Bill Sherwonit billsherwonit@alaskawriters.com


 
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Living with Wildness Interview

Chugach State Park book, featuring photography by Carl Battreall

49 Writers Blog Posting: Of Essays & Animal Stories

Facebook Page: Animal Stories by Bill Sherwonit

The Nature of Cities blog posting, 2012: Rediscovering Wildness -- and finding the "wild man" -- in Alaska's Urban Center

   
Alaska’s Accessible Wilderness: A Traveler’s Guide to Alaska’s State Parks
Alaska Northwest Books, 1996
 

“For anyone planning a trip (actual or armchair) to Alaska, this book opens the doors to six alluring units of that state’s park system. More than a mere guidebook, it includes color photographs, wilderness tips, historical and natural history information, and is written in a personal, winning style.”
-- ORION magazine

“If you have been to Alaska and explored the most popular attractions such as Denali and Prince William Sound and you still want to go back and see some more, this is the book for you.
“[Sherwonit] combines precise how-to pieces on camping, dealing with bears, fishing and backcountry safety with delightful essays on the history and operations of each park and his own camping experiences. . . . He includes maps, directions, phone numbers -- everything you need to get to these wilderness places.
“I saw a lot on two recent trips to Alaska, but Sherwonit describes places I never even heard of and his book makes me want to go back more than ever.”
-- SMALL PRESS

EXCERPT: "SHUYAK BEAR," from chapter on Shuyak Island State Park

I used to have nightmares about bears. They entered my dreamworld in the mid-1970s, shortly after I'd come to Alaska, and they roamed the forests of my subconscious for many years after. A geologist then, just out of graduate school, I spent my first Alaskan summers in some of the state's wildest, most remote grizzly bear country. And each year, usually toward the end of the field season, phantom grizzlies would stalk me, chase me, attack me. They lurked in my dream shadows, ominous and haunting. I now sometimes wonder if those nightmares were omens. Perhaps they spoke of things to come, of a summer afternoon in Shuyak Island State Park, at the northern end of Alaska’s Kodiak Archipelago. . . .

Five of us have spent the morning in kayaks; now it's time to stretch muscles and explore one of the many small islands that border Shuyak's northern coast. The islet we choose is inhabited by Sitka black-tailed deer; from the water, we see several animals feeding in open meadows. It's also home to a brown bear female, with three tiny cubs. We'd spotted them earlier in the day, though the bear family has since disappeared into the forest.

I've seen many grizzlies, but this was my first sighting of brown bears, the coastal cousins of griz. Alaska's brown bears tend to be more chocolatey in color and have smaller humps and shorter claws than their Interior relatives. On the average, they're much larger animals, mainly because they have access to more plentiful, energy-rich foods, especially salmon. A large male grizzly may weigh 600 to 700 pounds in fall, when it's fattened for hibernation. But the largest brown bears are twice that size. And nowhere do brown bears grow larger than on the Kodiak Archipelago, home to the subspecies Ursus arctos middendorffi. Even here, researchers say, adult females only rarely reach 700 pounds, though this mother bear appeared much bigger.

We beach our kayaks, then split up. I go with Sam, one of the expedition's guides, following a game trail that begins in meadow, but soon borders a thick stand of spruce. Sam calls out to announce our presence: HOOYAH . . . HOOYAH. Eventually the trail peters out, where the forest reaches the island's edge. We have a simple choice: return down the trail or cut through the woods. Sam chooses the trees and I follow, despite some misgivings. He's the guide, after all.

The spruce are 20 to 30 feet high, spindly, and densely packed and we can't easily see more than 10 to 15 feet ahead, sometimes less. We’re walking slowly, talking loudly, when suddenly my worst nightmare comes true: a bear charges out of the forest's shadows. She must have tried to hide her family in this stand to avoid the strange two-legged invaders of her island. But we've entered her sanctuary and threatened, however innocently, her offspring. Retreat hasn’t worked, so her only option now is to defend her cubs by force.

Things begin to speed up and, simultaneously, move in slow motion around me. Less than 20 feet away, the bear is a blur of terrible speed, size, and power--a dark image of unstoppable rage. Her face is indistinct, and I sense, more than see, her teeth and claws. Two giant bounds are all it takes for the bear to reach Sam, 5 feet in front of me. Somewhere, amid the roaring that fills my head, I hear a cry: "OH NO." I'm certain that Sam is about to die, or be seriously mauled, and fear that I may be also.

