The Power of a Burning Book

A grizzly on the tundra. Courtesy NPS-Kat Belcher

One woman’s stand-off with a persistent grizzly

By Nancy Pfeiffer


I am drifting off to sleep in my tent in the Ray Mountains, a little-known mountain range north of Fairbanks and south of the Brooks Range. My 12-year-old Australian sheepdog, Blumli, sleeps at my feet. The arctic sun, still above the horizon, casts a soft evening glow on the surrounding peaks. The wilderness is pleasant and peaceful. After a long day’s walk, I drift into sweet slumber, knowing the next 10 days will feed my soul in a way that only wild country can.

I don’t know what awakens me, a slight motion from Blumli, or that internal messenger that says, “Wake up, there is a bear 15 feet from your head.”

I am not excessively worried. I’ve seen hundreds of bears, and never had anything you would call a bear encounter. Bears, except possibly polar bears, don’t habitually hunt humans. Our troubles with them nearly always arise because they are surprised, scared, threatened, or protecting their young. Still, animals are individuals. Just like people, some of them can be dangerous.

When entering a roomful of strangers, humans easily determine who is boss, who is likely to cause trouble, or who might become a friend. In the same manner, I quickly try to assess the intentions of the new visitor in my camp. He has a dish-shaped face and thick beige fur. With sharp teeth and claws, bears are always armed. The evening sun highlights the golden hue of his guard hairs. Several hundred pounds, but not yet fully mature, he appears to be a two or three-year-old grizzly. I know at a gut level without understanding why, that he is male. Is he hungry, curious, frightened?

I stick my upper body out of my tent. To identify myself as a human, I speak and wave my arms. With the brazen attitude of young males everywhere, he refuses to budge. He circles around to the front of my tent for a peek inside. Maybe he’s just curious, but he is definitely in my space. I reach for my bear spray. It is there, right beside my bed, where some people would keep their shotgun in country like this.

I have never considered it strange to wander around Alaska with a can of pressurized capsaicin pepper spray as my only weapon. I have never had to use it before, but I’ve been assured it works. Documented studies state, “Bear spray is 92% effective in deterring aggressive bears.” Prior to this moment, that sounded like pretty good odds. I pull the safety, aim it for his face, and lean on the lever.

A wimpy wisp of foul-smelling orange spray arcs to the ground eight feet in front of me. Pepper spray is advertised to shoot a powerful plume 25 feet in calm conditions. I had tested one once and got exactly that. How old is my can of spray? I can’t remember. I hold the trigger down hoping for a more powerful blast until the can is empty—a bad mistake.

The bear backs up slightly, and gets none of it. I, however, manage to get the nasty, stinging stuff all over me and my tent. Unconcerned, the bear wanders off to feed.

When I camped on this tiny gravel patch just outside of the willows at the stream’s edge, I knew it wasn’t an ideal site. It was too brushy and close to the stream, but I had been tired and my trusty companion exhausted. There hadn’t been any bear sign.

There is good grazing for the bear upstream as well. Maybe he won’t be back. I try to relax.

I am considering what I should do next, when he starts wandering back toward me. He has probably just been kicked out of mom’s care this summer. He’s just clueless about the world, I tell myself. He’s not malicious. He’s curious. It’s a comforting thought. Unfortunately, I also suspect he is curious about what he can eat in the world.

 He comes nosing around my camp again. Whatever his deal is, I don’t want him here. I throw a splash of white gas, from one of my two fuel bottles, onto the ground and light it. Poof! A loud explosive sound, spectacular leaping flames. Perfect. I am impressed. My pyrotechnics scare him off—but not far enough.

He starts minding his own business, but I know, he will be back. I am out of here! In my mind’s eye I see myself packing camp, letting him have this spot, hiking into the next valley, and getting some sleep. I am traveling light and packing takes only a few minutes. Blumli sits quietly in the back of the tent. Unlike some dogs in this situation she makes no attempt to either fight or flee. When I am ready to go, she plods along at my heels.

 I am proud of her. The two of us have been together since her puppyhood. For the last 12 years, she has worked and lived alongside me. As a trained avalanche dog, she can identify and alert to the human scent of a buried avalanche victim wafting up through the snow. Leaving her on stay at the top of a snow-covered ridge while I ski down, I regularly trust her with my life. She, in turn, trusts me to make the kind of decisions we need to make tonight. If I say heel, she heels, no matter what.

We back out, slowly but decisively, just like the published information on what to do if you see a bear recommends. “Don’t turn. Don’t run. Just back away.” The bear keeps grazing. Everything is going fine.

We are just about to disappear over the tundra and boulder-covered rise when I see him running—in the wrong direction. Cresting the ridge seconds behind us, he comes to an abrupt halt, hackles up, one front paw lifted, breathing hard. His hot breath hangs in half formed clouds in the cool evening air, the peaks of the Ray Mountains silhouetted behind him. Even through my fear I can see; he’s beautiful.

He is untroubled by my waving and yelling. It’s stand-off time.

Poof! Huge flames leap into the air as I toss more of my precious fuel onto the ground and light it. He seems only mildly impressed with my uncanny ability to produce fire. Is it possible this guy has never seen a human? This is extremely wild country and he is only a few years old. Apparently, he has never been shot at.

Hoping my fire trick did it, I walk away again. Lichen-covered boulders make the going slow and slippery.

I look behind me.

He’s following me. When I walk, he walks. When I stop, he stops. I look back and he hunkers down behind a rock like he thinks I don’t see him. When I turn my eyes away, he moves up to the next rock. He’s not following me. He’s stalking me.

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