Pete and I sea kayaked Alaska’s Inside Passage during the summer and spring of 2004. There were many memorable events related to this trip, one of which was an unexpected bear encounter. I wrote an essay about this and it was subsequently published in Alaska Women Speak.
An Unexpected Bear Encounter
I was excited by my partner Pete Praetorius’s suggestion that we do a two-month, Alaska-based sea kayaking trip. I’d recently learned to roll, a prerequisite for doing a lengthy paddle. And because I’d done several preparatory jaunts, I was in good shape. Southeast Alaska beckoned. A year previously, we’d purchased a set of Inside Passage nautical charts from a marine shop in Bellingham, Washington. We were also college teachers with an entire summer of fun stretching before us.
Our travel plans continued to take shape. We planned to board the Alaska State Ferry in Bellingham, WA and disembark in Juneau, AK. We’d then paddle from Juneau to Glacier Bay National Park. After spending three weeks in Glacier Bay, we’d head south, stopping in Hoonah, Tenakee Hot Springs, Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell, and Ketchikan. We’d reboard the southern-bound ferry in Ketchikan.
This was our kind of trip. In the summer months, the inland waters are relatively calm, and campsites and fresh water are readily available. I voiced my only concern, reminding Pete that Admiralty Island (where we’d spend some of our traveling time) has more bears per square mile than any other area in Alaska. Pete agreed that while this was a concern, we could deal. We began taking precautionary measures by first buying a copy of Dave Smith’s Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters. As Smith suggests, we purchased pepper spray (this would act as a deterrent should we have a run-in with an aggressive bear), a rope and a pulley (so as to secure our food in trees at night), and two bear containers (we’d use these for additional storage when trees were unavailable). We also dehydrated and vacuum packed most of our food (this would reduce bulk and cut down on bear-attracting odors.)
I presumed that because grizzly bears tend to be reclusive, that we probably wouldn’t see any. I presumed wrong. Our first sighting came shortly after we arrived in Glacier Bay. As we were heading up the lesser-traveled Muir Inlet, Pete caught a glimpse of a sow and her cub. The pair, who was lumbering along the deserted beach, was 200 yards away. The sighting unnerved me because it meant a possible change in plans. I wanted out of my boat. I was ravenous. I was also becoming increasingly concerned about the prospect of paddling in conditions that were beyond my abilities. Choppy surf is created when the wind blows in a direction opposite the tide. This loomed as a distinct possibility. However, I wasn’t up for sharing my lunch with Mother and Junior.
I put my thumb and index finger to my lips and whistled loudly. Pete stopped. We rafted up by putting our paddles crosswise across both boat decks. My partner’s thoughts were similar to mine. We subsequently acted on a mutual plan, which was to drink water, consume energy bars, continue paddling, and seek out a safer lunch spot. We also agreed to stick close, just in case conditions grew worse. This way, if either of us flipped over, the other would be on hand to do a rescue. Although our rolls were pretty much bomb-proof, we didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
A half-an-hour later, we pulled up onto what at first appeared to be a bear-free beach. We discovered that it was not. Fresh tracks and scat indicated that numerous grizzlies had preceded us. We ate quickly, repacked our food bags, and resumed paddling. From this afternoon on, bear sign became the norm. In fact, one evening, while walking along the Tenakee Hot Springs shoreline, I found a plastic bottle with teethmarks in it. Somewhere I’d read that bears, who are rather curious creatures, like to munch on plastic. Here was proof.
As we traveled, we continued to read and discuss passages in Smith’s book. This furthered our knowledge of bear evolution, behavior, and biology. Our interest piqued, we stopped at the Anan Creek Bear Viewing Area, just south of Wrangell Island. Each year hundreds of tourists come here to watch resident grizzly and black bear feed on spawning salmon. Along with a dozen other kindred spirits, we watched from a safe distance, as bears of all ages and sizes devoured the salmon that had made their way upstream to spawn.
I later remarked to Pete that I was glad that there was an observation deck and a lower viewing area. Both, I declared, made me feel safe. This feeling of security was short-lived. The next day, while camping at nearby Frosty Bay, we had an unexpected bear encounter. On the day that I’m speaking of, we’d quit paddling early because Pete was wanting a nap. Because we had to reach Ketchikan by our intended date of departure, August 10, we’d upped our daily mileage from 15 to 20 miles per day. I didn’t want to stop; however, I’d conceded that an afternoon’s rest would give us the energy needed to cover the increased distance.
We paddled into a small, horseshoe-shaped inlet and pulled up to an ideal campsite, a flat area that was surrounded by shrubbery. Pete hopped out of his boat. I sat in mine, waiting. After he’d noted that the terrain was free of bear scat and tracks, we unloaded our boats. It was time for our third lunch of the day. We dove into the dry bag marked LUNCH. I smeared peanut butter on a Pilot Bread cracker and ate it. Pete, who had binoculars in hand, spoke in a hushed, but urgent tone.
“Bear,” he said, “over there.”
I looked to where he was gesturing.
“It’s coming in our direction. Quick, let’s put the food away.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, “I don’t see anything.”
Pete leapt to his feet.
“Yes. I’m sure.”
