This essay originally appeared in Alaska Magazine last year. In honor of Mother’s Day, and mothers in general, it is my gift to strong women everywhere (human or otherwise) who sometimes need to do really, really hard things for the sake of their children.
“My Alaska Adventure” (Alaska Magazine, April 2013)
I shared breathing space with a bear.
It was my second trip to Hallo Bay Bear Camp in Katmai National Park, 120 air miles from Homer. The first had been a tranquil, media-fueled introduction to the lucrative business of bear viewing; a June day tour to lush meadows where Alaska’s largest residents grazed like big, hairy cows.
I hadn’t come to write, this time. I needed an escape from the painful realities of an autistic teenager and a husband who desperately needed me to get it together. Hallo Bay, I hoped, would be the perfect place to clear my head.
Camp had changed by September. Emerald grasses were replaced by drying strands that rattled in gusty breezes, and salmon carcasses littered the beach. Everything looked and felt different, as if the earth was waiting for a squall to rush in and announce summer’s end.
Upon arrival, I dumped my backpack inside the small quonset hut that would be home for the next few nights, and feverishly pulled on rain gear with shaking hands. Camp manager Brad Garasky was waiting outside, a pair of hip waders in one hand.
“Here,” he said, handing me the waders. “Let’s hike up the creek.”
Swollen and cold, the creek was a turgid rush of dirty water, full of slippery rocks and hidden branches. And bears. Bears swimming, bears fishing, watching with wary looks as Brad led the way upstream, zigzagging back and forth to avoid intrusion. Unhurried, looking in all directions at once, Brad exuded confidence I lacked, announcing the presence of bears with a quiet statement of caution and encouragement for appropriate action.
Eight bears later, we turned around. I counted customers on my fingers as we came upon them; Silver Ears, Big Head, Blackie. Brad suggested we return via the bank trail, a highway of sorts where discarded fish heads and the dank smell of wet fur signaled recent passage by locals. My inner conscience protested as I climbed around twisted willows, trying to avoid the picnic of salmon parts. Then Brad stopped.
“There’s another bear,” he said.
Slipping onto a wide sandbar pockmarked with tracks, we waited. “He” turned out to be “She,” and she had a cub, a fearless two year-old who, like most preschoolers, wanted nothing to do with parental boundaries. Popping in and out of underbrush, the youngster skittered along to our right, while mama kept on course, Brad and I in the middle.
“Sit down,” Brad advised, with no hint of urgency. “We’ll stay right here, and she’ll move over to get between us and her cub.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Sure, I’m sure,” came the calm reply.
I sat, my eyes riveted upon the bear, and hers upon us, as she continued our direction. Brad crooned with the smoothness of Perry Como as this other mother pounded within five feet of my trembling body, indeed shielding the cub with her own enormous presence.
“You’re a good bear, keep on going, you’re just such a good bear.” Brad’s voice was a lifeline around the sound of eight paws and the rush of blood in my ears. The bear scarcely moved her head as she passed, but her glance missed nothing. Yellow, piercing, and yet strangely missing the ferocity I had expected, these were eyes of any parent determined to protect, to nurture, and I recognized them as my own.
A lifetime of five minutes later, sow and cub climbed into the green wall of brush and disappeared. Brad stood, looked at me carefully, and said, “Are you ready?”
Yes. Yes, I was.
May your Mother’s Day be blessed.