Yonder stood grizzly. As in, thirty yards from me. Which meant about a three second sprint for the very big, very healthy-looking grizzer. I was alone deep into the Yukon’s Kluane National Park and probably five miles from the nearest human being. I gazed westward across the Alsek River at the Saint Elias mountains and thought: “Beats a hospital room.”
The Summer of 1992 I took a 3-month sabbatical. One goal was an extended period of solitude and, being a lover of the outdoors, wilderness was the place to do it. If you want wilderness, hike into the Kluane. This national park in the southwest corner of the Yukon Territory is 8,500 square miles, 83% covered with mountains and glaciers, the rest comprised of forest and tundra. There is not a single road into the park. The only way to experience the interior is walking or helicopter. It also contains the highest density of grizzly bears on the planet.
Along with solitude I wanted to observe grizzlies, but more like three hundred yards away, not thirty. I had studied grizzly bears like crazy, reading everything on which I could get my hands. Grizzly Years by Doug Peacock and Grizzly Country by Andy Russell are fabulous resources. My goal was to become knowledgeable enough to not end up conversing with a bear three first downs away. Didn’t work out that way. But I’m convinced that preparation saved my life.
One can do everything right – which I was – and still end up in a face-off, which I did. I was sitting on a log resting when the bear wandered into sight some fifty yards distant. I froze and did my best to look like a tree stump. Apparently I didn’t look much like a stump to the bear, who was stationary when I became aware of his presence, because he began casually padding toward me to see if perhaps this unusual animal might be tasty. I knew I had only two options and running (suicide) wasn’t one of them. Either I could curl up in a fetal ball and hope that all the bear would do is toy with me until boredom set in . . . or stand up and talk to the bear like any normal lunatic. I still wonder what Peacock or Russell would have done, but I stood up and began a soliloquy of which Winston Churchill would have been proud. The only words I remember are, “Hi bear.”
Pepper spray in hand, I expected the bear to charge. Instead, he pulled the emergency brake when the weird-looking critter he was investigating stood up. A characteristic of grizzlies is their unpredictability. Indeed, there are generalities, but various individuals seem to gain pleasure deviating. I didn’t care if this particular bear was a general or a deviant as long as I didn’t get mauled. Long story short, we stood face-to-muzzle for what seemed like an hour, and then the golden griz turned sideways and jauntily sauntered out of sight into riverside foliage some hundred yards away.
Was I foolish heading alone into grizzly-infested wilderness? I’d say yes if the bear had done me in. But it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I will be eternally grateful for it. Both the griz and I have the story to tell our grandkids. The only thing that would make mine better would be a half-inch scar on, say, my left forearm.