Bear encounter fulfills dream

Posted: Sunday, July 06, 2003

Seeing a wild animal up close can be exciting. Many people hit the back country trails that abound on the Kenai Penin-sula in the hopes of just such an opportunity.

However, animal encounters often happen when we least expect them. Recently I had just such an experience when I ran across my first wild brown bear.

I've only lived in Alaska for 11 months now, having moved here from the southeast corner of the Lower 48.

I do a lot of backpacking and camping and have seen more than my share of bears down there, but they've all been black bears. That's all there is in the neck of the woods where I originally hail from.

I've continued my interests of outdoor recreation since moving to the Great Land, and now that summer is here with its long days and warm temperatures, I've been out and about more than ever.

I've been running across bear scat more frequently with each outing and knew it was only a matter of time before I would bump into a bruin.

Unlike some people I don't live and hike in constant fear of a bear encounter, but I don't ignore the potential danger from bears either.

I always take precautions by either carrying bear spray or a firearm when hiking, but I've never had to use either and hope I never will.

My bear encounter happened while covering a story in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. All I had to do was walk a quarter mile down a trail to find a plant that I was writing about for the Outdoors section.

Doesn't sound that hard, and with the state of mind that I was working and not hiking, I neglected to bring any type of bear deterrent or protection.

Murphy's Law, however, states that anything that can go wrong will and with me it always does.

A mile into the path I came to a "T" intersection. I looked left briefly and saw something odd that didn't immediately register. It was very large and golden brown in the direct sunlight, but had its head down making it, at a glance, not immediately recognizable.

I looked right and saw nothing, and when I looked left again the creature walking toward me on the path had poked its head up.

It was then that I realized 50 yards away from me was a brown bear.

I really can't explain why it didn't register the first time I saw it. I guess I just couldn't believe it was really a bear. I had waited my whole life to see a brownie in the wild and I just didn't expect it to be then and under those circumstances.

Friends I've told this tale ask, "Was it like an epiphany?" To which my response is, "Well, I almost ephiphanied in my pants."

Being downwind of the big bruin and not moving out of shock for what I was witnessing, the bear didn't take notice of me and went back to its business of dawdling along the path, occasionally stopping to dig with its massive claws for roots, grubs or whatever else it could find.

I watched the magnificent creature briefly, scared without any protection, but hoping to burn every second of the experience into my memory just the same.

After what seemed like an eternity, but in actuality couldn't have been more than a minute or two, I slowly backed off not wanting to risk my safety and remembering that my insurance probably doesn't cover bear bites.

We often feel that, as humans, we are the nexus of the universe, masters of all we survey and the top rung of the food chain. Whether for good or bad, this is often true.

However, there's something to be said about seeing an animal like a bear on its terms. Just one on one, in the wild and without any weapons. Not only can it be an incredibly memorable experience, but a humbling one as well.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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