The summer of 1979 was my first archeology field season, and I went to a site in Alaska, a few miles from the Arctic Ocean and the Canadian border. Six of us made up the field crew, but three had left for a week’s break, leaving me in camp with two other colleagues. We were out working one day, and I was separated from them by about a mile. They were on one ridgetop, and I was traipsing another ridgeline, looking for the possibility of some archeological sites.
I saw three blond things in the distance romping around and thought, “Those are grizzly bears!” So I dropped down the far side of the ridge from my buddies and gradually moved toward them, keeping the wind off to one side of me, making sure there was a crosswind so they couldn’t smell me. They have terrible eyesight, but a terrific sense of smell.
They also have good hearing.
I had forgotten this.
I didn’t have a telephoto camera, so I had to move in close enough to get good photos. When I got within range, about 150 yards, I stood up and took a picture. They stood up and looked in my general direction. I froze, because I knew their eyesight was poor, and I hoped they wouldn’t see me. It went on like this for a few more minutes. Each time I’d take a picture, they’d hear the snap of the camera. They’d stop and stand up, and eventually they’d go back to romping around in a shallow creekbed.
Finally they started to get curious and lumbered toward me. I knelt, thinking “Uh-oh. I’m in deep trouble now.” So I stood and started walking briskly up toward the top of the ridge to get to the high ground above them. En route, I packed away my camera and took out the small pencil-sized flare I used for signaling; we all carried these in case of an emergency. The bears started coming closer and closer, and there was no way I could stand still at this point.
It was a mother with two large cubs that were almost the size of the mother. They might all have been mothers as far as I was concerned! They got closer. I kept walking uphill until I finally remembered some advice I had heard a few weeks earlier: if you ever come across a bear, let it know you’re human. You can do this by singing or banging on something, for example. By this time, they’d closed the distance to about 50 yards.
I’m not a great singer, and I had nothing to bang on, so I did something I remembered from my time in the Marine Corps: make an awful sound, which should intimidate any human. I did a series of about a dozen of these guttural barks. When I did this, they all stood up, listening very attentively. When I finished, they got down on all fours and charged.
They came headlong at me. At this point, I raised my little pencil flare, aimed it just upwind of them, and fired. I saw a little red star, with a white wisp of smoke following it, approach them upwind and just pass around them, and they saw it. They must’ve heard the noise from the flare about the same time they saw the star pass by. I figure the combination of that red flash and the bang and the smoke shook them up. The mother stopped dead in her tracks, and then the two kids stopped, slamming into her—bump-bump. And then all I saw was a bunch of huge bear-feet scrambling, trying to get away from me as fast as they could.
As soon as I saw that, I knew I had a chance to get away, so I dashed up toward the top of the ridge and lay down on top of it, a moment later, to see what was happening. There they were, running the opposite direction along a tiny creek, and I saw them dashing away . . . one bear. . . then two bears. . . but where was the third bear? “Oh great,” I thought, “she’s sent the kids off, and now she is coming back to hunt and kill me and have me for lunch.”
So for the next half-hour, as I made my way back to my friends, I kept looking about, occasionally spinning around, thinking I was going to be bear-bait at any instant. Apparently, I’d simply missed seeing the third bear; I did survive and am still here today.
It was a very stupid thing to do, and I would never do it again, but I didn’t know better at the time. The photo didn’t even turn out very well. There’s a tiny, tiny blond speck in the photo, and that’s all you can see. I’ve been back to Alaska many times since that day, but I am much smarter now and don’t play with bears anymore. And I still keep that flare-pen with me.
I also carry a .44-magnum rifle.
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