There are thresholds we cross that leave us profoundly, irrevocably changed. They do not have to appear momentous, like an ocean, a border, a mountain range but can seem rather commonplace—a traffic sign, envelope, door of a home. We may not even be aware of facing one as we approach. I’m not saying this was one of the big ones. But I can’t say either yet that it wasn’t.
The moment I step up onto the tundra bench I realize my mistake. I forgot to shout “Hey bear!” like I normally do when beaching the raft, to avoid nasty surprises.
Right now, this slip of attention could get me killed.
Not twenty yards away, a grizzly stands up in the grass, fixing me in the crossfire of its stare. Next to it, two fur balls, jolly as piglets: cubs. It’s a worst-case scenario come to life.
What a mess. I have two clients on a beach upstream, one wet and fiercely shivering—luckily, he was able to swim ashore after flipping in this no-brainer rapid. I have his paddle, which I fished from the current after chasing it in the “mother ship,” the big baggage raft. I don’t have his $1,200 packraft (think six-foot-long synthetic donut, but rubber and elliptic, with a membrane-thin floor); that lies wedged into the rock garden on the Hulahula River’s far side. Nor do I have the pump-action shotgun, which I left strapped on top of the load in my haste to hike back to my packrafters and unravel this snarl.
Overall, I don’t like bringing guns. We’re in the bears’ home and it is impolite to shoot the host. But the company I work for requires its guides to carry firearms, and clients are more relaxed when we do. Personally, I prefer the least amount of force necessary to deter nosey or grumpy or pesky bruins, deploying a long-tested, effective escalation of choices. First, whistles, to make our presence known in brushy country (like the bright orange one tied to my life vest, the one I should have blown upon landing). Then pots and pans to bang together and thereby claim our turf with sound. And, most formidably, “pepper spray”: a potent chemical aerosol pressurized in a can. It’s the last-ditch of self-defense, also used by women and policemen in urban face-offs.
I am a staunch believer in bear spray. No serious harm has come to anyone who has used it properly in a bear attack. People with rifles or revolvers, on the other hand, have been maimed or killed, because a wounded bear is more dangerous than one that’s only pissed off. We therefore weigh each of the slender black spray cans before the season starts to see if they’re full. I keep mine in a side pocket of my pants, for quick access. However, as we caution everyone before each trip, your best survival tool is your brain.
Right now mine seems to be stuck after firing that mental blank when I stepped onto the beach. But reptilian reflexes take over. My arms go up. I mumble appeasement, apology. My legs move backwards, taking me down the bench to the rocky foreshore. I hope the bear won’t follow.
She does. Like a hellhound charging after a fallen soul, she rumbles in my direction, a boulder trundling downhill. She’s on all fours, bulked-up, center of gravity close to the ground in combat mode. Her ears are pinned back against her skull—a sign of her mood and to protect them from being bitten. As if I would.
In a motion that would do a gunslinger proud, I reach into my pocket, whip out the bear spray, thumb off the safety, and aim. Perhaps she is huffing, growling, chopping her jaws—I couldn’t say. My focus has shrunk to needlepoint vision.
I already am wearing her mark, a paw-print tattooed on my thigh. Down in Tucson, twenty-some years ago, cooped up in a ranch job, I tried to invoke wildness with this ink stencil-totem. I’ve had a bearish streak since childhood, bearish moods and manners combined with a blockhead that only worsens as I age. If you’ve seen bachelor bears out and about after six months of denning, you know what I mean. My hair is gray now; I could pass for a silvertip. But my beard, though bushy, is only a shadow of grizzly hirsuteness, and my sense of the land pales next to theirs. I regret not speaking their language, not knowing what they dream about in the winter. I rate my trips by how many bears we encounter. Still, smitten with them for decades, I don’t want to be smitten by one.
But what I want or don’t want does not matter right now. Chaos is calling the shots.
