Nearing the end of our Hulahula River trip in June, we made one last camp on the coastal plain before we reached the coast. We pulled ashore on a dry tundra bench not three feet above the river which, only six miles from the Arctic Ocean, still rippled with a powerful, silt-laden current.
As usual, we established our kitchen closest to the boats to minimize gear-schlepping and to be close to water for cooking and cleaning. We guides tented closest to the kitchen should a need arise to protect our food. Otherwise, our camp spread southward along the river’s edge toward the towering peaks of the Brooks Range rising 20 miles away.
It was mid-day – about 7 PM – and rather brisk despite blue skies and a blazing sun. Having paddled across the exposed and lovely coastal plain, our guests were ready for a little nap. So as they pitched their tents, our guests disappeared into them, windburned, tired and satisfied – as were we guides.
While making dinner, guide Mike Bassett and I remarked at how the cold air reacted with the sun’s energy to create exceptionally active ‘heat shimmer’ at ground level. It was one of those moments when you say, wow – this place is COOL! But in an ordinary way that happens every day, not in a we-should-wake-the-guests kind of way.
The sauce was simmering, the fettucine was boiling, the bread was on, and Mike was pitching his tent nearby so I scanned our shimmering horizons with binoculars. I spied many birds in the middle distance winging above the tundra. In the far distance I spied dozens of honey-colored bodies, elongated and distorted by the atmoshperics – caribou. And then one to the North that didn’t look like a caribou. Grizzly?
I set up the spotting scope. Mike and I conferred. We thought, ‘probably;’ and we thought it was on our side of the river, two miles distant. Time would tell.
Dinner was very nearly ready and we definitely had a grizzly bear to the North, heading our way. This was our 13th Grizzly bear and our 9th dinner. Despite our good fortune in seeing a good many of these bruins, there was no hum-drumming about this bear – or any other bear (or any of our meals, I might add!) So on two counts, we had something for which to stir our guests.
As everyone gathered in the kitchen in the chill, bright arctic air to watch the grizzly approach, it stopped to dig a ground squirrel colony roughly a mile away.
The bear dug and dug. And we watched and watched, and waited to eat. The bear apparently hadn’t, though, so I ‘gave the blessing’, as it were, to our dinner, figuring the odds were slim that this grizz would come exactly our way, downwind, on this flat plain. But that’s just what this bear did as Mike sauced my noodles and then his own.
Everyone was eating fast. Mike laughed that devouring food would do nothing to make us less attractive; a guest observed that the bear was unaware of us; then I described a plan.
Though an aerial diagram would tell the story better, imagine the Hulahula River with a little settlement of tents strung along its bank. We – the kitchen full of diners – were at the northern extremity of this settlement closest to the bear. What we needed to do was keep the grizzly from happening into our settlement. Everything was in our favor to do this – most importantly, we eight people were numerically sufficient to make a terrible impression on this bear, I explained, and the way to ward him off well in advance of our little settlement’s perimeter was to walk out to meet him. Everyone thought this sounded rather thrilling and worth leaving the uneaten portion of dinner on the table.
I walked in front with a can of pepper spray, Mike behind me with a 12-gauge shot gun (which was totally unnecessary but comforting), and stretched out to Mike’s left and right are three guests on each side, several paces between them. In this way, I continued as we walked out from camp toward the grizz 250 yards north, screening camp for the desired effect of gently ending the bear’s unknowing advance into our camp.
We baby-stepped no more than 100 feet from camp before the bear, moving considerably more swiftly, powerfully and gracefully, was close enough we could hear him snuffing about for roots. We stood with binoculars and cameras pressed against our heads.
He filled my binoculars, even though he was a small fellow. Right close to the river bank, he found a Vetch – a favorite food – that he dug with one paw whose claws he now turned in upon his wrist, forming a sort of grate with which to sift soil from the succulent tuber.
That root swallowed, he swerved back on his unwitting course for our camp – or was it unwitting? And JUST then he froze. He stood with his arms stretched down stiffly, claws outstretched. He still looked small, but he was really too close for binoculars. His heavy coat was wet, spikey, and his body jiggled with fat as he walk-jogged at us on his hind legs. He was a young bear, doing well this spring, not ordinarily an easy one to intimidate.
As we’d walked out to meet the bear, I also asked – instructed – everyone to do as I do. And I stood stock still, savoring this good look at a gorgeous animal, waiting for him to learn what we were – and run like the wind?
The grizz dropped on all fours in a high state of agitated alert and walked swiftly toward us, jiggling, but perceptively keeping a defensive distance of maybe 150 feet. He stood again, lifting his wet, shiny nose as high as he could, straining the air for detail. And then you could see it – some wild recognition that he had no idea what we were. Or maybe he did; either way, it was over, and he was running away from us as fast as his legs would carry him. Only now did I ask everyone to scream and yell and wave arms for the bear’s benefit as he stole the occasional backward glance. Soon he was a dot on the horizon, and shortly he was gone.
Good night, grizz. That fright was for your own good.
David van den Berg.