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  • Ken Ilgunas

Berries and black bears

No matter how much time you spend in the Alaskan bush, you never really forget about the bears. Not entirely, at least.

Of course, over time, you can’t help but become complacent. But really, it only takes the snap of a twig or the tremor of a heavy footstep from a shadowy forest to jar ancient fears back into being.

I’ve been off patrol for almost a week now so I’ve been spending plenty of time picking blueberries. It’s been a superb berry year. On some bushes I can pull—with one comb of my hand—the juicy, blue mini-marbles in clumps of threes and fives. After filling my nalgene to the brim, I gluttonously devoured bushes and bushes of endless blueberries, letting those that escaped my jaws roll down my cheeks.

It’s so easy to forget that this might have been someone else’s food. The bears here leave evidence of their predilections for the ubiquitous berry in their dung, which looks less like the smoking pile of overlapping brown logs that you may imagine and more like a piquant and sugary pie-filling bespeckled with a smattering of dark reds and blues.

They devour blueberry bushes whole—leaves and all—like an oscillating weed whacker, mowing down the plants by rhythmically swaying their heads from one bush to another.

This past evening, I was going for my daily jog down the airstrip, which eventually narrows into a trail just outside the village of Bettles (pop. approx. 30), where our ranger station is located.

Occasionally, I’d stop to rustle around in the bushes in search of some undiscovered patch of blueberries. I found an opening and ate as many as my stomach would allow. It must have looked odd for Chris—a fellow ranger on a bike ride—who saw me standing alone in the middle of the tundra like a scarecrow in running shorts.

I continued to gorge the berries, which stained my finger tips red and left their sticky purple juice on my beard before continuing my run back towards the airstrip.

To my right though, I heard something large rustling in the thicket. Staring tremulously into the six-foot high jungle of adolescent willow, alder, and spruce trees with an understory of berry bushes and sphagnum moss, I stopped to discern the sounds.

Alaska can be so quiet. It’s hard to imagine, sometimes, what absolute silence is. Even in our quietest moments—when we think we have absolute silence—we forget about the hum of the refrigerator, the rumblings of distant street traffic, or the click of a clock’s second hand.

Sometimes on windless Alaskan days a gray jay flitting from tree to tree could be confused for a bear loping across tussocks. I was miles from town and the sounds—the rusting of leaves, the snapping of twigs, and downed-trees crushed under the weight of some magnificent mammal—amplified by the silence were practically deafening. This was no gray jay. I was sure of that.

I called out, “Hey bear.”

Was it a bear? A moose? A caribou?

I called out “Hey bear” again and again, hoping my voice would deter an attack as it normally does with wild bears.

But it didn’t stop trailing me.

I had ceased running so as not to trigger some predator-prey response, but I stiffened my pace in hopes of reaching the airstrip where the trail ends and widens into a football field of gravel.

My heart pumped a surging medley of biochemicals through the narrow, artiaral canals that widened my eyes, stiffened my body, and made my hands shake as I struggled to remove the cap off the bear-spray that I carry with me on all my runs.

The rustling grew louder. Whatever it was plowed through the bush like a tank. The ground crunched, leaves shook like ocean waves, and dried branches snapped off trees like pencils-tips.

I was being hunted.

I started screaming “HEY BEAR!!!” “HEY BEAR!!!” over and over. My voice no longer a confident stentorian bellow, was now a blood-curdling scream that I chanted without pause.

I still saw Chris on his bike, maybe 200 yards away. Not confident in the bear-spray’s effectiveness, I starting yelling for him because I knew he carried his pistol with him everywhere. But alas, he couldn’t hear me. And my voice, though deep and savage-like, probably echoed my fears through the forest.

Then it crashed out of the thicket, 15 yards behind me. Its inky black coat seemed to shimmer even under the overcast sky. With each step its fur shook as the muscles underneath swelled, supporting its prodigious bulk.

It wasn’t coming toward me, but it crossed the trail from which I just came entering the opposite set of trees. It barely glanced at me.

I was as erect as a statue, with my arm extended, waiting to blast its eyes and nose with a shower of orange, cayenne-scented spray. But that wouldn’t happen. I would begin my walk again, gradually picking up speed that ended with a sprint into town when I thought I was no longer in eyeshot.

If you are anything like me, you’d probably wish that it was you who had had this wild encounter. But if you were anything like me in that moment, then you would have wished you were back home, safe and sound, away from bears and berries and anything wild.

And while I feel that with each close call that maybe I should make it my last in Alaska, oddly, it are the memories of these sensations, more than anything else, that keep bringing me back.


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