- Published on Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Steelhead rod in hand, sweating in my waders, I broke out of the trees and into the open. Ahead lay a broad tidal meadow, and through it meandered the stream I’d driven 40-some miles of logging roads to fish. On that late May afternoon, the rye grass stood knee high and the assorted brush that ruled the higher ground—cow parsnip, salmonberry and alder—was just greening up. Besides making for good hiking, the low growth meant I was far less likely to startle Grandfather, as Tlingit elders call him. I was on Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska, so we weren’t talking about some berry-picking geezer. The 80-mile-long tract lays claim to the highest density of brown bears on the planet: just a hair under two per square mile. I’d lived on Chichagof for four years, long enough to know the question wasn’t if there were bears, but how close. In fact, my route to the beach was one of a network of trails beaten into the soil by generations of big, clawed feet. Like punctuation marks to that point, regular mounds of dung lay on the trail.
And sure enough, as I crested the berm of a fossil beach, I spotted familiar shapes 300 yards away: a female and a pair of teenage cubs, heads down, grazing on tender new shoots. No worries. I’d just make a slight detour, and we’d all go about our business. I dropped down into a swale that offered good going in the right direction and didn’t give bears another thought—until I heard the huffing. I clambered up and peered over the berm to find mom and the kids much closer than I’d expected and going totally bonkers. They rose on their hind legs, dropped down and bounded in widening circles, then paused to rise again, heads swiveling. I was close enough to hear the sharp clack-clack of the sow’s jaws. At first I thought she was riled by another bear that had wandered too close to her kids. Then I realized what had pushed her button: my scent, swirling on the uncertain breeze. And there I was, out on a flat with that rare bear that reacts to distant, polite human contact by opening a charge account.
The old adages echoed in my head: Never run from a bear. Stand your ground. I’d preached and followed that advice over the years and still had all my body parts as proof that it worked. In my vest I toted pepper-based bear spray and a flare gun as backup. So I did the only sensible thing—slipped back into the swale and out of sight, cinched down my straps and ran like Forrest Gump. Any rule has exceptions, after all. The bears hadn’t pinpointed me yet, and I was out of sight. I figured the female was being egged on by her nervous cubs. The threat should evaporate if I could put enough distance between us. Besides, I held a firm belief in my ability to haul some serious ass with three tweaked-off bears filling the rear-view mirror.
I sprinted down the gully and slithered up and out behind a clump of brush that would help screen me (contrary to folktales, brown bears can see just fine). Scrambling on hands and knees, I slid down the crest, rose to my feet and put on a final 200-yard burst into the trees. Panting from the branches of a spruce, I watched the three bears out in the meadow—a no-fishing sign as clearly written as any I had ever seen. I hoofed back to my truck, drove up the road to an overlook and spotted them, a half-mile away, heads down and grazing once more. Just to check, I shouted, pounded on the hood and waved—and damned if they didn’t start going nuts again.
While brown bears—a.k.a. grizzlies, ursus arctos, ursus horribilis—have been branded with a fearsome reputation dating back to Lewis and Clark, it is almost never deserved. My little shakedown that day stands out among three decades of personal encounters from the Arctic to the Southeast Panhandle, a clear exception to the rule that I and countless others have proved over and over: most grizzlies don’t want the least lick of trouble from humans. Some, especially if neutrally habituated, will ignore us; most wild bears will go out of their way, sometimes to a ridiculous extent, to avoid humans (note that food-conditioned bears are another story and that predatory attacks, while rare, do occur). I once watched slack-jawed as a female with new cubs bowled over her babies and temporarily abandoned them in her haste to escape my supposed threat more than a mile away. Dominant males, theoretically at the top of the food chain, are often the most shy. They got old and big for a reason: They shucked and jived around the real apex predators—humans.
Even when I’ve accidentally jumped bears at point-blank range, in one case over a fresh kill, they’ve headed for the horizon. Keep in mind that almost all grizzly attacks are provoked not by bloodthirsty instinct but raw fear. An attacking grizzly has almost always been startled at close range and desperately fending off an imagined attack—what experts call a defensive-aggressive response. Females with cubs and bears guarding a kill are especially prone. It’s a genetic trigger honed from the days of the Pleistocene steppes, when grizzlies needed to protect their young and their food. Most grizzlies today will still flee from a threat, and your average bear, dangerous in one rare circumstance, will avoid trouble with humans the rest of its life.
Have I been a bit lucky? Absolutely. Do I know people who have been mauled, even killed? Yeah, an unfortunate handful, but way fewer than have been maimed in bush plane crashes. Maulings represent statistical blips magnified by sensationalized news articles, reality shows and bear-chew books repeated until we face a conga line of slavering monsters. Running into a killer griz is just slightly less rare than encountering Freddy Krueger. As Kodiak bear biologist Larry Van Daele once told me, it all boils down to a simple equation: wrong bear, wrong day. Follow the standard rules about making noise, traveling in groups of three or more, keeping aware and giving respect and, chances are, you’ll never meet that once-in-a-thousand exception. But remember—even Grandfather has that bad day every now and then.
—Readers can contact Nick Jans at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, The Glacier Wolf, is available at nickjans.com.