My Close Encounter With A Grizzly Bear In Alaska
Anyone can be stupid at home, but a true moron takes their stupidity on the road.
In 2011 I went on a 34 day road trip with my mates Mike and Ray that started in Anchorage, Alaska and ended in Seattle, Washington. Originally we considered jumping on a cruise ship that would take us all the way down the coast. But the idea of seeing a mob of grey-haired Boomers destroy an all-you-can-eat buffet three times a day was not appealing. So we decided to hire an RV which was expensive, but granted us the ultimate freedom to create our own unique desire line through The Last Frontier and beyond.
It was the middle of the North American summer when we landed in Anchorage. We picked up our RV which we christened “Ho Chi” (we’d recently visited Vietnam and had become enamored with Ho Chi Minh City). Then we headed to a picturesque lake where we camped for the night.
Mike and Ray are huge animal lovers, and a big reason why they chose Alaska as a destination was to try and see grizzly bears in the wild. Werner Herzog’s unintentional comedy/documentary Grizzly Man was definitely a catalyst for the trip. Before getting eaten arsehole first, Grizzly Man protagonist Timothy “I’m not gay I’m just eccentric” Treadwell seemed like he was having a gas wandering around Sarah Palin’s backyard, looking for new friends in all the wrong places. Untamed beasts aren’t really my thing, but I couldn’t think of a place more exotic than Alaska, and I was ecstatic when they invited me to tag along as a third wheel.
Day 2 of our road trip was about one thing; bear hunting. Mike consulted a tourist brochure and found a place called Bear Trail - aptly named as it was apparently teaming with grizzlies. On the way there we came across a black bear. He was hanging out by the side of the road, eating grass. I stared at the bear from the safety of our vehicle. It seemed to know we had stopped to look at him, but didn’t give a shit. Mike and Ray ticked “black bear in the wild” off of their wildlife bucket lists and we went on our way.
There were no other cars or people at the head of Bear Trail. I grabbed my video camera, hit record, locked up Ho Chi, and the three of us started walking.
Literally around the first corner we came across a gigantic pile of droppings slap bang in the middle of the trail. The mound was miles bigger than a horse dump, and it was clear that the mess had been created by something very large. To make matters worse the scat was still very soft. The culprit was likely still close.
I pointed the camera at Mike.
“What do you wanna do? Is this safe?” I asked him.
Mike looked at Ray.
“What do you think? You wanna keep going?” he asked her.
I faced the camera at Ray.
“I think we’ll be okay,” she said. “Let’s just make a lot of noise.”
My instinct was telling me to turn the fuck around.
“Yeah,” I said. “If we make a big enough racket we’ll be fine.”
I would later find out that we were all privately packing it at this moment. But each of us managed to successfully quell all rational internal thoughts, and peer pressure ourselves into continuing with the quest.
We continued down the trail, banging sticks and hollering like deranged evangelists. It was a well worn path with a gradual descent. I found some comfort in belting out Seven Nation Army like I was football hooligan from the ‘80s, but still shat bricks every time we had to go around a new corner.
After 20 minutes we reached the end of the trail, which turned out to be the bank of a wide river. I moved the camera slowly from left to right, looking for something out of the ordinary.
“Holy shit! There’s an eagle,” Ray said.
She ran further up the bank and we followed her. I tried to find the eagle in the sky.
“Bear!” Mike yelled.
“Oh my god! Where?” Ray said.
“Just below the eagle. In the water.”
It took me a few seconds to find it. A grizzly bear was sitting in the water, about 100 metres away from where we stood. I zoomed in with my camera and looked at the screen. The bear was munching on a salmon and watching the world go by. He looked quite at ease - like a hungover office worker on his lunch break, sitting on a park bench, tucking into a kebab.
Now, I’m no Timothy Treadwell, and I have no idea if the bear we saw that day was big, small or in between. But it was unnerving to see something like that in the wild. I looked at his giant head on my screen. We were in the presence of a killing machine.
Goosebumps prickled on the back of my neck. “If that thing’s in the water, the other bear that laid the droppings is probably somewhere in the bush behind you,” said a sinister yet realistic voice in my head.
I felt truly exposed. Slowly, I inched around, fully expecting a family of grizzlies to be right behind us. But no. We were alone.
After a few more minutes watching old mate eat his lunch we called it quits and went back up the trail. The walk back was perhaps more stressful than the walk down. At that point we knew for a fact there were grizzlies in the area. But after another raucous jamboree, we made it back to Ho Chi, successfully avoiding a group mauling.
It was an exhilarating experience. We blabbered about every little detail as all the nervous tension got released. Mike started up Ho Chi and we got back on the road.
About ten minutes from the trail we came across a yard sale. I was looking for some new shirts so we stopped and checked it out.
A forty something lady with a brutal can-I-talk-to-the-manager haircut greeted us. It was obvious that she wasn’t all there upstairs, and she was just a little too happy to see us. She hit us with all the standard questions.
“What did you kids get up to today?” she asked me.
“We went looking for grizzlies on Bear Trail,” I said while I rifled through her family’s old clothes.
“And did you see any?”
“We did actually. It was crazy. There was a grizzly in the water eating a fish.”
She looked me up and down.
“Are any of you carrying a piece?”
“What about bear mace?”
I shook my head.
The tables had turned. When I first laid eyes on this woman I was a little worried for her sanity. But now she was looking me up and down with pity, like I was destined to be the next Darwin Award winner.
“Those things are dangerous,” she said seriously. “I wouldn’t recommend you do that again.”
Our close encounter with the grizzly made me realize that there’s a big difference between known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Between the two there’s a fun grey zone, and here you may encounter conflict, enlightenment, amusement and fatal grizzly attacks. So next time you’re on the road don’t forget to stay stupid, my friends.