I’m curled in my sleeping bag, the Alder trees at the back of my tent shelter me from the early morning sun. I’m somewhere in the world between dream and reality. So when I hear the sound of Mark’s boots making their way through the Reed grass, I’m not sure if it’s real or imagined until I hear his voice. His tone is calm and measured, but something in it makes my eyes snap open and heart rate quicken before he finishes his sentence.
“David? I hate to disturb you, but there appears to be two brown bears walking towards us along the beach.”
Hate to disturb me? I glance at my watch: 6:45 in the morning. Not that it matters. I want to be disturbed if there’s pair of brownies on the beach no matter the time of day. I unzip my tent and am greeted by my two hundred roommates. They’re small and elusive, rusty red and jet black. But the high pitched beat of their wings all sound the same in my ears. I’m inundated with the gnats immediately. But I brush them out of the way, pulling my bug net and can of bear spray along with me.
Mark is cool and collected as he points down the beach to the place where he last saw the bears. A lot calmer than I’d expect a guy from New York city to be during his first Brown bear meeting. Actually that’s not fair. It’s not like Mark Adams has never left the concrete behind. He’s hiked the mountains of Peru, gone where no white man has ever been in Madagascar. When you write like he does, people send you everywhere.
Which is why we’re here in the early morning light at the north end of Russell Island in Glacier Bay National Park. Mark’s writing a book about Harriman’s Alaskan expedition in 1899 and John Muir’s travels. When he needed a kayak guide, I was blessed with the opportunity to lead him into the wilderness. To travel as Muir did, one paddle stroke at a time. To explain and describe the land and creatures as they passed. And of course, to bring us back in one piece. The first part had been easy. The bears would make it tricky.
I walk down the rocks, trying to get a better angle of the beach. What a sight I must be. The weathered and experienced Alaskan guide, rubbing sleep from his eyes and pulling up his pajama pants that are a size too big. The pants are absurd. Navy blue with a pattern of wolves howling at the moon. The sort of thing you wear on rainy Saturday mornings while drinking coffee. Not fighting bears.
I step onto the tallest rock I can find and stare into the tall Rye grass at the back of the meadow. My body’s awake but not my eyes. I rub them again, trying to focus and keep my expression calm and collected. This happens all the time of course.
Two little brown ears pop up among the grasses. Little satellite dishes that recede the thin long face of a brown bear. Instinct kicks in. I clap my hands and call out good morning. I don’t shout, I want to save some volume, just in case. The bear looks at me, head tilted sideways, politely curious. As if he’s rising on an elevator another bear appears next to him. They’re skinny and young. Probably just got kicked out by Mom within the last month. Four year olds. Teenagers. Young, dumb, ready to take on the world. I can relate.
They saunter back into the woods as I call. Nonchalant and relaxed. I turn and beam at Mark. We’ve talked a lot about bears the last couple of days. I’m glad we saw one. He’s got his little waterproof notebook out, scribbling notes. A few minutes go by and there’s no sign of the bruins. I put on more respectable pants and pull out the Coleman stove, putting water on for coffee. I’m forgetting something… mugs!
Leaving Mark with the stove and food, I jog back up the beach and to the tent, digging for the thermoses. No sooner do I reach the tents and Mark’s voice floats up the beach.
“David? Your friends are back.” Uh-oh.
I come back down the beach, my pace a little quicker this time. I find a big rock and jump on top of it. I spread my legs and stand tall. Stretching my thin 6’4” frame as far as I can. I shout, I clap, I wave my arms. The bears spare me a half-second look and go crashing back into the Alder. From my vantage point I can see the trees shaking fifty yards back from the beach. They’ve cleared out.
(The beach the night before the bears. The bears came out of the Alder near the blue/green tent)
I reach Mark and the stove, setting the thermoses down and pouring the boiling water into a Nalgene we’re using as a coffee maker. While the coffee steeps I run back up the beach for socks. The bugs are eating my Chaco attired feet alive. I reach into a dry bag and freeze. Something is snapping twigs in the Alder feet from me. Boots forgotten I step back, clapping and shouting. I’d started at a six, my volume’s at ten now. I reach into my pocket for the bear spray. It’s not there. It’s on the beach with Mark.
