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And then there was that time I thought a grizzly bear was going to eat my daughter for lunch.
It was the summer of 2001, back when I was living in Southeast Alaska. My daughter Sophia was 3, going on 4. Robin Williams, Al Pacino and Hilary Swank were filming the mystery thriller “Insomnia” a few islands south of me in Ketchikan. Somewhere else in the world, 9/11 was still in the planning stages, and nobody’s minds were on the threat of terrorist attacks.
As far as I was concerned, the biggest threat that I might have to face was a bear attack. And before you dismiss this idea as ridiculous fantasy, please allow me to explain.
For thirteen years, I resided on an island nestled along the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska. It was plentiful with black bear and bear encounters. Most of mine were had while working as a tour guide for small boutique cruise ships. Usually it was when I would drive to the island’s prime bear viewing observation point: the city dump. But every once in awhile I’d be leading a mid-sized group of passengers on a wildness hike when we’d come across a bear in the muskeg at a pretty safe distance. I always joked that the sure fire way to survive a bear attack was to be able to run faster than the slowest member of the group.
Most experts will tell you that blackies are actually the bigger threat than a grizzly bear, and common knowledge is that if a grizzly attacks you, your best chance at surviving is to try to protect your most important assets and play dead. If attacked by a black bear, fight back with everything you’ve got.
That’s what one of the crew members from the Safari Spirit (one of the small ships I worked with) did when she was stalked and attacked by a black bear the following summer while jogging along a boardwalk trail. Fortunately, Kristy was a former marine and skilled in kick boxing. They both got in their licks, but Kristy was lucky to come out of it with only a broken arm and some serious puncture wounds after she finally smacked the bear in the face with a big stick and it ran away. Not everybody is as lucky, I know.
The island I lived on wasn’t known for having any grizzlies, or brown bear. That’s not to say they didn’t show up from time to time; they did. While black bears were known to steal pies that were left cooling on the window sill, or occasionally sauntered up Dolphin Street and onto the elementary school playground on a Saturday morning, the only human encounter with a brownie on the island during my time there was the day Gary Slaven shot a charging brown bear from about 15 feet away from the hip with fogged glasses, and lived to tell the tale back in 1998. Fortunately, he was prepared for the experience (although caught off guard), and fortunately, he was a former sharp shooter in the military. Otherwise I might be telling you about my deceased friend Gary Slaven.
I could go on all day with these types of stories.
So back to the summer of 2001. Remember my recent tale about that time I was shipwrecked (sort of), with some friends who were visiting from the lower 48? Well they came back again. Mike, Delynda, and teenage daughter Apryl. This time I had three year old Sophia along for the ride.
So how do you top being shipwrecked on a deserted island? How about booking a vacation cabin in the only known spot in the world where black and brown bears co-exist pretty peacefully due to the plentiful food supply? That place is Anan, the famous bear sanctuary.
We took a three hour ferry ride to Wrangell, the town just south of us on the next island. From there, we hired a jet boat to take us on the hour long ride to the Forest Service cabin at Anan Bay (which even today is the bargain of the century at just $35/night). Booking a jet boat is much, much more expensive. But the only alternative is to hire a float plane. And if you thought a jet boat was expensive…
We booked our cabin for two nights at Anan Bay long in advance, knowing the cabin was in high demand. These days they only allow 60 people per day to visit the bear observatory, and only between 8am and 6pm. We were the only ones allowed to spend the night.
After hiking from the mouth of Anan Creek near the cabin on a half mile long trail through the forest, there is a set of wooden stairs. At the top of those stairs is the Anan Bear Observatory. There’s an outhouse to the left, and a large wooden platform to the right, covered in places. There’s a 4 foot high fence around the platform with a gate, a guest book (Hilary Swank signed it the day before), and a photo blind. The platform is perched high above a raging creek filled with salmon…and plenty of bears.
Visitors are told that it might be a good idea to bring a sidearm, some bear spray, or an air horn, just in case you unexpectedly encounter a bear along the trail. We had all three. Plus, we had a three year old, which meant we were making plenty of noise. I’ll admit it. I was nervous. I think we all were. All of us except for the three year old.
We had a long talk with Sophia before we started, explaining why it was important for the kids to stay within the pack, and not in front of the adults, nor behind. Between. No exceptions. So that’s how we started out. We talked and laughed loudly along the way, singing occasionally. I wanted to see the bears, but on my own terms. I did not want to be confronted by one.
And then somewhere along the journey, the nervousness left us. And we all got a little lax. Suddenly I realized that Sophia had made her way to the front of the group, and was disappearing around a corner, at least twenty feet ahead of the nearest adult.
I yelled, and broke out into a run. I was freaking out a little bit. OK, a lot. I couldn’t see my daughter, and I didn’t know what was around that corner.
I rounded the corner, and there was Sophia, who had stopped in the middle of the trail. Because there in front of her, also on the trail, was the first brown bear I had ever seen out in the wild. Right there. Looking at her. Closer to her than I was.
You see that photo above? The one with the big bear sitting next to the staircase at the base of the observatory? That’s a black bear. Brown bears are bigger.
In that one little moment I saw the potential for everything that was important to me being taken away in a flash. I was terrified and couldn’t even think about getting the airhorn out. All I could think was to get to my daughter and get her behind me. But before I could reach her, the bear turned back towards where it was headed, and sauntered across the trail and into the woods, towards Anan Creek below. Like she wasn’t even worth checking out. Thank goodness.
My daughter was not lunch for a grizzly that day, but it was an important learning moment for both of us. Even at the age of three she learned that when mom and dad tell you to follow instructions for your own safety, you should pay attention. And we learned that when we lay out a set of instructions for our child’s safety, we are bound to stay attentive as well.
And you know what? Now that she’s been out of the house at college for almost four years and traveled three times to foreign countries without me, she has turned into a beautiful badass who has no difficulty fending off unwanted advances and knows how to stay away from dangerous situations. But I still worry about what kind of trouble might be lurking around the corner for her. I just can’t help it. I’m a mama bear.
With that, I leave you a streaming Bear Playlist. Listen by clicking the play arrow below. And if you’ve got any stories along this theme to share, you know what to do.