All summer I had stared at her. She lay glittering right across the river or just off the road depending on where you were, changing colors with the seasons. If you think I am talking about a woman, I’m going to guess that you haven’t been to Arctic Alaska. For there are no women here, at least none that make themselves available to a strapping young lad like myself. Though I am talking about a mountain, Michelle Mountain*, just across the valley from Wiseman, AK. As part of my job, I spend a fair amount of time in the town of Wiseman. As part of my life, I try to spend a good bit of time in the mountains. After spending quite a bit of time staring at Michelle Mt. from Wiseman, I decided that I needed to become intimate with her.
It wasn’t until mid-August that I finally decided to make an attempt up the mountain. Late in the day, after tours and dinner, I made my way the 10 miles down the Dalton to the base of Michelle. I quickly made my way out of the rock quarry in which I had parked, beginning to ascend through the forest. It was not long before I found myself above treeline, for I was climbing the west face of Michelle, which does not receive much sunlight. The going was steep, yet not overly strenuous. I enjoyed the beginning of the fall colors, as the ground and surrounding vegetation varied from green to yellow and red. I soon found myself rounding a large rock outcropping and at the top of the first ridge. I had a wide view of the valley, but I could not see much higher up the ridge, likely only about 40 yards or so. Looking around, I thought that this would be a perfect spot for a quick break.
The next thing I know, there is a black bear running downhill, directly at me. There are a few standard guidelines for travelling safely in bear country. So far on this hike, I had followed none of them. Here are a couple of examples:
- Travel with others: I was alone, as I often am on many hikes, bears aren’t deterred by single humans.
- Carry bear spray: If you live or travel in Alaska you will hear from many people who live in Anchorage or Fairbanks that you shouldn’t travel in bear country or if you do, you should bring shotguns or various heavy artillery so that you can kill these indestructible creatures. The favorite past time of many people in Alaska is to tell bear stories. As one of my friends says, “You’ll hear stories of bullets bouncing off skulls or impossible to kill. Don’t listen to them; they’re drunk or poor shots. Many of these people haven’t even seen a bear.” At the least, many recommend that you carry bear spray. I had neither.
However, I did do a few things correctly. I instinctively raised both my arms into the air, protruding out in a wide formation, trekking pole still grasped in one hand. As I did this, I began to yell at the bear in quite a loud manner. “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!” The bear was either really anxious to say hi or did not like me very much, for she did not stop. As I continued yelling, as if I was a broken record, she continued to rapidly make her way toward me. During this time, I had no fear. My thinking was extremely clear. I debated whether or not I should throw my trekking pole at her. I also thought that the bear would not stop. This whole process felt like minutes, but only occurred in a matter of seconds.
Finally, she stopped at a mere 10-15 foot distance away. She did not rise up or change in action, but noiselessly stood there, staring intently at me. At this point, the record was still broken for I continued to yell, “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!” on repeat. She quickly became bored with the conversation after about 5 seconds(“These stupid humans only knows 2 words.”) turning around and walking back up the slope. This seemed to appease my internal mechanisms and I stopped yelling. She continued walking, stopping to glance back every 20 feet or so. As she stopped, I’d yell once again. “Go on, get out of here!” She responded, “What rude manners, these humans are oh so insensible.” As she made her way to the edge of the slope, I caught a glimpse of a cub trampling through the willows. She joined her cub and they ambled over the edge into the unknown.
At this point, I could either continue up the mountain, proceeding up the slope and over the edge to where the bears likely now lay, or I could retreat down the mountain and call that enough for one day. I elected to choose the latter option. As much as I would have liked to continue up the mountain side, I don’t think I left a positive enough impression on Mama Bear to chance a second encounter. Michelle remains for another time, meanwhile continue to dazzle me with her everlasting beauty.
*While there may not be many women in these parts, there sure are a high number of natural features that bear names of women from the past, who lived in this valley! There’s Clara Creek, Emma Creek, Emma Dome, Minnie Creek, Minnie Dome, Kahlabuk, Rosie Creek….the list goes on. However, I still prefer the living, breathing kind over the names.