In early August of last year, when the summer skies in Alaska keep the twilight at bay, my friend John and I sped up and down the highways in a little rental car, exploring the sloping Chugach foothills, the Kenai Peninsula, the tundra moorlands north of Denali, and everything in between. We drove north to Healy and south to Kesugi Ridge, whittled a path from Willow through Hatcher Pass, up Archangel Road, back out into the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, through Palmer, then down past Anchorage and Girdwood to Whittier, and even further to Seward, Sterling and Soldatna. We feasted on smoked salmon bellies, unexpected landscapes and the generosity of fellow travelers. We drank with the locals and exchanged stories and goodwill. We got pulled over because I was speeding. We didn’t see a bear. Questions popped like bubbles in my mind: “Why didn’t we keep paddling all the way to Kenai?” and “Is that really all there is to Hope?” and “Why did we come to Whittier?” There simply wasn’t enough time to scratch the surface of what I saw around me. John and I had been outdoor partners for a good long time in Oklahoma, running and hiking and cycling together. I knew how reluctantly he would take that seat on his return flight.
On our last day together, we ended up at Middle Way Cafe in the heart of Anchorage, where gearheads and vegans and dirtbags and ordinary folk stop in for coffee and some damn fine vittles. After we ordered, John disappeared and I went looking for a spot to sit down. The place was so crowded there weren’t any free tables, so I approached an older man at a table for four. “Good morning.” He looked up from sourdough pancakes with fruit and cream. “Hello.”
“Do you mind if my friend and I join you at the table?” I asked.
He smiled and gestured across to the chairs. “Sure, have a seat.”
“Thank you,” I sat across from him near the wall and pulled out the seat next to me so John could sit down when he reappeared.
“My name is Sasha. What’s yours?”
“Dave.” He returned to his breakfast and I glanced with no little expectation towards the kitchen.
In a few minutes, John found me and sat down. We began discussing the week which had just passed, and as it became clear to Dave that we were tourists, he asked us about our trip and where we had gone during our travels. I rattled off the cities and towns and he nodded. “But we haven’t seen a bear, and we’ve been carrying bear spray this entire time.” After I said it, I realized I sounded like I was pouting.
“Well, it’s always a good idea to keep that stuff on you. Did you hear about the recent attack near Bird Creek, when a woman was bitten multiple times by a bear?”
John’s eyes widened. “No.”
I thought back immediately to his anxiety at our campsite near the Reed Lakes Trail, when being surrounded by blueberry bushes and a rippling stream no longer seemed as appealing to him as a night in the car.
“Yes,” I said, thinking back to the news story I had read online.
Dave fished around in his pocked and pulled out his phone. “So there was this woman here who was attacked not long back near Bird Creek. This is her two weeks after the bear chewed her up.” He held his phone out to us. On the screen, a woman’s face looked back at me, wearing glasses. “It was in the news, but she said the news was wrong, it didn’t come back three times, it came back four times, and it had her whole head in its mouth and her neck and bit her hand. It was a brown bear. And that photograph is from two weeks after it happened and she looks good as new. I said to her, “You look great!” And so she pulls her glasses down and it had crushed this bone around her eye in its mouth, you know?”
John winced. “How did she get away? Did some other people come up on it?”
“No, uh…it wasn’t trying to kill her. She’s a mountain runner, and –” Dave started to explain, but I broke in. “She had her earphones in, that’s what I heard. So she didn’t hear anything.”
“Yeah, and I’m not in favor of those earphones when you’re out there, you know?” Dave put the phone back in his pocket. “It might not have made any difference, but I think she should have been wearing bells or something that makes noise, because if they hear you coming, you’re not even going to see them. They’ll see you, but they’ll pull back. But she surprised them, and she came upon the cubs first, but the cubs were almost as big as the mama bear, and the cub came towards her, and then the mama comes up and just grabs her, and bites her head. It’s like, ‘Don’t mess with my cubs!”
As I often go out trail running while listening to music, I found this slightly horrifying. “How did she get away?” I asked.
“I asked her, ‘Were you playing dead?'” Dave shrugged. “She says, ‘I was screaming my ass off.’ And so the bear had her head in its mouth and bit her all the way through her hand, but it didn’t hurt any ligaments somehow. I mean, she has a scar like this and on this side.” He gestured to his face on both sides.
“She’s very fortunate,” murmured John. He was sitting perfectly still.
Dave snorted. “She’s very lucky. She had scars on her neck that were totally healed. This is two weeks later and they were just like white patches of skin where a bear’s tooth had gone through there.”
Curious about the connection between the two, I asked him, “How were you in communication with her?”
“Well, she’s a friend of mine.” Dave took a big bite of pancake, chewed and swallowed. “You know, I ski with her in the wintertime. But it happened right next to her house. She runs there every day. For many years. But she just had bad luck and came across the cubs, mom comes out, and so as long as the cubs were around, the mom would say, “Hey, you stay right there! It wasn’t like, trying to kill her. It could have killed her just like that. But she was just like, “You stay there.”
“It was controlling her,” I said, imagining what it would feel like to be given the what-for in the leaves and dirt and twigs by Mama Bear, thinking something like: This isn’t the way I expected to go and remembering the sign I had seen at Exit Glacier which clearly stated: If a brown bear attacks: play dead unless it starts to eat you. Then fight back. Fight back? What am I going to do, use Wing Chun? Bong sao to the chin?
“And then the cubs were still there.” Dave shook his head. “You stay there,” you know. Four times it bites her head.”
“In other words, she probably should have just played dead,” I ventured.
“Well, yeah, but…”
“Hard to play dead. When she’s bitin’ on ya.” John chuckled.
Nodding, Dave continued. “Oh yeah. So the cubs wander off, so then the mom wanders off, too. And then my friend gets up and gets her cell phone and calls 911, but she said blood was just covering her phone. And she’d go to wipe it off, and it would turn her phone off, and then she had to try it back on. And then pretty soon, some guys on four-wheelers with a little tour company came along and found her. Meanwhile, the troopers were already on their way in a helicopter. She was flying to the hospital in less than an hour, which is just incredible.”
Memories of various small brown signs were flashing through my brain, like the windows of a slot machine. Suddenly they stopped and time slowed down a little. “That’s Bird Creek.” I said out loud. “That’s right outside of Anchorage.” I looked at John. “We’ve passed by that campground.”
Dave nodded. “Oh yeah. It’s like 25 miles, maybe.
I turned towards John. “That was the one we didn’t stop at.”
“Right,” John said softly.
“People were fishing like crazy in the creek that day,” Dave took another bite, hesitated, and then set his fork and knife to the side. He looked at John and then at me. “You want some pancakes? I can’t eat all this.”