The Power of a Burning Book

A grizzly on the tundra. Courtesy NPS-Kat Belcher

I think of Blumli quietly marching at my heels. She is 35 pounds, noticeably old and walks with a bit of a limp. Maybe she’s the one he is after.

“Quit messin’ with my cub!” I scream at the bear. It’s a message I hope he can understand.

I am beginning to lose my composure. If I run, I trigger his chase instinct and I’m dead. If this were a sow with cubs, active aggression would increase the sow’s protective instincts and again I would be dead. But with this boy, active aggression on my part is the only thing that seems to be working. Hunters talk about the relationship between hunter and prey. This bear and I are—beyond a doubt—having a discussion. I have my boundaries. Every time he gets within about 20 yards, I stop and stand my ground.

By now, I am truly terrified, literally knees-knocking-together scared. My mouth is dry. I smell of fear. I know what my own fear smells like. Years ago, while rock climbing, I came across a frayed section of the rope that my life was hanging on. The immediate acid scent of fear hit my nostrils. If I can smell my fear, it must be a scent billboard to a grizzly.

Without a lot of options, digging fast for weapons, I pull out a smoke flare, of the type used to signal aircraft. I point it at him and pull the cord. Nothing.

OK, more white gas. Fumbling with nervousness, I accidentally light the whole bottle on fire. Gigantic flames leap into the air. The tundra is burning. I have half a second to feel bad about that, then I realize that my own hair is on fire as well! I throw the remnants of my smoke flare into the fire. Seconds later massive quantities of foul-smelling orange smoke come billowing out. The griz wanders 40 yards back and stares.

Before I put my pack on and try to leave, I grab my last half-empty fuel bottle off my stove, just in case. Something tells me it could be a long, scary night. I take a long cool drink of water to temporarily ease my pasty mouth.

It’s mid-August. We are a bit south of the Arctic Circle, but it is after midnight. It will be getting truly dark soon. I only have one or two blazes left in my bottle. A new kind of fear sets in. Most of the really scary experiences of my life have been one stark moment of terror, followed by the thought, wow, that was close. Apparently, I now have all night to think about the consequences of everything I do.

For some unknown reason, I am sticking to my original route, heading uphill toward the pass, regardless of the fact there is a grizzly bear following my every move. He is coming up on us again. Close. I stop, turn, stare. I look him in the eye and I hate him. If I had a gun, I would shoot him. It wouldn’t even be a hard shot.

The thought shocks me. I am accustomed to traveling in the wilderness, often alone, usually without a gun. When people cautioned me about bears, a younger, more naive, me had once claimed it to be, “all part of the natural process.” When I look squarely at being part of that process, of dying for someone else’s dinner, I realize the other side of the equation. As a prey animal, my options include hiding, fleeing, and fighting. My survival seems unlikely. Yet, I know I will fight. If it’s you or me buddy, I am going to try and make sure it is you.

My bear sits down not 20 feet from me. He looks me straight in the eye as if to say, “I can wait you out, you know.” He sits back on his haunches and scratches himself. His immense claws run from chest to belly in long, hard strokes. His gesture, almost sexual in nature, reminds me of a Native American legend about a woman who married a bear. If this is a proposal, my answer is no!

Courtesy Susan Sommer

Truly freaked, I grab a handful of willow branches, douse them in white gas, and flick…flick…flick…nothing. My child-proof lighter is trying to kill me. Finally, it catches. Something deeply primal clicks inside. In the greying light, I am a crazed cave woman wielding a torch. Yelling, screaming, and waving fire, I run directly towards the bear.

It is a quick blaze, but long enough for him to understand that he is indeed dealing with a crazy woman and one that will fight. He backs off, farther than he has all night.

I gather my belongings. Fuel bottle and lighter in hand, I head off again. My faithful companion at my heels, I collect whatever dry kindling I can find as I go. This time I head downhill. I have a plan: get to lower ground, find a place with plenty of wood, but not in dense brush, make an all-night blaze, sit around it till dawn. What then?

I will worry about that if I make it till morning.

As the light fades completely, I can barely see his hulk traveling behind me, a football field away. As promised, it is turning into a long, terrifying night. It is not easy to find a good size bush without going down into the dense brush by the river.

I finally find my spot: a clump of willow bushes no taller than my waist with plenty of room around them. Like an enraged bear myself, I rip and twist and grunt, breaking branches and ripping whole plants from the ground. I start my blaze. Deadwood is hard to find amongst these slow growing arctic willows. Most of what I am burning is green, but at least it burns slow. This isn’t the tiny minimum impact fire I normally build for cooking the few nights I don’t use my stove. I want a bonfire.

I lay my arsenal beside the fire; the empty aerosol bear spray can, two Bic lighters, and the small amount of white gas I have left, anything I think will explode. I plan to save my last few drops of gasoline to pour on his nose. If necessary, I plan to light my bear on fire. I am ready for the war, knowing full-well that my only real ammunition is a good bluff.

I remember my camera. Why didn’t I get a close-up picture of the bear before it got dark? That way, if they found the camera, my family would at least know what became of me. There are too many people in the world who see a woman going into the wilderness alone as suicide instead of solace.

Somehow unaffected by the whole show, Blumli sleeps soundly by the fire, trusting herself to my care. She is so exhausted her tongue hangs out of her half open mouth. She is getting old and the sneak preview frightens me.

The remainder of the night passes with surprising tranquility. I feed the fire and watch the stars. The first northern lights of a new season come out and dance purple and green across the sky. The grizzly never shows. I am reading “The Worst Journey in The World,” the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic 1913 South Pole Expedition. I am about half finished when I notice it getting lighter. Nights in northern Alaska aren’t dark for long in August.

Just as dawn approaches, I unpack my sleeping bag. It’s chilly out. It won’t hurt to flake my sleeping bag over myself. The fire settles down and the last stars fade into a milky blue sky. Either relaxed or exhausted, my willpower wanes. I nod off. Blessed sleep.

Suddenly, that internal messenger again, “He’s back.” I wake with a start. The bear is sniffing me, eight feet from my face.

Poof! The last of the white gas goes on the fire. Boom! The Bic lighter explodes.

The bear jumps back with a start, and then wanders around to the other side of the bush. He is simply circling around to come at me from the other side.

My ammunition is gone. I rip my book in half. Saving one half, I catch the other half on fire and heave it over the bush. It hits him squarely on the butt. We are equally surprised. He is startled, and seems pissed that I still want to play with fire. He circles the bush again…and then…he leaves.

I watch him until I see his tiny brown butt going over the ridge five miles away. Elation washes over me as I pack my gear. 

Blumli and I hike to the highest, rockiest ridge I can find, where there is nothing to eat, and no reason for a bear to visit. The sun pops brilliantly over the rugged peaks. It’s a gorgeous day to be alive.


Nancy Pfeiffer is the author of Riding Into the Heart of Patagonia, a travel memoir. She lives in a cabin outside Palmer with her husband, photographer Fredrik Norrsell. Visit them at nancypfeiffer.com and norrsell.com.

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