I am counting on her bluffing, that she will abort the charge at the last instant to test my resolve and send a blunt message: Leave my cubs alone. They say that most bear charges are mock charges, and I’ve weathered my share. If you run, bears will hunt you down. Standing your ground, though, is easier said than done. Every fiber in your body twitches to flee or curl up like a fetus. Experts “recommend” the prenatal position when a bear is upon you, to protect your vital organs, and no image better conveys your vulnerability under such circumstances than that naked, blind, unborn worm.
This really is happening, I realize, as she crosses the invisible line that would normally stop or deflect her. It is time to loose a red pepper cloud. I press the can’s trigger and, with a dragon’s hiss, a burning jet hits the bear squarely in the face. She veers off less than ten feet from me.
Shit. The can is empty. I pushed down the trigger too long instead of giving one short, fell blast. Now I’m left without reserve. But it seemed too brief. Did they actually weigh this can before sending it out on the trip?
Sure enough, the bear, as if sensing my dilemma, turns the dodge into a fluid loop. She wheels about on her hindquarters, resuming the attack. I’m getting a bad case of déjà vu from this second round.
It takes longer to tell this than it did to play out, but as it’s happening I sense time’s elasticity, the trippy, simultaneous squashing and stretching of seconds that rides on adrenaline and speed-warps reality. I stand strangely removed, an impartial witness to my own demise.
Some people experience flashbacks; their whole history unspools before their mind’s eye like a time-lapse film. External motion congeals, except for your own movements, and you have all the time in the world to react. Maybe you won’t. You certainly don’t have all the time in the world. The quickening is also a slowing-down. The ultimate quickening can be complete standstill: the cessation of you.
I am not a religious person; yet in situations like these, pledges are made, bargains struck, conversions affected. Souls alchemize in the crucible of fear. When we witness death, in nature or elsewhere, we confront it indirectly, because it is not our own. With your own life at stake, stoic poise evaporates in a flash.
To this day, I don’t know exactly what happened next. I don’t know if the soles of my hip waders slipped on algae-slick cobbles or if some archaic memory, some biological godhead, commanded me to lie down.
The bear has left, or so I’d like to believe, still lying on the ground. I feel no pain. In fact, I have not even been touched, I think. I don’t know how close she came. Perhaps my eyes were shut. Carefully, without moving much, I scan the surroundings. Some people have been savaged, a few repeatedly, after standing too soon with a mad grizzly still hanging around.
I sit up, expecting deformity, blood, spilling guts. Soldiers and accident casualties can suffer short-term amnesia, and sometimes the opioid rush in their system masks even the pain of amputation.
But there’s no blood. Nothing. I’m untouched. And the bear has skedaddled, cubs in her wake. I still cannot believe my luck.
With the threat to her young neutralized, she chose not to risk injury from this thing on the ground that had wielded some kind of stinger. In this hardscrabble place, health and survival are too precious to wager on a bet already won. I take a few minutes to collect myself on the bow of the raft. My knees are like Jell-O—I can’t even stand. Questions flit through my mind, like the proverbial sparrow, flying from darkness into the hall’s light to exit again, too soon, into the night. Would my life jacket have absorbed some of this bear’s anger? Would it have prolonged my life? Would my packrafters have been okay without me? I didn’t even show them how to use the satellite phone to call for help; I never thought I might be the one who’d be helpless out here. Oh shit! The clients. What if she rampaged upstream, tearing into them as they waited for me by the river’s edge?
With the shotgun unsheathed, I lope through widely spaced willows, my heart thumping, whether still or again, I couldn’t say.
I find them exactly where I last saw them and assess their physical state, as I just did my own. They look fine, a bit bored and shivery and then wide-eyed when they see me running toward them with a drawn weapon. The one who flipped his packraft would later tell me he’d worried I’d shoot him because he had messed up his run.
“Where did she go?” I bark, still in overdrive.
“Who? Who?! The bear that almost killed me!” They never saw her. She must have circled wide, crossing the river farther upstream. When I search the bench by my raft after filling them in on the details, I find, as I thought I would, paw prints and fresh dung trailing upstream. Back at base, my boss put the empty bear spray can up on our warehouse “wall of shame,” with my name and the date penned next to it, where it now hangs together with melted forks, broken paddles, bent tent poles, and a dirt-plugged shotgun barrel that had exploded when the guide pulled the trigger. But I felt no shame in my surviving and was not yet ready to chuckle at it.
