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Field Notebook

December 30, 2012
Black Bear on the Yukon

(Painting: Amber Alexander]
(Painting: Amber Alexander]
Have you ever thought about being eaten alive? The notion may seldom go through your head, but it must have a time or two. In the part of your mind that is still animal, still wild, you remember fight or flight; the fear of paws finally pinning you down, and the hinge of jaws upon you.

I was considering such a scenario as I watched a black bear swimming toward a small, treeless island in the middle of the Yukon River where a friend and I had just pulled up a canoe and unloaded gear. The bear was angling across a swift summer current. I'd guessed it about 300-pounds, and it had walked up and down the riverbank opposite us before plunging in and swimming our direction. We must have looked like a mobile feast in the full-sun of a fine subacrtic evening. We had 30 days of supplies left, mostly cheese, sausages, dried fruit, honey, jam, flour. What else could a bear want? As we watched it plot its way across a hundred yards of current, I reasoned that it might be after our camp and not us. I also reasoned that northern black bears tend to be more directly predacious on humans than their larger grizzly and brown bear counterparts, so it had meal options. None of these were logical thoughts as we both stared in a silence becoming more uncomfortable by the second.

Of course, the bear could just have been trying to cross the river and our 10-foot-wide, 50-foot-long gravel island was no more than a convenient stepping stone. That's thing about animals, they are more complex than we often imagine.

Frankly, it was hard to tell what the bear was up to when all we could see were a black and scarred snout, ears like a pair of mits sticking out of the water, and drenched forefeet curved with claws striving straight toward us.

Being eaten is something we know about. It is in our genetic memory, the only explanation for voracious modern predator hunting, the ways in which we mow down entire wolf packs from helicopters or tree mountain lions with dogs to put a bullet through their chest. It is as if we are trying to finally rid ourselves of these last menaces, threats to our ways of life, as if trying to shake free of the horrors of the Ice Age when there was so much tooth and nail, peril to life and limb no matter how long the spear or strong the tribe.

On our island, we had four basic choices:

1. Start shouting and waving and pelting the poor bear with rocks, or cookwear if necessary. If it had been a grizzly I would never have considered this, but black bears are more easily turned and bluffed. They are also known to be more unpredictable. More than grizzlies and brown bears, black bears tend to eat the people they take down, rather than leaving them mauled and fetal but still alive.

2. Jump in our canoe and leave. Come back for the carnage later. That is if we could actually battle our way upstream to reach the remains of our camp in a river running high and wild not long after the early-summer ice-breakup.

3. Huddle at the far end of this naked island like two terrified children.

4. Do nothing at all.

All four had their merits, the last one seeming the best option for now.

As the bear came closer and we could hear the size of its lungs fighting the current, it began to appear the animal had misjudged its angle. It was losing ground. At the same moment we realized this, the bear realized it, too, picking up the pace, forcing out barrel-chested breaths with every stroke. It began getting a foothold again and I figured it would drag itself onto our island in about seven seconds. A decision would need to be made, and we hadn't even started talking about it yet.

Todd and I were two years out of college. We'd quit our jobs for this adventure together. Early 20s and sporting our first grizzled beards, we were out for 50 days to run the Yukon and some of its tributaries between Whitehorse in Yukon Territory and the big oil pipeline in Arctic Alaska. We were both from Colorado, knew a little about bears, and neither of us were armed, against the advice of every Alaskan we met. Neither of us were prepared to starting shooting at every bear that came close, and there turned out to be many on our journey. This black bear was day ten.

When it realized it had missed us, the bear stopped paddling so hard. The current was too strong. The bear had undershot. It sailed past the tail of our island in muddy, swirling water as its stride became more of a casual trot. By the time it reached the other side, it was half a mile downstream. The bear shook off and without even a glance over the shoulder at us, it ambled into a spindly thicket of black spruce.

Another day on the Yukon.

It was 1992 and you didnt see many travelers but the occasional lone Japanese lunatic or a couple Germans in a raft looking like they were bearing down the Congo. Todd and I were American white-bread, button-down flannels and big loaves of hardly-perishable Velveeta tucked into our gear. I sported a woven, sunbleached Guatemala hat with a brim the size of a snow-shovel, and Todd was in a baseball cap...

(A print of this bear painting can be purchased here for $20)

(More animal art from Amber Alexander)

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