My Alaskan friend, Skip, my father, and I had floated down the amazing Russian River for two days into middle-of-nowhere Alaska. The remote lake was only accessible via float plane or two-day canoe ride.
After breaking camp and making our way across a much calmer lake back to the mouth of the river, we parked the boat and hopped into the icy, knee-deep glacier water. We were carrying our rods with good intentions of fishing, but just for fun we took a detour onto the muddy shore. The weather was in the upper 50s but pleasant enough with the waders and high-tech clothing that we were wearing.
Skip led the way up a trail in the weeds that ran parallel to the river; in several places the grass was mashed flat by something large, and at one point I looked down at my boots to see what I was standing in — it was scat…aka…bear crap!
A very surprised Flynn Rodgers and Skip Matthews stand with their mouths open!
We were now standing in a bear’s living room. Any Alaskan with common sense — Skip included — would tell you that doing so is typically not a good idea. If we were making a television show, we would have to satisfy the lawyers with a don’t-do-this-at-home-or-you’re-an-idiot disclaimer somewhere. Regardless, we pressed on through six-foot-tall grass that limited visibility to just a few feet.
Suddenly, Skip stopped and motioned for me to hurry. My heart began to race as Dad and I ran quietly forward up the trail. Sitting in the water was what I have been waiting for: a young brown bear. He did not know that we were nearby, so I crept toward him to get a better picture.
I was stalking a bear.
I am pretty sure he was looking for us at this point.
I held my Nikon SLR above the grass and did my best to take some pics, when suddenly, in a brief eureka moment, I realized that the wind was blowing on the back of my neck.
Sure enough, the bear began sniffing around, and then without warning, stood to its full height — impressive to say the least. He looked directly at us; when we met eye to eye, it felt as if those dark eyes were looking into my soul. This has to be the last thing a prey animal thinks as well.
Suddenly, the fun and games were over, and some God-given instinct told us to get the bloody hell out of there. We beat feet back along the trail in the direction that we came from, toward the safety of the boat. I was bringing up the rear and kept a constant watch over my shoulder. Just as we were about to break out of the tall, brown, grassy field, Skip came to a halt and my heart leaped into my throat.
Any time an experienced, Alaskan outdoorsman turns around with wide eyes and says run, it can’t be a good thing. Dad and I did a quick about face and scurried back down the trail toward the direction of the first bear!
Skip, our point man, had unexpectedly run into another bear.
A nasty thought crossed my mind: Bears are not that social, and the first brown bear that we saw had been young. Was it possible that its mother was the bear near the boat? If so, that would have put us directly between mother and offspring — not good.
Dad and I had joked the entire trip about our different priorities regarding bears. He was carrying a “bear bell” to make a noise and scare them off, I was praying for the opposite. My dire wish had just been granted and then some.
With my heart pounding and sweet adrenaline shaking my body, we waited for an eternity without speaking, then made our way back to the boat which was sitting on a gravel bar. The bear(s) were gone. We slapped our high-fives, and already began exaggerating our encounter for the women back at camp. Wasn’t the bear seven, eight, no…12 feet tall?!
A victory lunch was in order, so after digging some soggy sandwiches out of the cooler, my pulse finally began to slow back down to normal as the recent events were processed. I don’t know what made me glance over my shoulder back at the shore, but I almost choked when I did.
There, in the tall grass not even 20 yards away (we walked it out) was a sizable brown bear watching us intently as we ate our lunch. His fur was waving in the wind, and his black eyes were very interested in what we were doing. I do not think that he was aggressive, but more or less curious and annoyed that we were in his favorite fishing spot.
I threw my sandwich down and managed to grab my camera for a proper picture. Bone-crunching death is temporary, but pictures last forever. That is, unless the bear manages to ingest my camera as well. Always a grim possibility.
Good thing my lens has vibration control, because my hands were shaking like mad as I watched the bear come closer through my viewfinder. I snapped pictures in rapid-fire mode, and then moved back behind the boat to put something between myself and this beautiful-yet-enormous animal.
The bear did not act very afraid of us at all, which is not good behavior. I also never acted aggressively, thank goodness. Most people don’t realize, but a brown bear can run at 30 MPH for short distances, the same speed as a horse! If he decided to close the 15 meters of distance between us, I would have had maybe two seconds of reaction time at best. My mind clicked into survival mode; I eyeballed the heavy boat oar that I was prepared to grab if necessary.
Fortunately, Skip and my dad, who had already retreated behind the boat and were holding paddles, made enough noise. We waved our arms enough to send the bear scurrying back into the tall grass. The bear did stop several times to stick its head above the grass and check on us, but having decided we weren’t worth the effort, finally lumbered back into the wild.
We decided that even lucky bastards run out of luck eventually, so we shoved off and headed back into the lake. My heart was still beating out of my chest, and despite having two other witnesses, the moment still felt dream-like and surreal. Most people see bears from the car or boat; not many can say that they had boots on the ground with a brown bear at such close range without a tragic ending. Usually the bear ends up getting shot or the human chewed on.
Skip agreed, that had the bears not had enough juicy salmon — the fish were running at the time — that the scenario may have turned out quite differently.
Another adventure for the books: Encounter wild bear in Alaska