As calm as I can I shout down the beach, “Mark, can you bring the bear spray up with you please.”
I feel caught. Food and author on the beach, tents and kayak near the trees. In my head I can hear the voice of the park biologist Tonya Lewis. “Don’t let the bears get your food.” I run back down the beach, clapping and shouting the whole time. A plan forms in my mind. Grab the food cans and stove. Pile it at the waters edge, break down the tents. Get the hell out of here. If they want the beach this bad, it’s all there’s. I meet Mark halfway, his arms laden with bear cans, the stove, and water bladder. I grab a handful of gear, turn, and feel my heart drop. The bears are back. Feet from Mark’s tent. For the first time in my life, there’s a bear between me and my kayak.
I grab the bear spray from Mark and charge up the beach, calling at Mark to follow me. In my panic, a tapestry of expletives flow from my mouth like water down a mountain. “You… bear! Get the… away from my… kayak!”
One of these bears is brave. Too brave for my liking. While one slinks into the woods just out of view, the bolder one moves between the tents. Three more strides and he’s at the kayak. I grab a baseball sized rock and close the distance to forty feet, Mark at my heels. “Look as big as you can.” I tell him.
I shout more words you can’t say in church. I pull the safety off the bear spray. The rock cocked like I’m Nolan Ryan, the bear my Robin Ventura. I’ve never fired bear spray at a bear before. Had proudly told Mark 36 hours ago that bears were misunderstood, shy gentle creatures. Leave it to nature to make me look bad.
I’m ten yards away. First and 10. Russell Island Bears versus Gustavus Kayakers. It’d be a route if it comes to that. I finger the bear spray and shout again, I feel my throat getting raw. At last the bear turns.
I’ve looked into the eyes of many wild animals. Orcas, humpbacks, moose, sea lion, seal, deer. But only a bear’s gaze has the ability to make me feel like I’m two feet tall. Nothing is more untamed, more wild. Daring you, defying you, to tell it otherwise. “This is my house,” they say. “Do you want to see what happens in my house?”
I don’t, and I have a feeling neither does Mark. Although his guide getting ripped limb from limb would make a hell of a chapter. The bear turns and gives a little huff. My knees go weak. The bear spray rising above my hip. Dimly I register that there’s no wind. A clear shot if it comes to it. The bear turns and starts to walk away from the kayak. My heart’s in my throat. Keep walking, keep walking.
He slips into the Alder like a phantom. But for how long? I cover the last few feet to the tent. Mark has stood calmly by the whole time. No panic, no fear. What’s going on inside is a mystery, but he’s a heck of a lot calmer on the outside than I am.
We drag our tents through the meadow and over the rocks, our sleeping bags and clothes still inside. We’ll dismantle them near the water. Right now I want as much room between me and the Alder grove that I can.
Fifteen minutes later we float 100 yards offshore in our double kayak. I glance at my watch and laugh. I’d set a timer for the coffee. It’s been steeping for 52 minutes. I hand Mark a thermos, a Cliff bar, and an apple as he scribbles notes. “Got it get it down while it’s hot.” He says.
The bears are on the beach, right at the water’s edge, digging for tidepool Sculpin and munching on Blue Mussels. They’re a lot cuter with 150-feet of water between us. My heart rate slows. This is all they wanted. Two hungry bears, learning to survive without mom. Trying to find a route to the low tide and the protein. We were just in the way.
I rub the side of the kayak, relieved and relaxed. I didn’t want my career defined by one wrecked kayak. The morning is gorgeous. The water is turquoise, that electric color that only the glaciers can mix. As we float Mark pays me the highest compliment he can. “This may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been… nice choice.” As the bears work their way back into the woods I grin like a hyena and strike my paddle against the smooth surface.