Mistress of the Mix: Mama Bear

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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.

Brownies and blackies fishing along Anan Creek.

A map showing Wrangell and Anan.

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…

The cabin at Anan before it was rebuilt in 2012.

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.

Who’s observing who at the Anan Bear Observatory?

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.

Valerie Ing
Valerie Ing has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.
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22 Responses

  1. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Our only close encounter with a bear (black) in Anchorage was at an afternoon barbeque in a park. The bear lumbered into the park, wandered around, everyone else was pointing and gesturing – “Oh look, a bear! Isn’t that neat!” – while my husband and I headed to the shelter of our car. Nope, not neat; scary.

    The bear song that comes to mind is “Runnin’ Bear Loved Little White Dove”

  2. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    Val, I love your stories, keep them coming.
    My bear encounter story, not counting when as a boy scout in the fifties camping in Yellowstone. Or when I had a trailer up the Poudre Canyon in the Rookies, they would wander through the campground and leave scat on the road. Rather my favorite bear story is how a black bear wandered through Lonigan’s Irish Pub in Estes Park while it was open and no one noticed. It wasn’t until a passerby who noticed the bear come out and went inside and told the bar tender and he checked the security camera and there was the bear. I purchased a Paws shirt from the bar for a memory.

  3. Avatar Carrie Dokter says:

    Loved your hair-raising story! This brought back a memory of when we were on a road trip from southern Calfornia to South Dakota back in 1961. We drove through a portion of Yellowstone Park and I remember counting thirty-some bears alongside the highway! It was amazing to me, never having seen one before!

  4. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    I’ve seen black bears a few times in my life. The biggest one I ever saw was on our own property, shortly after it had killed our two pygmy goats, Hannah and Fritz. Apparently, it’s unusual for black bears to attack livestock, unusual enough that the Fish & Game officer who I talked to didn’t believe me at first. The bear came back six months later and attacked our smallest llama, Beamer, who died a few days later at the veterinarian’s place. We heard through the grapevine that a guy about two miles from us shot the bear one morning as it went after his sheep.

    We didn’t come out of those experiences hating bears, but after that, I felt naked if I ventured out on our property to check on things while unarmed. We did have a problem a few years later with little female black bear getting into our trash. I watched one morning as our little chihuahua mix rescue dog chased her down the driveway, coming back feeling very impressed with himself. According to a retired Forest Service wildlife biologist I corresponded with for awhile, the little female’s behavior was more typical. “Most black bears in the lower 48 are chickens,” he wrote.

    Here’s a video of Lyle Lovett covering my favorite bear song, “Bears.” It was written by Steve Fromholz.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_T4SaNuxZO8

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      Thanks for introducing me to that song, Hal. I’ve seen Lovett a couple of times and don’t recall hearing that one before. (Back when Sam Bush was in his band, I noticed.)

      • Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

        I didn’t know that Sam Bush had been in Lovett’s band.

        Lovett covered a few Fromholz songs in his album “Step Inside This House.”

        • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

          I hadn’t known it either, until the brief mandolin solo in the video.

          • Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

            Oh geez, I just noticed, upon scrolling down, that Val did include “Bears” in her playlist. I guess I needed more caffeine.

  5. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    Sophie disappearing around the corner and encountering a brown bear literally gave me the willies. My oldest daughter, when she was about four, stumbled on a narrow trail about 100 feet above the Merced River when it was a roaring cataract of snowmelt. If she’d gone over the edge, she’d have been gone for good. I imagine your adrenal glands got squeezed the way mine did. (The only accidental death I’ve ever witnessed occurred on the same stretch of river maybe two miles downstream—a guy fell in off of a bridge while posing for a picture, and that was that. We pulled him out of a strainer a half-mile downstream from where he fell in. CPR didn’t bring him back.)

    I had an unusual childhood in that from about six to 19 years old, we spent three months every summer camping in Colorado. I notched scores of black bear encounters over those years—I got so used to chasing bears off that I thought it was no big deal.

    Then one Spring I was backpacking with two friends in Yosemite. We were going to climb Half Dome, and had hiked to Upper Yosemite Valley above Vernal and Nevada falls, on the back side of the dome. We’d arrived at our camp at dusk; two of us were pitching tents while the third started making dinner. We hadn’t been there long enough to string up our packs on the bear cables.

    Within minutes the bears were on us. They grabbed the two packs with food and ran off. I chased off the first bear with rocks and retrieved the damaged pack. The second bear I found in a tangle of blow-down by following the sounds of ripping nylon. I started throwing rocks and yelling at him. He chased me all the way back to our campfire—maybe 30-40 yards, but it felt like 100. I had never had a bear do anything like that before. There were bears in our camp all night long, snorting, scratching around, casting huge shadows from the dying campfire, brushing up against the tents, etc. Not much sleep that night. In the morning we gathered up what was left of the backpacks and food (empty and shredded containers) and headed for the ocean. We never did climb Half Dome.

    My only encounters with brown bears (grizzly bears, as the Rocky Mountain variety are called) were in Yellowstone NP when I was a kid. They were commonly seen from the roads, mainly because people threw them marshmallows and such from their cars. The NPS started cracking down on that practice, and now they’re seldom seen where there are lots of people. The last couple times I’ve been to Yellowstone NP and Teton NP, no griz sitings (though that’s partly due to timing).

    • Valerie Ing Valerie Ing says:

      Great stories Steve! Isn’t it sphincter puckering just thinking about your child getting hurt? How close your daughter came. And the guy who did. Chilling.

  6. Well, Val, now I will have nightmares about little Sophia on the trail.

    I’m loving these bear stories. Thanks, Val, for introducing the topic, and for everyone here who shared their bear stories. (Steve, the part about your daughter, and the guy who fell from the bridge, got my heart pounding, too.)

    Here’s a link to my bear story a few years back, right in the middle of Redding. https://anewscafe.com/2014/11/18/redding/up-on-the-rooftop-black-bear-paws/

    • Valerie Ing Valerie Ing says:

      I actually DO have bear nightmares all the time. It’s really the only threatening animals in my dreams.

  7. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    There’s a Brit folk/rock band called “Bear’s Den.” Not my cup of tea—too much humorless navel-gazing earnestness—but I think their most popular song is “Sophia.” (Or maybe it’s “Sophie.”)

  8. R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

    Reading this, I realized I’ve never either as a child or an adult been openly threatened by a wild mammal. But those damned spiders and snakes!