The Nation River
I get shaky and scared as the bear trys to drive the moose upstream into shallow water. So I have to stop filming and hold my shotgun.
A black wolf standing on the bank. There were two wolves who were following the bear, hoping for some leftovers. I was a bit afraid of them before I saw the bear, then I saw the bear on the mooses back and then I really was worried.
The Nation River, ten miles up from the Yukon River
The Nation River
Yukon River at mouth of Gleen Creek
I had a wild idea, insane really if you ask most people, but for me shit like this has become the norm. Buy a cheap PVC raft for twenty bucks, fly to Eagle, Alaska, paddle across the river with my dog Billie sitting between my legs, float down the Yukon River to the mouth of the Nation River, and leave the raft. Then hike up the Nation River and Kandik Rivers and head north until I hit the Porcupine River and somehow hike out to Old Crow Village or build a log raft and float down to Fort Yukon.
Well hell, I didn't make it that far. A bunch of little things kept going wrong right from the beginning, which eventually made me realize this trip was a bust and I had to turn around before I died. On the first day of hiking I threw out my back and couldn't walk for two days. I was almost fifty. I had too cheap of a raft, so floating out a small river over rocks would surely tear it to shreds. I had too much weight and too far to go and in terrain that was a lot brushier and rugged than I expected. And I couldn't wade the river at will like I had done with all the rivers in the Brooks Range years before. So I had to walk through the forest on many of the bends, and go around mountains when there were cliffs along the river. And I was too fat.
But the final blow that told me I had to turn around and make my way out before I got killed was a run in with a very aggressive grizzly bear trying to kill a moose. At one point I was hiding in my camp among the willows while this age old battle played out forty yards in front of me. I had a 410 shotgun with slugs cause some bastard on YouTube said you could kill a bear with one. But I told myself as I watched, half frozen with fear and half inspired by awe, that I was going to need a much bigger gun. My days of telling myself bear spray was enough to protect yourself against bears were over. I'm now a fan of the double barrel 12-guage.
I watched for twenty minutes as this bear tried to kill a moose in three feet of water while two wolves waited and watched from the bank, hoping for a meal too. The moose and wolves saw me right off but the bear was two amped to notice me. It was only a matter of time before he got too close and mistook me for food too. And I didn't want to go back in the woods and climb a tree and lose sight of this beast. Besides, don't believe what you read, this bear, there is no doubt in my mind, could climb any tree I could, and a hell of a lot faster. So finally I stepped out on the gravel bar in plain view and fired four times into the river. Huh, with those three inch slugs, it packed quite a punch. The moose saw me, the wolves sauntered off, but the bear remained focused on the moose, trying many angles to reach the moose in the river. Finally, when the bear was on my side of the river and moving my way, I yelled. HEY! Immediately the bear turned, saw me, and started charging my way, thinking I might be a smaller moose or something. Before, I had been lackadaisical and feeling a little sorry for myself for all my little problems in life and not paying attention. I hadn’t put on my survival face, not until now. I woke up; something deep and primordial in me came to the surface, like how humans always used to be when they survived in the wild. With adrenalin pumping, I was fully aware of everything: my shaky hands, my rapid heartbeat, the clear water, the mosquitoes, my gnawing hunger. I fired my gun into the river about ten feet to the right of the bear in hopes of stopping a charge before he got too close and I had to make a decision to roll into a ball and hope to hell he stopped like they tell you to do, or shoot center of mass to kill. With my breech loader, I’d only have time to load one more shot and then it would be decided, live another day or don’t. The bear heard the report of my gun and saw the splash of the slug impact, and transformed instantaneously. He became scared, fled into the woods, ran downstream a quarter of a mile, crossed the river, and ran into the hills and disappeared. I really screwed things up for him.
Anyway, I didn’t get much sleep that night, and Billie was just as scared as I was. She had stayed by the fire the entire time. Some bear dog. As morning came, my fear turned to sorrow. I was sorry I ruined a good meal for the bear and the two wolves. The moose looked old and likely to die in a year or two. I’m sure the bear and wolves were keyed into that. Animals are in tune with things that are really important; things that keep them alive. While my biggest concern up to that point was maybe I should get a cell phone when I got back. What a joke. My life was a joke when I’m disconnected from nature like that, not understanding what truly matters. And what matters is eating and staying alive and letting wild animals eat and stay alive as much as you can. As much as I can.
After that encounter, I hiked down the Nation River, floated a hundred miles in that shitty little raft, hoping every mile it wouldn’t pop, until I reached the village of Circle, where I flew home. Next time, I got to pay more attention, and not get in the way of some wild thing who is simply trying to survive. Their lives are hard enough already.