The Landlord

I was less than a mile from the house when I saw the bear—a reddish, teenage grizzly—sauntering down the road. At first, he didn’t even react to the rumble and crunch of tires on gravel. But once the dogs saw him and exploded into an indignant, noses-to-windshield frenzy, he evaporated into the brush. Of course there were bears around our new homestead up the Klehini River, 20 or so miles north of Haines. Wolves and moose too, along with all the wild creatures that come with the country. That was one of the reasons we’d bought the place. Not that our 15 years in Juneau had been your average suburban experience. In our time living in the shadow of the glacier, we’d rubbed shoulders with bears, mostly black; mountain goats; wolves, especially a certain black wolf; coyotes, and more.

Even after we moved down the Mendenhall Valley into a more normal neighborhood, black bears came and went: hopping fences, hustling bird feeders and garbage, and scrounging salmon carcasses in a nearby creek. The last bear I saw in my Juneau life was strolling down our cul-de-sac one bright October day as I pulled in with a U-Haul truck, set to lug another load north. A minute earlier, my wife Sherrie had encountered the bear at the foot of our driveway and shooed him away by waving her hands.

We may have been big-eyed but hardly amazed a few days later, up at the new homestead, when early one morning a chunky male grizzly ambled up the outhouse trail—just two minutes after I’d made the same journey—and sniffed around the foot of our stairs. Despite our neighbors’ assertions that bears on our road were few and nothing to worry about, we knew from the enormous piles of scat that the big boys were around. And we’d been served notice by the landlord himself.

Black bears and brown/grizzly bears are different species, with generally differing responses to perceived threats. Spooked black bears tend to flee; a jangled grizzly is much more likely to charge. And, while black bears outnumbered grizzlies at least 5-to-1 in Juneau, here the ratio was reversed. Black bear in the yard? No big deal … usually. Grizzly? Another story. And now we were living that story.

Fast-forward a few months to our first summer at our new place. It was July: bears eating grass, waiting for the salmon to show up. We’d seen a few bruins along the road (including that reddish teen- ager), but we were following the locals’ lead and going about our business, trusting the bears to do the same. One sunny afternoon while I was away, Sherrie harnessed Sal, our leggy, lightning-quick, 27-pound Florida rescue hound, to her bike for the half-mile ride to the mailbox. A hundred yards from our door, Sherrie heard an uproar in the brush and pedaled faster, figuring it was a moose that needed some space. Instead, a female grizzly and yearling cub exploded from the willows on the left, angling straight for her. At that moment Sal, who’d seen just one bear in her entire life, threw herself between bike and grizzlies, causing the leash to get sucked into the rear wheel, bringing Sherrie to an abrupt, highly inconvenient halt. Unfazed, Sal used the leverage to squirm out of her harness and charged. The incoming bears, less than 20 feet away, crashed off into the woods, huffing and woofing, escorted by a great yodeling “houndemonium” as Sherrie frantically untangled the leash and screamed for Sal, to no avail. Five minutes later, as Sherrie was pulling out of the driveway in the Ford to look for Sal, the little dog came trotting back, lips pulled back in a houndish grin, apparently figuring she’d just run off a couple of Alaska-sized squirrels. The landlord had knocked, but the rent would wait for another day.