Thursday, October 11, 2012

Kayaking Across Alaska With a Dog

It’s true what they say about a river being the lifeblood of a continent, like the blood pumping through your veins. I never fully understood this at first, but it was a lesson that would surge through me by the time I was done. 13 years ago I paddled across Alaska with my dog Jonny riding in the bow of my kayak. I couldn’t bear to leave him behind, so I hacked out a hole in my kayak and took Jonny to Alaska. We spent 67 days kayaking down the Yukon, and I had never seen my dog so alive.

Once on the trip, during the night just down-river, a grizzly bear woke Jonny up out of a dead sleep. He smelled the bear and started barking and growling like the world was ending. I knew what it was by the sound of his barking, and I nearly freaked for a second as I was waking up. I looked out the tent door, which I had left open except for the bug screen. I did this when I was in grizzly country if the weather was nice; it allowed Jonny to hear and smell what was outside. From the tone of Jonny’s growls and barks, I was pretty certain what I was going to see before I glanced outside. I saw a large bear standing upriver on the bank forty yards away. He had stopped walking to see what I would do. I pulled on my running shoes and scrambled out of my tent. I kept Jonny on a leash, and carried my shotgun in my other hand. I sat on the dirt in full view with almost no clothes on. Remaining completely calm was critical. I talked softly to the bear to ease his apprehension. He grunted and blew air huffishly to warn me, but I kept sitting there mumbling to the bear while looking down at the dirt in front of me like an indigent half-wit, so that maybe he would take pity on me and not feel so threatened. I didn’t want to look directly at the bear or stare into his eyes, but I needed to watch him out of the corner of my eye. Surprisingly I wasn’t really that afraid of the bear, but I was shivering from the cool night air. Some elusive sense I had informed me he only wanted to go on his way past my tent, and continue foraging for food along the river. Perhaps my incognizant brain was cuing in on thousands of particles of information that I couldn’t perceive consciously. Bears need to eat a lot; so keeping him from his routine made me feel bad and made him irritated. Even when bears aren’t doing anything else, they will often be grazing on fresh grass. I’ve seen them eat enormous quantities of grass. My presence was even keeping the bear from doing that.

     Eventually he walked up into the woods perturbed, and bulldozed his way through the brush around my camp to get back to the river. I heard large sticks cracking as he walked like he was holding a grudge. This is a good way to tell what kinds of animals are moving through the forest when you can’t see them. Bears are flat-footed like people. They walk on the pads of their feet, like raccoons, not on the tips of their digits like ungulates and canines. Bears put their feet on branches and break them as they walk, while ungulates walk on their toes, and put their feet between branches as they walk because they have less surface area to catch the branches. Bears make a lot of noise when they walk. They don’t really have anything to be afraid of either. With their hulking bodies and big feet, I’m not sure they can help it.

      The noise the bear was making ceased abruptly. This told me he had stopped to study us through the trees. I couldn’t see him in the shadows, but I knew he was there. He remained for half and hour, until I heard him start walking again to finish the half-circle around my camp. Then he went on his way, apparently satisfied with us. I could hear his branch-breaking fade off in the woods, and in the dimly lit July night I remained awake to make sure he wasn’t coming back. I never saw him reemerge out of the forest to walk the river’s edge, but I felt satisfied he didn’t want to bother us.