This is a submission in our monthly contest. January’s theme is “Wild.” Enter your own here!
2017 was the year of the bear for my family. Officially it may have been the Chinese year of the rooster but for us, it was definitely the year of the bear. Born, raised, and living in Australia where kangaroos and small marsupials abound in the wild, I dreamed to see bears in the wild. I marveled at the idea that these large mammals still had enough habitat to survive.
We planned a trip to Canada and Alaska. Others may go to these locations to see Lake Louise or get their fill of glaciers. For our family, it was all about finding a place that had so much wild that bears roamed free.
We talked about the wilderness a lot. Sure, we have the outback in Australia with it’s deadly snakes but how could this compare to the real wild as we started to call it. The real wild not only had bears we discovered in our planning. The real wild had wolves, caribou, deer, moose. It had squirrels, chipmunks and marmots.
We studied hard for our trip into the real wild. We read travel books and blogs. We watched TV shows about hardy Alaskans living in harsh and unforgiving lands. We learned how to feed a dog team through winter, how to survive in a tent in subzero temperatures and how to make a makeshift bed from pine needles. These skills were sure to come in handy in our RV adventure through summer.
We also learned that Alaskans were not as keen to see bears in the wild as we were. We often heard an Alaskan say “I’m really hoping we don’t see a bear” while watching the programs. Rather than being amazed that bears continue to exist in the wild, many Alaskans seemed to spend a lot of time hoping they wouldn’t. One woman would regularly recount the time a bear attacked her and speak of the ongoing psychological trauma she suffered as a result.
Undeterred by any local opinion, we remained keen to see bears. Sooner than we knew we were in Canada trying to see our first bear. Our first black bear we saw from a shuttle bus and another we saw crossing the road in front of our car, so fast we couldn’t even take a picture. Finding two black bears, a mother and cub, on the side of the road eating berries was a highlight. We excitedly filmed these bears from the safety of our rental car.
We became interested in animal scat. How to tell a brown bear’s scat from a black bear, how to tell that of a moose from a deer from a caribou. For the first time in my life I came home from a vacation with numerous pictures of animal poo on my phone. I’m not telling how many but it was more than five and less than 20.
Our first face to face encounter with a wild animal happened when we stumbled across a moose and her calf on a brief walk to the lake in Alaska. I was so focused on bears I hadn’t read up on moose and chose to behave as if the moose was a horse. According to a ranger talk I heard later, the mama moose in summer is the most dangerous animal in Alaska, prone to aggression when protecting a calf. Fortunately for me, the moose seemed to know we were harmless Australians and didn’t charge me or my children.
In Denali National Park we observed plenty more bears from the park shuttle bus. We took a hike close to the visitors center and spotted a bear walking across a river. One child started walking backwards, deciding that was close enough. A debate about what was 1000 yards exactly began. 100 yards is the distance we were told to keep at all times from a grizzly. A yard means nothing to an Aussie who functions on the metric system. Without signal we couldn’t Google an answer. According to my kid, 1000 yards was the point we stood.
We pushed on wanting to get closer to our first bear that we had discovered on foot. As we walked closer, the bear decided to put more distance between us. Clearly, the bear knew what 1000 yards was.
On our down day in Denali National Park, we decided to take another hike in the real wild. Denali doesn’t have marked trails so we followed a wooded area parallel to the river from our camp. As our hike continued we began to notice bear scat in increasing quantities. It looked kind of fresh.
“Sing out, kids,” we said. “remember to make noise. This is what we’ve been practicing for. We don’t want to surprise a bear we just want to see one.” Silence. Then we came upon a freshly chewed and rather large caribou leg bone. The kids started singing out “I don’t want to go any further,” “I’m scared,” “There’s a bear here,” “It’s going to eat us,” and “we’re going to die.” At that moment, it dawned on me. The kids did not want to see a bear in the wild any more than the Alaskan folk on the TV show.
We pushed on, because my training as a psychologist has taught avoiding things in response to anxiety is not good for kids. I’m pretty sure that sometimes my kids hate that about me. My husband and I were pretty sure that the kids were going to ruin our chance of seeing a bear on the hike. We resentfully grumbled under our breath about how the kids were killing our dreams while enthusiastically encouraging the kids to keep moving towards what they were sure was certain death.
We gave up the hike when we were entered a wolf den area. No further hiking was permitted to protect the wolves’ breeding success. As we turned back, a bus driver hailed us and asked if we could see the large grizzly bear about 900 yards from where we were hiking. No, we couldn’t. He pointed and gestured for a while before eventually drove off telling us hopelessly blind Aussies to make noise and keep our eye out for the bear. A disagreement began between my husband and I this time about how far 900 yards was. I realized and not for the first time, how often we relied on Google to solve our problems.
We had the unenviable task of convincing the kids to hike back to camp with the kids now fully aware that there was a bear in our proximity. The same bear that was at some distance which neither of their parents could agree on or provide any reassurance about. We searched the zone for the grizzly for some time but never spotted him. What had been high anxiety in the kids was now closer to terror. With some heavy negotiation involving S’mores, we managed to get the kids to agree to hike back to camp along the open river bank. My husband held the bear spray as we proceeded.
We didn’t sight that bear much to my disappointment and the kids relief. They ate a lot of S’mores that night and seemed to forgive us for forcing them to hike into possible danger. We saw more bears throughout our time in Alaska and we learned how to convert yards into meters. The kids remained scared of seeing a bear in the wild unless we were in a vehicle. According to many Alaskans, that’s just how it should be.