Foot off the pedal of my beater van, I idled down the gravel lane less than a quarter mile from our place out the Haines Highway. I’d been out for a short spin on a September evening, cruising for pictures. Cottonwood leaves flickered in golden light. Then Whoa! A brown bear cub launched out of the brush to my left, headed uphill and away. At the same instant, mom exploded out of the fireweed in an all-out, incoming charge. If I hadn’t punched the gas, she would have rammed the driver’s side door. She flew past the rear bumper, whirled, and gave chase, breaking off as I rounded the curve. Still muttering to myself, I realized the dark shape ambling down the center of the gravel road before me was another grizzly. Just as spooked as I was, the chunky dark male bounded down our driveway, swapped ends, then galloped back across the road and off through the woods toward the Little Salmon River.
All in all, a pretty exciting 20 seconds—especially when I realized that just a half hour earlier, I’d been coasting on my bike past the exact same spot without the luxury of a shielding, speedy metal envelope. What could have happened is anybody’s guess, but I reckon with the same timing and distance I’d have been blown off the pedals and been lucky to tell the story. I knew those bears—in fact, had watched all three parade through my yard on separate occasions, and run into them on my evening bike rides. Each time, the male proved calm and shy; the female with cub edgy and aggressive, throwing me the stink eye even at a hundred yards. Bears are a lot like people or dogs. They’re all individuals, with varying temperaments. Ninety-seven out of 100 may be fine but watch out for the other three.
Though I was never in danger that evening, that sequence is definitely etched in my highlight reel of bear scares and dust-ups stretching over half a lifetime. It’s not every day you get to look straight into the jaws of an onrushing grizzly, 20 feet and closing, and just tootle off. But more, it stands out as an exclamation point to a freakishly high number of ursine sightings and encounters over my three-week stay out the Haines Highway this past September.
Sure, there are always bears around. Our extended, decidedly woodsy, Alaskan-rural neighborhood of a couple dozen homes and cabins is, after all, bounded by major salmon spawning areas and laced with berry-rich forage. But our well-fed and socialized bears have been historically polite, sightings now and then just part of the local vibe. Kids ride bikes and adults take walks without worry; some folks carry bear spray, most not. This year was totally different. I lost count after 20 and figure close to 30, mostly brown/grizzly with a few black, most of them within a mile of my door, a third of those in or near the yard, and one so close I could stare up the leathery whorls of his nostrils. I stashed four different cans of bear spray at strategic points around the property, kept my barn doors bolted, put out screw-studded boards at my door to discourage anyone walking around in bear feet, and was careful rounding blind corners. I took to carrying a pistol and flare gun on my evening bike rides, and finally gave up on those as just too scary. The piles of bear flop and tracks, sometimes right up against the house, bore witness to how many passed unseen. One morning, I woke to find the heavy wooden lid to my septic tank access dislodged; I considered calling the cops to report a hairy prowler trying to steal my, uh, stuff.
And it wasn’t just me. The whole Haines Borough, population roughly 2,500 souls spread over as many square miles, endured an unprecedented bear storm this past summer and fall: bears ripping into metal storage units, sheds, and even vehicles, killing chickens and scaring the dookie out of folks pretty used to the idea of living around bears. So and so got chased out of his vegetable garden and into the house; another guy, out for a ride, ended up playing matador with a bear using his bike; my neighbors a half mile away felt forced to kill a female accompanied by two cubs after she ignored repeated, point-blank blasts of pepper spray. The cubs were later killed by the ADF&G. From downtown to Out the Road, everyone seemed to have a scary bear story. Firearms sales surged. The root cause was far from a mystery. A wet, cool spring led to a total failure of the blueberry crop; and salmon were few. To any bear, eating enough to sleep through winter is all that matters, and they were reduced to scrounging from us—trash, chickens, whatever.
Those three were far from the only bears that died last summer and fall around the Haines Borough in what’s legally known as DLP—defense of life and property. By late October, the official toll climbed to 24 bears. Add on the 16 killed by sport hunters, and we end up with an unprecedented 40 human-caused brown/grizzly deaths in the area—about double the previous record, a crazy high number. If you removed that many from a similar-sized area around Katmai’s fabled Brooks Falls, people would wonder where all the bears went. Meanwhile, not one human suffered a reported injury from a bear encounter in Haines this year. So, who should be scared of whom? Go figure.