When I came to Alaska three years ago, fresh off four years of city living, I was terrified of bears.
My time spent walking the downtown streets of Milwaukee had resulted in one nice scar on the top of my head from an assault with a tire iron, but even after that incident I was willing to walk those same city streets.
But travel in bear country? No way.
My fear of bears arose from a fear of the unknown. The more time I spent wandering around in the backcountry, the more I realized the real danger is the same thing that makes city streets hazardous -- humans.
The 18-mile hike I took last week up the Carter Lake trail, around Crescent Lake and down the Crescent Creek trail is a perfect example.
One thing that helped me get over my fear of bears was reading everything I could about bear safety in the backcountry. I learned there are a few simple things that could be done to make traveling in bear country a lot safer than traveling on the Sterling Highway.
(The main difference between the perceived safety of hiking in bear country and traveling on the Sterling Highway is that people don't write books titled, "Sterling Highway Fatal Auto Accidents: Part II.")
So as I hiked last week, whenever I came to a stream or low vision area, I clapped and shouted a, "Hey bear, howdy moose, just me, comin' through."
I also took the time to carefully scope out the areas I would be hiking over with binoculars to make sure I wouldn't be surprising any bears. It's always fun, and smart, to try and notice them before they notice you. It's not their responsibility to avoid you, it's your responsibility to avoid them.
The hike went without incident until I reached the Crescent Lake saddle cabin, which is located halfway down the 5-mile stretch of trail that runs along the lake. A man boating on the lake informed me two hunters had taken down two moose in the area ahead, and that a brown bear and two black bears had been picking over the cleaned and gutted carcasses the day before.
The man even said one of the carcasses was right on the trail parallel with a couple of islands.
All right, I figured. Just travel extra slowly and awarely, make a lot of noise, and detour off the trail once you get close to the islands. The problem was, as I was banging through heavy brush and grass before the islands, I nearly tripped on one of those moose carcasses.
I detoured off the trail and around the area, and I didn't see a bear, but that didn't remove the anger and shock I felt at the placing of the carcass.
A carcass, even with all the meat removed, is almost certain to attract a bear that will pick at it for one or two days. At the same time, a hiking trail is almost certain to attract five or 10 people over the course of a couple of days.
A close encounter with a bear is something every hiker must be prepared for when traveling in bear country, but laziness is no reason to place hikers and bears on a collision course. Leaving the carcass on the trail is not fair to humans, and not fair to bears.
Making this situation worse, the carcass was left in a portion of the trail covered with thick brush, far increasing the chances of a hiker surprising a bear in the middle of dinner. Bears don't like surprises, especially during a meal.
A good deal of injuries or deaths resulting from bear attacks come because a bear gets surprised.
I considered myself lucky that day because I had warning, as did the backpacker from Austin, Texas, who I warned before he approached the area.
Not everybody is lucky enough to get a warning, so autumn hikers must remember people are hunting this time of year. It is always important to check signs at a trail head for notes of bear activity. The hunting season is no exception. Hikers also should be especially aware of any smell or bird or insect activity that indicates a carcass is in the area.
Hunters should try and get their carcasses off the trail, 100 yards if they can, but hikers must remember that to be put in a bad spot it only takes one hunter looking down at the massive carcass of a big ol' bull moose, thinking, "There's no way I'm moving this thing," and moving on.
On the flip side of the coin, when hunters are debating whether or not to move a carcass, they should remember it only takes one trigger-happy or unprepared hiker to lead to the unnecessary death of a human or bear.
Unfortunately, just like in Milwaukee, it is always best to assume the worst when it comes to human behavior.
The attitude of a guide I recently spent time with up on the Noatak River in the remote Brooks Range illustrates this perfectly. I was shocked to see he had no problem sleeping at night in the middle of the kitchen.
I asked the reason for his bravado, which I, in no way, would recommend.
"The bears up here are good, wild bears," he said. "They stay away from humans."
He said he'd much rather sleep in a kitchen in a wild area like the Brooks Range than even attempt to hike in bear-country areas that receive a ton of human use. Most backcountry bear danger comes not from bears, but from human ignorance and negligence.
It is indicative of a disturbing attitude some people have of the wilderness -- an attitude that can be summed up by the actions of a friend I once canoed with down the Swanson River.
We were breaking camp one morning when he took a container of bacon grease and dumped it in the middle of the campsite.
In the midst of vowing never to camp with him again, I asked him just what, exactly, did he think he was doing?
"Don't worry about it," he said. "We're leaving, anyway."
One of the great things about wilderness is it lets the adventurer feel alone and independent of others.
But in the midst of this momentary chest-thumping, I-am-a-survivor pride, it is easy to forget that wilderness, ironically, is reliant on others treating the land and its creatures properly and with respect.
Keep that in mind next time you're trying to decide whether it's worth packing out that bacon grease or lugging a moose carcass 100 yards off a hiking trail.
This column is the opinion of Peninsula Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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