Every fisherman or hunter has a few bear stories to tell around the campfire meant to raise the hairs on the back of your neck before bedtime. Some stories are humorous, some scary. The bear is usually the winner. One story told of a large old grizzly who snatched an unsuspecting salmon out of the water with one swipe of a large paw spiked with five inch claws. Not feeling especially hungry, he tossed the fish into the air, caught it and tossed it again and again until there was not much left of the poor salmon, and then calmly walked away leaving the shattered fish for the birds. It is well known that bears also like berries, and spend a great deal of time nibbling wild blueberries and other tasty berries. Blueberry bushes are small the further north you go in Alaska, and an impatient bear frequently simply rips the entire bush out of the ground to hurry the process.
Once at Lake Shasta in California, we watched some people on a houseboat toss some meat to a waiting bear on the shore. As they were floating away, the bear, seeing his food source depart, plunged into the lake and began to swim after the boat, which was by that time filled with frightened and screaming tourists. Since he could not catch the boat, the bear finally went back up onto the shore and began tearing all the bushes up in his frustration.
We had been following the Kobuk river for most of the morning, alone in a vast Alaska wilderness of scraggly spruce and quaking aspen, beside water the clearest and purest I had ever seen. As the riffles rushed over rocks half submerged, the water caught the sunlight and deflected it back into our eyes
In the deep green pools sockeye salmon, red in their spawning coloration, sluggishly dragged their tired bodies over the gravel at the bottom. Above them, small grayling flickered nervously in and out. Other than the beauty of our surroundings, our fishing excursion had yielded nothing save a few grayling which we returned to the water.
Though I heard no sound, and saw nothing out of the ordinary, I had a disturbing feeling that we were no longer alone. The forest was silent; there was no longer the sound of birds chattering in the trees. In the slight breeze the late summer aspen leaves had turned yellow and were beginning to drop into the river. It gave the impression of expectancy; as if the forest was on alert, waiting for something to happen. We felt a sudden chill in the air and decided to retrace our steps back to our base camp.
When inquiring about the weather in Alaska, a native might shrug his shoulders and say “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” The trail alongside the river was damp from a recent shower, and in the wet weeds and dirt, we began to see the tracks of an unwelcome follower, obviously hoping we could supply him or her with a salmon dinner. Though we walked a mile or two there was no sign of our companion, and before long the tracks disappeared into the woods.
“This was his country, clearly enough. To be there was to be incorporated, in however small a measure, into its substance–his country, and if you wanted to visit it you had better knock.
His association with other animals is a mixture of enterprising action, almost magnanimous acceptance, and just plain willingness to ignore. There is great strength and pride combined with a strong mixture of inquisitive curiosity in the make-up of grizzley character. This curiosity is what makes trouble when men penetrate into country where they are not known to the bear. The grizzley can be brave and sometimes downright brash. He can be secretive and very retiring. He can be extremely cunning and also powerfully aggressive. Whatever he does, his actions match his surroundings and the circumstance of the moment. No wonder that meeting him on his mountain is a momentous event, imprinted on one’s mind for life.”
“excerpt” from “Coming Into the Country” by John McPhee
2 thoughts on “ALASKA, THE WILD COUNTRY”
That silence you spoke of can be unnerving. I’ve heard it in the hill country, although there it generally signals the arrival of a hawk. And there is “that feeling” that comes when someone else suddenly is near, though unseen. Again, in the hill country, it’s usually a white tail deer but it’s still something to pay attention to.
Isn’t McPhee wonderful? His writing is just the best. I have an interview “Paris Review” did with him years ago tucked into my files. Every now and then I pull it out and read it again. I believe it might be time to do that!
I’ve never seen a bear — not every a black or brown bear. There have been confirmed black bear sightings in east Texas, in the forest. I’d love to see a mama and cubs — though at a safe distance, thank you very much.
I think those “feelings” we get especially in the wild, are part of our ancestral DNA. I have had a tap on my shoulder when I’ve been alone. Eery. Teaches us not to be too comfortable.
I do love John McPhee. I wasn’t familiar with him until I read Mary Norris’s book “Between You and Me”, and she spoke of his poems. I have to explore more of his work.
We used to climb around in the wilderness—fishing or just walking, and you often see signs warning of bears in the area, or mountain lions. You learn to hang your food high in a tree and not keep food in the tent, etc. We have seen bears in Sitka, and in the mountains above Taos, and early in the morning in early spring at Yosemite, but always at a comfortable distance. They will follow a trail alongside a fishing stream too which apparently was this fellow in my post. It’s a question of being careful. They tell you to make a lot of noise as you’re walking. Like most wild things,. they don’t really want to confront you.