear Creek about 45 minutes later, without incident. From their vantage point on a high bluff overlooking the river, they were able to see a half mile in both directions. Bears seemed to be everywhere, along the banks, splashing in the rapids, hunting for salmon, and gorging themselves on the fat fish. The ranger directed their attention to several bears standing at the top of a small waterfall.
Roy told his sister, “Watch those bears catching fish on the fly.” Sure enough, no sooner than the words were out of his mouth, one bear caught a fish as it propelled itself from the churning bottom water up over the top of the falls.
Millie screamed in delight and spent the next ten minutes trying to photograph the next catch. Two bears were exceptionally good at snatching fish right out of the air like a shortstop fielding a line drive so Millie finally got her picture.
The salmon were at the height of their summer run, and nothing would stop them from returning to the shallow streambeds where they were born and were destined to spawn. Nothing, that is, except the big jaws of a hungry Alaskan brown bear. The bears and fish did not care about the hikers on the bluff who watched them. The bears were on a mission, they had to fatten up for the coming long and harsh Alaskan winter. The fish were on a more important mission. They had to mate and spawn to insure the future of their species.
Jamie explained, “As females lay eggs, called roe, males fertilize them. Millions of baby salmon eventually hatch out and as they grow larger they swim down stream, following the very path their parents took on the way up-stream. Less than half of them reach the ocean.”
Millie asked, “So, when do they come back to spawn and how do they find their way?”
“There are many kinds of salmon Millie. Some stay in the oceans three to five years before they find their way back. No one knows for sure how they find their way back to the very stream bed where they were hatched, perhaps they do it by smell.”
Roy and Millie watched in fascination as bears battled for prime fishing spots, but the scuffles were short and the larger bear always won. Sows with cubs tried to find safe places along the shore, away from the big short-tempered males that could kill their cubs with one swat of a huge paw.
“Sows are nervous and account for most of the reported bear attacks. They should be avoided at all costs.” Jamie told them. Little did the hikers know that, later in the afternoon, his warning would have greater meaning.
Jamie continued, “The Alaskan brown bear, the Kodiak Island bear and the Grizzly bear are all varieties of one species. Kodiak Island bears are the largest because of the abundance of salmon on the Island. The more southern Grizzly was smaller because of the lack of salmon rivers.”
When Millie asked, “How big do they grow?” Jamie responded, “A big male grows up to ten feet long and weighs in over a thousand pounds. It’s the biggest and strongest animal in North America except for the polar bear”
Roy and Millie took many pictures of the bears to show their parents. They knew Mom and I would have loved to be there with them at Bear Creek, but they would have some good stories to tell and photos to show us.
After watching the life and death drama at riverside for almost two hours, Jamie led the hikers back along the trail toward the waiting bus.
The trail to the bus meandered between tall, thick bushes, willow trees, and boulders left behind by the retreating glacier. A thousand years ago, the thick glacier covered the very valley on which they hiked. As it melted, by warming weather, it left behind a moraine of crushed rock, pebbles, and sand. Occasional giant boulders sat alone, gouged from the distant Denali mountain range by the glaciers. The ice had carried the boulders down into the glacial plain and then abandoned them. From their vantage in the valley, the hikers could see the remnants of the distant glacier shining white in the sunlight on the flanks of the towering Mount McKinley.
Jamie explained that the glaciers advanced and retreated several times over past thousands of years. The landscape looked the same now as it did when mammoths and giant elk roamed the area and were hunted by ancient humans. Roy imagined that anytime he might hear the trumpet of a mammoth or find its footprint along the trail. He scanned the ground as they walked and identified footprints of many caribou and occasionally the giant prints of bears, but no mammoths.
Roy nudged Millie when he saw bear prints. “ Look here! I have a feeling there’s a big bear watching us.” She looked back at him each time with wide excited eyes and rang her bear bell even louder. Roy was teasing his sister but at the same time, he was as concerned as she that they might accidentally bump into a bear.
Jamie led the group along the trail through the valley until they eventually caught sight of their yellow tour bus in the distance. Everyone picked up their pace; they were eager to get back to the hotel and dinner. Roy and Millie brought up the rear with a teenager named Bill. Suddenly Bill stopped in his tracks and began searching through his backpack and pockets.
“Darn it! He complained, “I must have lost my bear bell back there. I had it a minute ago.” He hesitated for a second and then ran back along the trail past Roy and Millie.
“Bill, don’t go back!” Roy shouted. Millie chimed in. “ It’s too dangerous, you might meet a bear.”
Bill did not stop, he yelled over his shoulder, “I won’t be long. I’ll catch up.”
Roy and Millie looked at each other in alarm. “What should we do Roy?”
Roy was undecided. He looked up ahead along the winding trail, but by now the rest of their group had disappeared around a bend.
“Run up ahead and tell Jamie that Bill went back to find his bell. I’ll wait here.” Millie took off running, with her backpack bouncing on her back.