The last thing I see is the bear engulfing Sam. Then, despite everything I've learned about bears, I turn and run, breaking one of the cardinal rules of bear encounters. But my instincts are strong, and they tell me to get out of sight, out of the woods. Climbing one of these slender trees isn't an option, and without any weapon, there's nothing I can do to help Sam. The only question now is whether the bear will come after me when it's done with him. I run out of the forest onto a narrow stretch of beach; I must find the other three members of the party, get Sam's rifle from his kayak, and try to rescue him.

Back in the forest, Sam is doing what he must to survive. As the bear charges, Sam tells us later, he ducks his head and falls backward. Falling, he sees the bear's open mouth, its teeth and claws. Hitting the ground, he curls into a fetal position, to protect his head and vital organs, and offers the bear a shoulder to chew on instead. And with the bear breathing in his face, he plays dead.

The bear grabs Sam in a "hug," woofs at him, and bats him a few times like a kitten playing with a mouse. But she strikes him with her paws, not her claws. There's no sound of tearing flesh. And when, after several moments--or is it minutes?--there's no reponse from her victim, the bear ends her attack just as suddenly as she began it. The threat removed, she leaves with her cubs.

I'm still standing on the beach, listening and looking for any sign of the bear, when, incredibly, I hear Sam shout: "The bear's gone. . . . I'm all right." Miraculously, he's uninjured, except for a small scratch on the back of his hand, which he got when falling backward into a small spruce. For someone who's just been attacked by a bear, Sam is taking the incident much more calmly than I. Perhaps, I'll learn later, this is because he's had lots of experience in such matters. He'd been "false charged" by bears three times previously.

Sam quickly recounts his story, then says, “Thank goodness it was a friendly bear. It wasn't looking for a fight; it was trying to make a point: ‘Leave me alone.’” Hours later, when we're rehashing the attack, he'll add: "I felt no sense of aggression or panic. I believe animals can sense a person's energy. If you're projecting aggression, or if the adrenalin is flowing, they know it. I was very calculating as to what I should do." It turns out he did everything right--once the bear attacked. Listening to Sam's story, still pumped with adrenalin, I can only shake my head and marvel at our escape.

Heading across a meadow to warn the others, we see the sow 100 yards away, still greatly agitated. She stands up, then falls back to all fours and runs around in circles, and stands up again. She's looking down the island, and we guess that she's seen or smelled our companions. The bear stands one final time, then turns sharply and lopes into another, larger spruce stand. She's followed by her cubs, three teddy bear-sized creatures. Strung out in a line, they run hard to keep up with mom.

We rendezvous with the others, quickly retell our story, and leave the bears' island. Back in camp, we talk for hours about the encounter and second-guess ourselves. We agree it was foolish to visit the island, given our earlier bear sighting, even more foolhardy to cut through the woods. I'm reminded, again, to question authority and trust my own judgment.

The encounter also raises questions about firearms, which may be carried in all of Alaska's state parks. I've never carried a gun into Alaska's backcountry; I'm not a firearms expert, have no desire to be, and believe that guns cause more trouble than bears. Like Sam, I also believe that guns change a person's "energy," change the way a person relates to wild places, wild creatures. They offer security, but they also can prompt people to take chances they ordinarily wouldn't, sometimes resulting in confrontations that might have been avoided. The usual result is injury or death, often for the bear.

For a while, after the Shuyak attack, I questioned my philosophy. It's often said that bears, like people, are individuals. Each one is different, unpredictable. As Richard Nelson, an Alaskan writer, anthropologist, and naturalist whose philosophy I greatly respect, says in The Island Within: "All it takes is once in a lifetime, the wrong bear in the wrong place. Without a rifle (and the knowledge of when and how to use it), the rest of the story would be entirely up to the bear. . . . It's my way of self-preservation, as the hawk has its talons, the heron its piercing beak, the bear its claws. . . . " But as time has passed, I've become more convinced than ever that it's right, for me, to walk unarmed in Alaska's backcountry. It would be different, perhaps, if brown or black bears preyed on people. But they rarely do. In a sense, my choice is a symbolic gesture of respect to the animal and its world; I'm only a visitor in the bear's realm, passing through and intending no harm.

On Shuyak, we provoked the attack. A mother was being crowded, and she wanted to eliminate what she perceived as a very real threat. She was protecting her cubs, no more, no less. Playing dead, removing the threat, proved the best thing to do, not fight back. Shooting her would have been a tragedy.

Buy Alaska's Accessible Wilderness at Amazon.com


Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife   Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey
Changing Paths Denali: A Literary Anthology  
Iditarod: The Great Race to Nome Alaska's Accessible Wilderness  
Wood-Tikchik: Alaska's Largest State Park Alaska Ascents  
To the Top of Denali Alaska’s Bears  
 

 

 
 
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