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Visiting a Place That Belongs to the Bears

This summer I journeyed south, to McNeil River, farther than I’ve ever traveled to see any animal, let alone bears. For most of my life along the Kobuk, bears showed up at the door, or on the tundra, or we crossed trails when I was hunting for meat or photographs.

This trip was different, and like many things nowadays, started with an email. A woman named Beth wrote with an amazing offer — like winning a lottery — inviting me to visit McNeil River State Game Sanctuary.

“Where’s that?” I replied. I knew I should know, but didn’t and don’t like Googling. I thanked her, but suggested she had the wrong guy. “I’m a homeboy and a hermit. Every chance I get I want to learn more about my home, the Arctic. And I have inner ear problems, I don’t like flying.”

Well, she talked me into it, and in June I jammed a tent, waders, food and a camera into waterproof bags. A day, a night and three flights later I was circling a lagoon at the mouth of McNeil River. Aboard were two other passengers and a pilot named Jimmy, gliding his 206 floatplane over the water. Out the window were snow-covered mountains, cliffs and beaches. On a grassy meadow I could already see the brown lumps of bears.

I stepped ashore dazed, ears ringing, and helped unload and met Beth and a man named Mathew standing near little hand-wagons. Beside me were two other visitors, Ken Marsh and Bob Mumford, names I’d heard from Alaska Magazine and the Board of Game. They had large cameras, out and ready, and knew the Alaska Peninsula from past trips. I stared around trying to figure out why I was here, which way was north, what sort of tides happened, and who was that big black noisy bird with an orange bill. I couldn’t recall when I’d last taken the lens cap off my Nikon.

The camp was a quarter mile away; three small staff cabins, a tiny sauna, two outhouses and an uninsulated cookhouse with bright nylon tents pitched nearby. No other sign of human development was in view. The beaches and vegetation reminded me of Sisaulik, across from Kotzebue, and I was excited to explore the landscape sprawling in all directions. First, Beth gathered us in the cookhouse for a required orientation, where among other things we learned that scraps and waste water went in many separate receptacles, and we weren’t supposed to stroll past the outhouse — not even to the beach just yards from the tents — unless on a group outing. This place belonged to the bears. Everything started and ended with what was best for the bears, and I wasn’t going to be exploring. Not in the way I was accustomed.

A chilly wind was blowing as I set up my tent. Beth helped put rocks on the corners, warning that a few days previous a storm had flattened visitors’ tents. In the cook shack I stashed my toothpaste, mosquito repellent and food. I’d brought too much, of course, including bowhead muktuk, dried beluga and caribou, moose meat, and a caribou hide to sleep on — all normal in my life, though not here among Mountain House meals and Therm-a-rest mats. Embarrassed, I hunched low, slicing cooked muskox, wolfing down chunks of fat, and wondering what the hell I was going to do with the grease-smeared zip-lock bag. Bob and Ken came over to sample the muskox. They raved about the meat, making me feel a bit better about my iglooboy eccentricity. I had to chuckle, at least I hadn’t brought bear meat.

On the grass above the beach, yards from the tents, were gray stumps where visitors are allowed to sit and enjoy the scenery. I made a cup of coffee, figured out where to put the grounds, and the wet paper filter, and then grabbed my camera and went out to let this new large land soak into my cells. My eyes liked what they saw and I inhaled the rich damp odor of tidal flats. Nervously I gripped the plastic bag around my camera and reminded myself to NOT fling out the dregs of my coffee. At my boots, and meandering west, was a narrow caribou-trail-like path in the grass, a foot wide and beaten into the earth. Half a mile down the path I saw specks of people, photographers, and camp guides, tightly clustered together. For a moment I thought they were animals, or what they really looked like: a group of invaders coming to bring chaos to our world. Not far from them bears grazed unconcerned.

Mathew strolled up, lanky and moving smoothly and deceptively fast. “We’re going to haul water,” he said, suggesting assistance. I jumped at the chance, grateful to walk, work and gather — even just water. The other men joined and the four of us moved slowly along the tiny path. A sow and two cubs grazed nearby on sedges. We didn’t stray from the path, stopped often, stayed close to each other and spoke softly. One of the cubs looked up. The sow kept a wary eye on male bears in the distance.

On the way back, pushing a wheelbarrow full of water jugs, my hat almost blew off. I snatched at it, anxious about rules concerning off-trail hat-retrieval. Instantly I remembered that rapid movements were also discouraged. I felt tense, far from home, and wondered why. This place was not so different from the Arctic, wild and windy, and bears have always been in my life, more or less predictable as food, furs and fellow predators on the land. As I guided the awkward wheelbarrow along the path it dawned on me that I might have this whole journey backwards. Maybe the species I was here to learn more about were humans. And actually, that could be said of my entire life.

That evening I met the rest of the camp, a dozen more adults including staff, volunteers and visitors from around the nation. They were an eclectic group, friendly and interesting to chat with. Everyone had long lenses and a shared desire: to photograph bears. I checked myself and didn’t find those things. As usual, I found that I was strange.

