Monday, June 23, 2014

A Bear-y Exciting Encounter, June 16th 2014

We wake up early to bright sunshine and people visiting Clutch's museum. After projects and more stories we leave for Coldfoot. At Coldfoot we get our food package and order a salad for some nutrition. Then we're off biking on the Dalton again, heading towards Fairbanks. On the way we meet a friendly guy going to Deadhorse who is from Slovenia! The road is pretty hilly and our legs are hurting, so we stop early.

What follows is the bear episode as written by Danny:

We were camped earlier tonight at the convergence of two roads, the one coming from the main road about a quarter mile away, and the rough service road that parallels the ever-present Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  Other than the open area in which we placed our tent, thick brush surrounded us.  At one point before bed, while Tam was writing the day's summary in her journal, she turned to me and said, "Ssh!  Listen."  I was reading, so I wasn't making too much of a ruckus as it was, but I cocked my head and listened.  I heard the hum of the mosquitoes and nothing else.
the hum of the mosquitoes is sometimes a roar
"Hmm," she said, "I thought I heard something."  We continued doing what we had been doing.  Tam finished writing and was about to read it to me when I asked her to hold on a second.  I thought I had heard something, something small.  Probably wasn't anything.  We both lay still for a moment, and this time we heard definite sounds from outside.  Some breathing, some panting, something outside the tent.  Something big.  Tam turned to me, her voice quavering, "What do we do?"  I thought back to my previous run-ins with bears and to our conversations.  We had discussed this exact situation a few weeks before.  "Well," I said, trying not to display how scared I felt, "we should talk.  Loud enough that it, bear or moose or caribou or whatever, knows that we are here, but not so loud that we scare it."  So we talked.  We dictated our every thought and every action for what seemed like ten minutes.  Most importantly, we discussed our next step.  "Should we go out there?  Maybe it's just a curious moose."  We listened again.  Nothing except the mosquitoes and the pounding of our hearts.  We decided to go out together and investigate.  We pulled on our shoes and slowly unzipped the vestibule.  I was expecting to see whatever it was right there, but we looked around and saw nothing.  We debated packing up and moving; if only we knew what this animal had been!

We decided to pack up and move anyway, and as we were doing that, I looked south, down the pipeline.  "Uhh, Tam?"  "Yeah?"  "There's a grizzly bear over there."  "What?"  She hadn't heard me clearly.  "There's a bear over there."  We looked together at a bear, unmistakably grizzly, standing in the open by the pipeline about 100 yards away.  It was a smaller bear as grizzlies go, maybe 350 pounds, with a beautiful light brown coat darkening to black on its rump.  It started to walk towards us.  My heart was racing.  Even a small grizzly bear is not something you want to mess with.  We talked quickly about what to do.  This, again, was a situation we had discussed previously.   It's extremely rare that bears attack humans unless surprised or provoked, but we looked around anyway for things to defend ourselves with if need be. We didn't have bear spray or a gun, as common sense is always more effective (and they hadn't had any at the Deadhorse General Store), but I had carried a strong stick for the past five days; what I would give to have that now!  There were some large branches under the pipeline, maybe twenty feet away, but that was too far.  I picked up the woefully minuscule twig at my feet.  "Hey!" I yelled at the bear, waving my arms.  "Look, I have a stick!"  Tam started waving her arms and yelling at it.  "Yeah, Danny's got a stick!  We're humans!  We're big!  Go away!"  The bear was unfazed.  It started walking faster towards us, then broke into a trot.  Against all impulse to run (NEVER run from a bear), we stepped towards it, yelling louder and gesticulating more frantically.  "No!  Bad bear!"  Tam put on her bike helmet and I followed suit, feeling like Paris about to battle Hector.  Still, we knew that bears often charge falsely just to see what kind of animal they're dealing with.  Sometimes they're just curious.  I certainly would be curious, had I lived my whole life in the woods and just stumbled upon two bipedal organisms clad in bright red and yellow.  Anyway, this one stopped its approach about 50 feet away behind a shrub, and stood on its hind legs to get a better look at us.  We continued yelling like idiots, laughing nervously while waving our useless weapons and shouting whatever we could think of.  "We're large!"  "And in charge!"  "I have bug spray, bear!"  "You definitely don't want that in your eyes!"  After a long pause, it turned around and walked away, pausing to look back every few steps.  Phew, I thought.  "Let's get out of here," said Tam.  We continued packing our things, definitely more hastily than before, while continuing to yell, and I glimpsed the bear in the brush, closer than it had been before.  It had circled around to our side.  Before I had been anxious, but now I was downright scared.  What may have been curiosity now seemed to be bordering on predatory stalking.  We must have set a record for fastest camp breakdown, and then we walked our half-packed bikes to the road, yelling and glancing over our shoulders.  We didn't see it again; who knows whether it ran off or followed us.  After riding a few miles up the road, we pitched our tent next to some other cyclists on the banks of a large river.

Unfortunately, in the rush of trying to get a large bear to go away, I didn't get any pictures.  It looked something like this:

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