I again looked to where Pete was pointing. This time, I saw it. A cinnamon-colored brown bear was ambling down the rock-strewn beach. I was immediately overcome by a mixed feeling of dismay and dread. This familiar feeling had accompanied three recent close calls. I’d first experienced it when I’d lost control of my boat in a glacial outflow. I’d next experienced it when we’d nearly gotten run over by a cruise ship. And I’d additionally experienced it when, after making an early-evening crossing, we discovered that there was no suitable place to camp. At the time, I could not believe that these things were happening to me. I also wanted them to be over and done with. This appeared to be another one of those times. I hoped the bear would turn around and go the other way, so that I could finish eating my cracker in peace. This, it appeared, was not to be. The bear was drawing closer.
“Let’s get in our boats and get out of here,” I said.
“We can’t do that,” Pete replied.
“Because we’ve pitched our tent and we have all our food here. The bear might eat it. We don’t have the time to repack our boats. We’re going to have to hold our ground.”
I knew what Pete was thinking. And I knew that he was right. If we abandoned our stash, the bear would tear into it. We were a three day’s paddle from civilization. There was another, potentially bigger problem. If the bear ate human food, he might endanger other campers. The moniker used to describe such carnivores is “problem bear.”
“Here’s your pepper spray,” Pete said.
I stood to the left, and slightly behind Pete. I didn’t bolt in the direction of trees because there were none. I became a smidgeon more courageous in recalling, nearly word-for-word, what Smith wrote, that “grizzlies aren’t malicious beasts that lurk in the woods, waiting to waylay backpackers. A grizzly may defend itself if it sees you a threat, but it will rarely bother you.”
No, we hadn’t startled this bear. It had seen us at the distance and was now coming to check us out. It had originally wanted to get past us. Our food and gear could alter its plans. We needed to prevent this. The best way was by standing firm.
The bear advanced in our direction. Pete observed that he would have gone around us, down the beach but the tide was up. My partner didn’t budge. I hopped from leg-to-leg and repressed the urge to sing my self-composed bear warning song, the first, and only lines of which go something like this, “I’ve got bears, bears, bears, deep in my heart, deep in my heart, deep in my heart, deep in my heart today.”
At about 15 feet from our camp, the bear came to a large log that ran perpendicular to the beach and across the trail, then stopped.
He was frothing at the mouth and shaking his head. I wiped my sweaty palms on my pant leg.
The bear slowly stepped up onto the log, then back down.
Pete, in a soft, but firm voice, told the bear to go away. The grizzly stepped back off the log, and began grazing.
“I gotta take a picture,” Pete said.
I stood, dry mouthed, as my partner of 17-years strode over to his kayak, pulled off the day hatch cover, reached in, and extracted our camera.
“You’re nuts,” I croaked, as Pete took the first of a series of photos.
“No I’m not,” Pete said. “He’s not going to cause us any harm. We have a log between us.”
After what seemed like forever, the bear, as if reading Pete’s mind, made a wide berth around us, then disappeared into the brush. I glanced at my watch. About twenty minutes had gone by. I breathed a sigh of relief. Pete suggested we hang our food bags and stash our containers in the woods, which we did. Pete next proposed that we take a nap. I passed on this because I feared that the bear might return and rip into our tent. If there was going to be a confrontation, I wanted it to be out in the open. If worse came to worse, I’d make a run for it. If I was swaddled in nylon, this would be an impossibility.
As Pete slept, I considered the ultimate what if. What if the bear had been aggressive? The pepper spray might have caused him to do an about-face. But there are no guarantees about such things. If the pepper spray had failed, and the bear had attacked, one or both of us might have been mauled. We were carrying a VHF radio; however, help would not immediately be forthcoming. Our first aid kit was meager, as was out first aid training. If necessary, I could fashion a tourniquet or two. And, in the process of sewing up innumerable dry suit gaskets, I’d gotten fairly handy in my use of needles and dental floss. More extensive surgery, well that was the domain of a crack team of emergency room surgeons. I pictured myself in shock, as I wrapped Pete’s bloody corpse in our green nylon rain tarp.
“Enough,” I muttered.
We’d lived to tell the tale. There was no second confrontation. The bear left us alone. When, twenty minutes later, Pete arose, I passed on this bit of good news.
Pete’s nonchalant expression said it all. He wasn’t surprised. He’d had this one all figured out. “The bear wanted to get past us, and he did. If he’d been feeling aggressive, he would have stepped over the log. Grizzly bears seldom stalk people,” he added.
I didn’t argue with Pete’s logic because, once again, he’d been proven to be correct. And for this reason, I felt relieved. I sensed that if there was to be another encounter that we’d both feel better about holding our respective ground. Standing firm had worked once, so the odds were in our favor that it would work again.
We continued on our way the next morning. We saw no more bears on this particular journey.
Inevitably, when we told friends and loved ones
about our encounter, one of the first questions that was asked was, “would
you do it again, knowing that grizzlies ARE visible and ARE in abundance
in Southeast Alaska, ESPECIALLY on Admiralty Island?” Since, my
answer has remained the same. “Yes,” I replied. “I’d
be a fool not to.”