This week’s news offers the saddest crossing of paths — a bear killed a hiker in Denali National Park, about two hours south of my home in Fairbanks. The bear, based on the photographs left on the hiker’s camera, was browsing. The hiker was out, like any of us might be, to explore and enjoy wilderness.
The story: person sees bear, and perhaps (we may never know), gets too close, moves too quickly, or is simply surprised. Bear sees person, and perhaps (we may never know), responds to the person’s flight with a predator’s instinct or is more aggressive than the usual bear. Whatever happened, both are dead. It’s the first fatal bear mauling in the park’s 95-year history.
The comments online in our local newspaper are merciless. They cast blame on the hiker, on his lack of bear spray or a gun, on the bear, on the Park Service, on the government for paying for “CSI-style investigation,” and finally on each other, as they call each other out, insisting others confess how many years they’ve lived in Alaska. As if longevity or “sourdough status” as Alaskans call it, is the criteria by which opinions have merit.
None of the bickering will bring the hiker back, rewind the moment he came upon the bear. Nor will it make any of the commenters immune to bad luck and bad timing themselves.
And strangely, in the midst of the accounts, the ugly comments, the news crews flying north to cover the story, and debate over releasing the photos left on the unfortunate hiker’s camera, I remember my daughters’ odd reaction to a picture book I used to read them, Helen Oxenberry’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.
The book is full of sweet illustrations and playful repetition. The children in the book happily set out in search of a bear. They cross all kinds of terrain: through the swish of dry grass, the slosh of a river crossing, the sticky mud, the snowstorm, and finally the gaping mouth of the cave. As the tension rose, my daughters, Cedar and Coral, whispered along with me:
Oh no a cave, a deep, dark cave.
We can’t go over it,
We can’t go under it.
We’ll have to go through it.
Tiptoe! Tiptoe! Tiptoe!
When the children meet the bear, Oxenberry mitigates the terror by focusing on the dog. In the illustration, he crouches, tail turned, ears laid flat, shaking before the surprised-looking bear who braces himself upon a boulder as he gets up. Frightened, the children in the book run.
Cedar, disturbed, asked, “Why didn’t they bring a gun to shoot the bear and why are they running?”
“It’s going to catch them and eat them. They should have brought a gun,” added Coral, earnestly.
Both girls looked at me, unblinking, unwilling to suspend disbelief for these sticky plot points. To them, hunting means catching, not seeking. Why would someone hunt without a gun? In their view, the book made no sense.
Most Septembers at our house, if the hunting is good, the meat we will eat for the winter arrives in our driveway on the back of a trailer: a moose. Last year when my husband T.J. returned, the girls ran out to look at the antlers, and they didn’t blink when their dad’s hunting partner handed my older daughter a bag containing the moose heart. She was thrilled. Her fifth-grade class was planning to dissect it at school. Coral even asked if she could go moose hunting this year. “I can be very quiet, and I can carry a lot of things,” she said.
Like the newspaper commenters, my daughters define themselves as Alaskans. They remind me of this when it’s 25 degrees and I ask them to put on a coat. They argue, “Mom, I’m an Alaska kid. It’s not even cold yet.” They trump my almost 20 years of living here with one quick “I was born here.” In terms of sourdough status, even though they’re younger, they win.
Essayist Sherry Simpson, who moved to Alaska when she was seven, Cedar’s age now, explains in her book The Accidental Explorer, “Since I was a child, I’ve wished I’d been born in Alaska, so that my connection would seem implicit, and not something I’m always trying to force, like the caulk that seals the ship’s planks, the knot that clasps the rope to itself.”
My girls have that implicit confidence in place. Since toddlerhood, they have known what to do should they confront wildlife. They will tell you what to do when a moose raises its hackles and snorts. You run. Once you’re out of its territory, a moose will leave you alone. When she was one and a half, Coral ran around to the front yard from the back where she had wandered alone, huffing and yelling, “Excuse me! I can’t help you! There’s a moose!” T.J. picked her up and walked around the corner of the house to find a mother moose nursing a newborn calf in the back yard. He praised Coral for her good judgment.
Bears are different. We’ve always told the girls to never run from a bear. Prey runs, so if you run, the bear’s instinct kicks in. Stand your ground. Wave your arms to look bigger. If a brown bear charges, stand for as long as you can, and then play dead if it makes contact. If it’s a black bear, fight. While we were hiking last summer, Coral, planning in case of emergency, told me calmly, “If a bear comes, you can pick me up and put me on your shoulders. Then we’ll be taller than the bear and it will go away.”
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt was a struggle for Cedar and Coral because wild animals are nonfiction to them. They’ve stood at the living room window and watched a moose eat our Halloween pumpkins. An occasional lynx crosses the road in front of the car. At Denali National Park, they watched a wolf carrying a Dall sheep leg back to her pups. On the tundra in Denali, they’ve watched grizzly sows and cubs through binoculars.
For bedtime tonight, with the news and the ugly comments it incited still heavy on my mind, I think I’ll pull Beatrix Potter off the shelf. When the foxes wear gentlemen’s vests and the ducks wear bonnets, the girls are more willing to suspend disbelief. A cat and a terrier running a shop? Completely believable. A dog and a cat baking pies? Why not?
Just don’t tell my daughters you’re going hunting without a gun. And don’t ask them to put on their coats. They are Alaska kids after all.