Roy turned and looked back along the trail for signs of their missing companion. He walked slowly in the direction Bill had taken. Around a bend in the trail between several large boulders and heavy brush, he finally saw Bill standing motionless in the trail. About twenty yards in front of him, two bear cubs were playing, unaware of Bill’s presence.
“Hey Bill” Roy called softly, “Get out of there, their mother may be nearby.”
No sooner that the words had left his lips, he heard a snort. The cubs froze, reared up on their hind legs and looked in Bill’s direction for a moment, and then, crying in alarm, ran back along the trail and out of sight.
Bill turned in Roy’s direction grinning and held up his bear bell. “I found it”, he called to Roy.
However, Roy was not watching Bill; he was searching the brush behind him for the source of the loud snort.
All of a sudden, without a sound, a large golden sow appeared in the trail. She was sniffing the air trying to find out what had threatened her cubs. As soon as she saw Bill, she charged.
Roy knew that bears could run as fast as a horse so he yelled to Bill, who, by now, was strolling back in Roy’s direction. “There’s a bear after you! Fall down and play dead!” Bill turned, and froze in his tracks as the bear lumbered up to him. There was nothing else Roy could do to help, so with a pounding heart, he slowly backed away and hid behind a large bush, hoping the sow had not seen him.
The bear bowled Bill over with a swat of her huge paw. It sent him flying off the trail into the bushes. She stopped momentarily and saw Roy. Roy dropped to ground and rolled up in a ball as he had learned back at the nature center. He heard the bear approach, sniffing as she came.
Roy had to think fast. He had only one option. It had worked years ago when he was confronted by a Holstein bull in a pasture and a black bear when he was at summer camp, so maybe it would work again. As he felt the warm, pungent breath of the sow bear on the back of his neck and the side of face, he began talking softly to the bear trying to keep his voice calm. Most people would think this was a waste of time but Roy hoped his voice might have a calming effect on the bear.
“Hello Mrs. Bear, I’m a friend. I’m sorry we frightened your babies. We mean them no harm.” Roy knew that his words were meaningless, but he kept talking softly. Later, when asked what he said, by his father, he could hardly remember. He did remember the feel of the bear’s big wet nose as it sniffed him and rolled him over like a toy doll. Roy stayed tightly curled in a ball and just kept talking.
Soon, when Roy no longer felt the bear’s nose nudging him and all was quiet, he opened his eyes. He saw nothing and heard nothing, but continued to lie still for several more minutes. Slowly, he raised his head and cautiously looked around. The bear had vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Roy jumped to his feet, and raced up the trail toward the bus as fast as he could.
He soon met the ranger and tour bus driver running toward him.
Breathlessly, he explained what had happened. The ranger unslung the rifle he had carried on his shoulder all day, and ordered Roy to go back to the bus while he and the driver hurried back along the trail in search of Bill.
Roy did not do as he was told; he waited where he was, thinking he could help in some way. Later that evening Maggie scolded him for not obeying the ranger. Roy learned an important lesson that day, one he would never forget, “Do what you are told in an emergency and do it immediately!”
Roy was startled by a gunshot, and then several more. Soon, in the distance, he heard the droning sound of a helicopter. It appeared overhead and someone waved to him and pointed back toward the bus. Roy hurried to the road, and to the waiting tour group, safely watching from inside the bus. I opened the door and pulled my son inside. Everyone wanted to know what had happened and where Bill was. Roy thought it best not to tell the whole story just then. He would tell it later to us and to the rangers. Roy rubbed the place on the back of his neck where the sow had sniffed him. He still could smell her moist breath and wet slobber on his neck and shirt.
Several more park rangers arrived followed by an ambulance, but before the bus passengers could find out what had happened, their bus driver returned and drove them back to the tour center. Everyone was concerned about the missing teenager.
That evening, at dinner Roy told us about what had happened, and how the bear had attacked Bill and then sniffed at him. Roy knew that his mother would very upset and angry with him, and she was. He got a good scolding from her.
After dinner, Jamie and a State Trooper interviewed Roy. Roy told them the whole story, with Millie’s help of course. Jamie and the trooper shook their heads with wonder as Roy told his story. They said he had done the right thing by curling up into a ball. However, they were skeptical that Roy’s talking had anything to do with the bear not hurting him. I disagreed but did not voice my opinion. I had a hunch that Roy’s narrow escape was more than luck; it was another example of my son’s mysterious ability to communicate with animals.
Jamie told us that after sniffing Roy, the bear must have been satisfied that Roy was no threat and left the scene with her cubs. The rifle shots were just to give her a scare and remind her to stay away from humans. Bill was fortunate. His only injury was two broken ribs and big bruises on his arm and chest. He was airlifted to a hospital and soon was reunited with his worried parents. He was a lucky kid having survived a bear attack.
At breakfast the next day, I searched the newspaper for news of the bear encounter but found nothing. We left Denali Park that afternoon and continued our Alaskan tour. Roy and Millie had other exciting adventures before we left Alaska but none as exciting as meeting an Alaskan brown bear nose to nose. As soon as we got home to the Bronx, NYC, I added Roy’s adventure to my growing journal.