As promised in Living in Place in Alaska, this week’s post is by Megan Moody, a writer who lives on in Outback Alaska. ~DLL
COMMUTING WITH BEARS
I trudge along the muddy rainforest trail that skirts the ocean, headed towards home. The river ahead reeks of pungent, rotting salmon-flesh. Habitually, my brain registers each blind turn, the bushy late-August vegetation, the wide tree trunk that once concealed an 8-foot bear, and the roar of the river masking my approach. Mentally, however, I still thumb through the twenty browsers left open on my laptop 1.5 miles back. I holler reflexively. Solo, my elderly husky scampers ahead.
I round the corner. Solo teeters on the footbridge suspended over the river. Directly below him is a young bear.
NO CARS HERE
I’ve settled four hours by ferry from the urban Alaskan hometown of my childhood, in an island community of 100 people. Tenakee Springs nestles along the waterfront like a string of beads at the nape of the glacially-carved mountains behind. There are no cars here. We commute by skiff or by foot. I must cross this river to get from the modern-day world of work to my off-the-grid home. This crossing is the liminal space between these worlds, and one of the reasons more people don’t live where I do.
MEETING A BEAR
I unsheathe my bear spray and step onto the bridge—somehow feeling safer upon the man-made structure. The Alaskan brown bear gazes into the river like Garfield staring into a fishbowl. With Solo wagging directly above him, the scene would be comical from a more than twenty-foot vantage point. The bear could easily bat Solo with a clawed paw or charge me. But his attention is trained down beneath the river’s surface.
The bear springs forward, sprays water, but emerges empty-handed. Teenage bears, like their human counterparts, are notoriously clumsy at the basic skills of adulthood. I wait, torn between my empathy for his endeavor and my own safety.
He steps farther into the river, towards me. I can see each thick strand on his lanky body, rustling like tawny grass. His oversized head swings side to side, searching.
Again, the bear pounces, giant front paws clap together. This time, he pulls a red and mustard-yellow fish from the depths. The half-dead salmon writhes under his claw. Then he bites down, and with one rip, the fish slumps. The bear drags his prey to the far shore.
A GOOD COMMUTE
Most bears will move off if they smell or hear a person, but occasionally one will charge. While it’s about as statistically likely as a car smashing into another on a rush hour freeway, the possibility is always on my mind. Yet I wouldn’t trade this commute for anything. I arrive on each end refreshed, ready and able to be a productive teacher in town and a clear-headed writer and helpful spouse at home. The bears are part of that journey.
“Heeeeey Bear!” I yell because I want to keep moving. The youngster turns and stands on hind legs, squinting at me. He towers above the bridge. Then he hurtles up the bank, a bulky blur running faster than I ever could—but running away.
Megan Moody lives in Tenakee Springs with her partner and dog. When she’s not hunting, fishing, writing and gardening, she runs Tenakee’s equivalent to a school and teaches for the University of Alaska. She is currently finishing her first book, a memoir about her family’s experience with schizophrenia.