Graham Stanford is 18 years old. Standing just a few inches over five feet tall, he carries a short-barreled .40-caliber rifle as he walks through the waist-high brush in front of me. He stops, holding up his right hand—a signal for the four of us behind him to hold back. I can see over his head: a small field of brown grass divides the nearby lake's edge from a thick stand of alders and a wall of snow- dusted mountains rising up behind them. From our guide's slightly lower vantage, I'm fairly certain he can't see more than a few feet beyond the barrel of his gun. I clutch my camera, as if it might help."There," he says, pointing off to our right. Squinting into the rising sun, I see two small brown forms and one big one, slowly lumbering along the bank about 50 yards away. My heart skips a beat.
“Don’t run,” I tell myself as two young grizzlies leap out of the forest and scamper down the beach toward us. Then I say it out loud to my wife: “Don’t run!” Even though our guide, Ed Shanley from Above & Beyond Alaska, had us check every pocket to make sure we weren’t carrying any food that might attract bears, the grizzlies seem to be running trough the drizzly afternoon straight at us. Perhaps this is a traditional welcome on Admiralty Island, part of Tongass National Forest near Juneau. We do as we should; we freeze. The Admiralty Island National Monument ranger accompanying us—Carl Koch, a former paramedic from New Jersey—says the two bears are 3 1⁄2 years old, and that this is their first summer on their own. Never run, Koch says again, as he had in our initial briefing: “Even if they are not going to hurt you, they would love to chase you. It’s instinct.” Koch carries a .338 rifle, but assures us he’s never had to use it.
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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.
Justin Savidis greets me (and a handful of other summer mushers) at the Ididaride Sled Dog Tours property in Seward. With his long, light red hair and freckles, he looks more like Opie Taylor than who he is: a rugged, four-time Iditarod competitor working as a guide at the Seavey's kennel. As this issue of the magazine hits newsstands, Justin will be competing against around 80 other mushers, including Mitch and Dallas Seavey (the 2013 and 2014 Iditarod Champions, respectively). But for now, he gives us a tour of the kennel where rows of dogs yip and pull at their chains, attached to their individual houses. The dogs have already run today, and yet the minute the wheeled sled comes into view, the pups leap and cry out like kids in a classroom who want the teacher to call on them.