Grin and Bear It

I'll always be grateful for those eight days in the woods with my father

Photo by Jill L. Ferguson

The noise of the small propeller plane's engine drowned out any attempts at conversation, so we were content to watch the scenery below. Snow and ice encrusted the mountaintops despite the June sun. Icy water lapped the shores and encircled the islands, lush with vegetation, watered from the winter run-off. My father tapped my arm to alert me to a bald eagle atop a tree below. I smiled in acknowledgement, and was taken back to my childhood. Dad could spot almost any animal at more than 30 paces. His eyes were akin to the eagle's, and his enthusiasm at any bit of fur or feather had been instilled in me. Early in my life, I had dubbed him "Mr. Nature," and I spent years cultivating my knowledge of creatures so I could be just like my dear dad.

That was why being in the plane, on this trip to Katmai National Park to see the grizzlies with him was so perfect, the absolute best way for us to celebrate his 70th birthday. Dad had never been to Alaska but had always thought it would be fun to go. And though he might be more content to hunt the moose and grizzlies, this was not that kind of trip. The only shooting we would be doing was with camera lenses pointed at the wildlife.

When the plane glided down onto the sandy beach and cut its engine, we were free to talk and hear each other. The first thing Dad said was, "I need to pee." He is a prostate and bladder cancer survivor, so needing and being able to pee unassisted is a blessing. As the pilot directed, he turned his back on us and streamed into the sand as we walked in the opposite direction up an incline of a few feet into an area of sage grass, sandy soil and brush.

Six grizzlies the size of SUVs were ahead of us. They munched the grass and lumbered about seemingly unconcerned with human presence. But safety precautions were heeded anyway; the pilot commanded us to cluster together. Click, click, click went the digital shutters, capturing every grizzly lumber, each turn of a head, every placement of a hefty paw.

Dad leaned close and said, "They don't care about us because they've never been hunted." And he was right. Prey learns to fear predators. The grizzlies at Katmai are predator but never prey.

Instead of reacting to us, they acted for us. One particularly large male flopped onto his back, put his paws on each side of his head, and curled up and back down while lifting, stick-straight, one leg and then the other in best Pilates form. I dubbed him Yoga Bear.

We watched a sow with a cub escape from a sexually stimulated male by running towards us. The pilot once again reminded us to group together for safety, but I was unfazed and unafraid. I was caught in a déjà vu from seven years earlier, in a different spot in Katmai, when a sow put her cub on her back, reminiscent of how my dad put toddler me on his shoulders, and swam across an inlet directly toward me, my then-husband and our small group of eight people. The sow and cub escaped a pursuing male. Infanticide is all too common in the bear world, where copulation forces ovulation and only the biggest, strongest offspring survive. Mama bears at Katmai were smart. They used humans frequently as boar-bear repellent to keep their youngsters safe.

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The male turned tail before he came too close to us and mom and kid passed by to fish for salmon on the beach just past our plane. I reflected on the number of times while I was growing up that my father kept me safe, when he taught me to ride my two-wheeler and to drive a car, how to camp during rain deluges without getting washed away, and how to be vigilant for wildlife while hiking. To this day, it's ingrained in me to look over the rock and fallen tree to check for rattlesnakes before stepping over these obstacles.

Our group followed the sow and cub, watching her teach the little one how to fish by coordinating the powerful paw and mouth movements. Cameras still click click clicking. Later, back up on the bluff, we marveled at the largest grizzly I've ever seen. He was the HumVee to the other passenger SUV-sized bears. And even more remarkable, he was missing most of both ears. The pilots, who were very familiar with this bear, told us that he was an old-timer and had been through many fights, which caused his ears to be torn off. I was reminded of the ways, both visible and invisible, we are all battle-scarred by life.

After morning turned into afternoon and our hours with the bears came to a close, we boarded the plane and flew the 45 minutes back to Homer. I had rented a spacious stone and timber house overlooking the water for our few days in Homer, but we spent little time in it, except to sleep and for Dad to read his Bible and pray in the mornings while I meditated in another room. The rest of our time was spent roaming around the spit in search of wildlife and watching the water and waves for whales.

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Two days later, we pointed the car northwest to meander towards Denali National Park. We stopped for glaciers, natural history museums and other points of interest along the way, but we drove in silence mostly, partly because neither Dad nor I are compelled to chatter, and partly because Dad isn't particularly fond of the radio. And I was sure my usual rock, pop and hip-hop would make his hearing aids buzz.

I had rented a small two-story with a loft cabin 10 miles outside the park. It sat in what can only be called a rustic residential enclave down a semi-paved road. Every evening and early morning, a moose cow and her calf grazed the tall grasses of the side yard. And as we drove to the park and back each day to hike, we witnessed that moose were more populous than humans in June in the area. Often we had to stop the car to let a herd pass or drive with extra caution as they dined on catkins in the swampy marshes near the roadways.

We skipped Denali's bus tours and ranger-led experiences in order to explore on our own, as Dad and I both hate hours spent sitting to see things through a window. Instead, we'd consult the map, find a trailhead and set off on our own, admiring wildflowers, intricate spider webs, and bear scat and moose droppings. We searched for bear paw prints to track, and we strained our eyes scouring the mountainsides for Dali sheep, but always came up empty.

The woods encouraged little discussion but what we had revolved around nature: Did you see this beautiful bud on this tree? Look at the way the new growth on the pines is luminescent green. Have you ever come face to face with a black bear?

Signs all over the area warned visitors of appropriate behavior upon encountering a black bear or a grizzly bear:

Never approach the bear.

Do not run.

Hold your ground.

Play dead if contacted by a grizzly but fight back against a black bear.

And if you survive (I added those four words), report all bear incidents to a park ranger.

The repeated signs and warnings caused me more concern than being in the woods did. Were there so many problems in Denali that people needed to be warned at the park entrance, in all of the literature they gave you, on the map and at what seemed like every trailhead?

Dad, who has been in the woods with all kinds of wild animals, was unfazed, so I tried to follow his lead. But every so often, as we crested a hill where the path veered in a direction we couldn't see, I wondered what we'd do if a black bear and her cubs stood in our way. I didn't want this birthday trip to be Dad's and my last.

On the second to last day, we drove in companionable silence back to Anchorage, the city from which we started our journey. We split a salad and gluten-free pizza at a restaurant near our hotel. We talked of his upcoming trip to Nicaragua, where he was leading a team to build an addition on an orphanage owned by my brother's nonprofit organization. We talked a bit about my mom's health; she doesn't travel, due to fibromyalgia pain, and hasn't been well in about 30 years. We speculated on when I might visit them next, and if I'd be able to bring my fiancé of a month, whom they still had yet to meet.

The next morning, Dad dropped me at the airport, since his flight was six hours after mine. He decided to go back into the city and to try to find a gift for my mother. We hugged goodbye at the curb and, as I walked into terminal, I was so grateful for the eight days we had had together, with very different dynamics than when the whole family comes together. While we have some different viewpoints, opinions and even politics, in many ways I am my father's daughter. He's instilled a great love in me for natural wonders, plants and animals, and for the outdoors. For that, I'll be forever thankful.