I’ve been thinking about “fate” much since that day. Is it mere chance? What were the odds that my carelessness would coincide with the presence of a foraging mother bear? Of all the riverbanks in the refuge, why this one? Does your number come up in some perverse lottery by cumulative probability, by too many days spent exposed to the wilds? Being at the wrong place at the wrong time is part of bad luck. Mistakes in volatile situations then can be the timber that breaks your back, your avoidable contribution to disaster. If fate flows from character, as my line of work and enthusiasms do, then my run-in on the Hulahula was inevitable.
I can’t fully attribute this bear’s restraint to her sense of self-preservation, to wanting to avoid injury, or to her concern for her cubs. I prefer to believe, no doubt naively, that on some level I mattered to her, that she spared me out of compassion. I admire, perhaps even love her for not using more force to remove a perceived threat, especially given the harshness of her existence. Yes, “love,” the big scary, overused, underused, clichéd word. But I have no other label for what washed through me then as it does now. Empathy mixed with gratitude approximates the emotion. Call it Stockholm syndrome or anthropocentric projection if you must. Unarguably, she left intact my violable self, at least its physical aspect. I would have been an easy kill, but she kindly passed when she could have battered, a force majeure in a pelt.
In this context, I cannot stop thinking about stuff that daily percolates through the news, about police brutality, our war on countries, on terror, on drugs, about imprisonment, rioting, eco-sabotage or other forms of civil disobedience, or even about our day-to-day “non-political” dealings with each other. When words or threats fail, pepper spray could do the job of bullets. Embargos could replace bombs. Like myself, the victims will be grateful, the cost to society less.
Perhaps we can learn from wild animals, or in some other way, to apply the least force necessary, responses appropriate to each transgression, each conflict. And perhaps the practice of killing “trouble bears,” those that keep raiding garbage cans or have sampled human flesh, is not sound management but rather Old Testament retribution. Killing the “perp” doesn’t bring back the dead or ease the survivors’ pain. But they say preying bears acquire a taste for it and sometimes seek more.
To pack or not to pack in the backcountry—I struggle with that also. I have used a shotgun and was glad to have it. On the next trip I guided, we unknowingly camped near a protein bonanza on the Noatak River. We found out that salmon were spawning in a tributary about a mile upstream only after a Park Service plane landed on our gravel bar and the ranger opened with, “Did you guys bring a gun?”
Nerves frayed during the next two days. Bears showed up above and below camp exactly at mealtimes, as if in sync with our appetites, dragging ripe fish from the shallows. Some came so close we could hear them crunch spines and heads. Pots and pans did not impress that lot. Warning shots I fired when they drifted into our perimeter barely fazed them, but the clients looked pale. One monstrous, humped male materialized from the brush beside the latrine. Even after he’d sauntered off, I escorted a client whom nature was calling there, shotgun at the ready. I hardly slept for two nights and ran low on ammunition before the bush plane picked us up. I’ve never been happier to see the Noatak’s aquamarine bends shrink behind a cockpit window.
I think of her sometimes, or rather, quite often, the one that spared me on the Hulahula: out there, under the midnight sun, drifting through crimson fall-heather, hiding in coastal fog, weary, horny, grouchy, content, pot-bellied or bony, digging her den, grubbing for roots, defying boars, or birthing more twins—hoping that she has not met an untimely end. I think of “her” not of “that bear” as if I really knew her. I’m not alone in this. Others who’ve been less lucky but survived feel the same way. I am bound to her not by friendship or blood or compassion, but by black blazing terror. Our bond can only be severed by death, hers or mine.
Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear (University of Washington Press), a cultural history of the polar bear, and of the essay collection American Wild (Hiraeth Press), which charts his love for Alaska and the American Southwest and from which this essay has been excerpted. Click here to visit Michael Engelhard’s website.