In the morning it was raining. I had little interest in joining the group, to plod at a painstaking pace down the muddy trail, saturating my camera and gear. I stayed at camp and was grateful when Mathew accepted help chopping wood. A young bear wandered by, followed by the sow and cubs. As the clouds lifted, Beth let me dig out heavy buried cabin timbers and haul them to the edge of camp. I liked her and Mathew, and enjoyed hearing their experiences with bears. Working hard made me happy and allowed my thoughts to explore. In the distance bears dotted the meadow and the greenery-draped cliffs far across the bay. In the afternoon I ate muktuk with dried ptarmigan, then sat on a stump and read the book I’d brought. It was non-fiction and violent, about a religion, titled “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Occasionally, I glassed with binoculars, thinking about the words while watching bears grazing on more grass than I had known they could stomach.

Toward evening Beth talked me into going out the path with the group. Bears grazed nearby on the green flats. She led, a shotgun slung over her shoulder. Her knowledge of the bears was impressive, her care for them dictating her every movement. The policy was to be predictable and so visible as to be practically invisible. Moving in that manner was maddening to the hunter and photographer in me; I longed to read the terrain, check the wind and stalk the animals. I had little experience being a tourist, or being out on the land in a crowd, and felt strangled by the loss of freedom, lonesome for my familiar Alaskan interaction with animals — one that had always involved being more or less a predator, with an unnatural god-like position in the food chain.

On the way back, two bears appeared suddenly beside us, rearing up in the tall grass. They were sub-adults, wrestling in playful mock battle. By the time I got my camera out they’d dropped down into the grass. I stopped myself from cawing like a raven — NOT ALLOWED! — to get them to look up. I’d never before considered that useful trick as intrusive, a catcall directed at a creature. Beside me, nearly touching my elbows, Ken and others shot rapid bursts, hundreds of frames in mere minutes. I slouched near the back of the line, feeling off-balance and feeding my ego with memories of half a century of living with bears: hunting bears, eating bear roasts, rendering bear fat for pie crusts; napping on my bearskin couch; photographing bears; scaring them away from harassing my dog team on dark windy nights; cleaning up after one tore through the wall of my cabin. Somewhere down in my subconscious obscure ideas wrestled. The dichotomy between my subsistence life and this — not a zoo, or Jurassic Park, or an area even delineated from the surrounding wild Alaska — left me wondering if my lifelong acquisition of knowledge of nature was more useless than having none.

I lowered my camera and stood trying to absorb how rare this was, a place where the bear and human worlds touched in peace. I thought about the educational possibilities here, for young people and for leaders, to feel nature and our human need for it. I pondered how I might help expand a buffer around this sanctuary, to help protect wide-roaming bears. Suddenly my scalp prickled. I felt my breath catch and sadness settle heavy on my shoulders. My life as a hunter-gatherer, like a brown bear, required huge territory, meat and other resources. Maybe I am the endangered species here. Is that what this feeling is?

Back at camp, Beth invited me to eat dinner with the staff. We crowded into her cabin and ate stew Mathew had made with caribou meat I’d brought. We talked about our pasts, and about the future of bears, Alaska and the planet.

Mathew scraped his bowl with a spoon. “What did you think, out there today?” he asked quietly.

They all waited for my answer.

I thought for a moment. “Well. I’ve always been nervous around —” I paused, “people.”

They laughed. I glanced around and then laughed, too, realizing they’d expected me to say “bears.” It was true, though — I’ve always been far more nervous around people than bears. “I’m not sure yet,” I added. “It’s, different here.”

We chatted a bit longer, then everyone began gathering plates, wrapping up another day, with another long one ahead. Mathew said he’d fired up the sauna and I joined him before heading to my tent. Afterward, I lay in my bag and read for half an hour. Finally, I closed my eyes, and saw brown bears on windblown shimmering green grass.

On the path, before noon, a large boar appeared at the edge of the alders. He eyed us, more cautious than the smaller bears, then moved toward a young female feeding on the meadow. Without much introduction he mounted her and began mating. It was midday by then. The sky was blue, dotted with gauzy lenticular clouds floating above snow-draped mountains. Beth suggested we sit and have a snack. Nearby other bears continued to munch sedges.

When the coupling was over 45 minutes later, the large bear quickly disappeared into the brush. A young male strolled to the female and awkwardly and slowly closed the distance between them. Again, mating took the better part of an hour. Afterward, the smaller boar didn’t leave, but continued harassing the female and finally drove her into shallow water and barred her efforts to come ashore.

Close by where I leaned in the grass was one of my new friends, Nick, a big burly soft-spoken guide. He had years of experience as an emissary between human visitors and bears. With thick curly brown hair, he even reminded me of a gentle bear. We both stared across the meadow. I wondered if he’d ever hunted for meat or furs. I felt bad for the female bear, and recalled the pages I’d read last night, about the heinous murders of a mother and her child. I dug in my pack, got out strips of dried caribou, chewed, and wondered how I could make the world a better place.

Nick murmured, his voice faint in the wind, telling me of once observing a large ferocious boar mating, and violently tearing the female to pieces in the process. I listened, watching a lone male off by himself, rhythmically eating mouthfuls of the meadow. Around his broad brown form gusts rippled the grass like a vast luxurious green pelt. I felt peacefulness here, and kindness, and the huge wild murderous mess of nature, all mixed with our own history, including terrible treatment and disrespect — for brown bears, and other species, young girls, our neighbors, and each other. I sat up, still chewing, and watched half a dozen grazing bears, all so capable, and incredibly complicated. I wanted to be that, and somehow something more.

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