On the cusp of the 20th century, some 100,000 prospectors flooded into the Yukon to strike it rich. There was gold up in the hills and people's eyes glittered with thoughts of prosperous lives. A few thousand did find gold. Most didn't. Some died trying to find it. Some lived and headed back south, empty-handed. Some stayed, made themselves a home and acquired land. On one such property, a decade or so later—1916 to be precise—someone planted a peony root.
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.
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.
Famed mountaineer Bradford Washburn and his team leaned against the body of Bob Reeve's bush plane, pushing the old Fairchild around so it would face the abrupt drop-off of a cliff. When Wash- burn looked into the cockpit, he saw no sign of emotion on the face of pilot Bob Reeve—even though Reeve was about to taxi his plane right off the cliff.
“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.
The vast cold seas near Kodiak Island cover a massive highway of death, where uncharted pinnacles and hidden rocks have claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people during the past 250 years. While that might sound like overly dramatic prose, Capt. Warren Good, 64, who conducted more than 30 years of meticulous research on Alaska shipwrecks, warns that jagged rocks will continue to cause more fatalities in Kodiak's fishing industry and throughout waters off Alaska's shores. Good can document 4,748 deaths out of 3,624 Alaska wrecks. However, he believes that hundreds or thousands of other ships simply disappeared and went unreported from 1750 to 2010.