The following excerpt is taken from Alaska magazine contributor Bjorn Dihle’s new book, A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears (Mountaineer Books, 2021). Dihle’s gripping and authentic account weaves outdoor adventure, natural history, and memoir to present a fresh and vivid portrayal of these fascinating creatures.
In 2010, while on a six-week trek across the Brooks Range, I followed the fresh tracks of a large grizzly up a box canyon not more than thirty yards wide. Except for a lost Nunamiut Eskimo man I’d found and walked with for a day and a half to the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, I’d been alone since I’d begun traveling west from the Dalton Highway two weeks prior. The wind was hard on my face, and heavy rain and the roar of a cascading stream muffled out all but my loudest warning calls.
Hours wore on, and my nerves became increasingly frayed—at any moment I expected to run into the bear. Being stuck in a narrow gorge with any grizzly is dangerous, but my instinct, honed from solitude and numerous tense encounters with bears, told me this animal was particularly aggressive. The tracks of two wolves appeared. A short while later, strewn across the ground, lay a caribou calf they had killed that morning. The bear had claimed it from them. Blood and offal blackened the sand and gravel, but little flesh remained. I knelt, cupped the calf ’s face with my hand, and studied the black scree mountain slopes rising into dark clouds.
I climbed out of the gorge, hoping to sidehill and avoid an encounter, but I quickly came to a crumbly cliff, so I sat in the pouring rain on a ledge and fought something akin to panic roiling inside of me. An hour later, I calmed down enough to continue. When the bear finally appeared, it looked like a gothic monster in the rain and mist. I let out a breath as it lumbered across the slope above, unaware I was watching, rolling over giant boulders in search of marmots.
I hiked well past dark before camping near a mountain pass. The sound of caribou snorting and the clacking of their hooves and tendons woke me numerous times during the night. The following day, I walked with thousands of caribou traveling down the April Creek valley. They had given birth to their calves on the Arctic’s coastal plain in June and were slowly migrating south to their wintering ground. I pushed through a wall of brush and came upon the carcass of a partly eaten bull caribou lying in a stagnant pool. The surrounding mud was beaten down with the tracks of a small grizzly. A moment later, a dark form rushed forward from the willows—an old female caribou, which stopped a few feet away and stared.
Late that evening, I dropped my pack on a knoll and was about to make camp when I nearly stepped on the bloody quarter of a caribou that had been killed a few hours prior. Arctic grizzlies depend heavily on a vegetarian diet but supplement their intake with caribou, ground squirrels, and other sources of protein when they can. Bears often drag a dead animal into the brush and cover it with debris in what is called a cache. They’re especially dangerous when guarding a kill. The bear was probably just yards away with the rest of the animal. I pulled out my pistol, shouldered my pack, and hiked through the darkness as startled caribou ran circles around me until I was far away.
The population of grizzlies in the Brooks Range, especially in areas like Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which is closed to hunting, is denser than many might believe. When I first ventured into the Arctic, I figured my chance of seeing a bear was almost zero. I didn’t bother bringing a gun and only threw in a pepper spray as an afterthought. That trip ended with me almost getting knocked down by a grizzly.
In the morning, a blond grizzly appeared beneath a black tor—a thirty-foot-high protrusion of ancient granite rising from the tundra—and quickly walked in my direction. I backtracked and, hoping the bear had not seen me, deviated sharply from its trajectory. Soon the bear appeared and ran across the tundra toward me. It paused at seventy yards and paralleled my movement for twenty minutes across a big plateau until it lost interest and climbed a desolate ridge high into the mountains.
That night I sat cross-legged, watching the last of the day’s light pour through clouds onto the rolling mountains above the headwaters of the Alatna River. It’s near here that the Nunamiut believe their ancestors were given the gift of life. In The Nunamiut Eskimos, Nicholas Gubser relates that a benevolent giant named Aiyagomahala created the Nunamiut and then showed them how to hunt and trade. Aiyagomahala taught ethics, kindness, and love and warned about the dangers of anger. Before vanishing, Aiyagomahala stuck a mitten into the ground, and mountains—known as the Arrigetch Peaks—formed in its place to remind the Nunamiut of their creator. I felt there was something special about this place. The world appeared motionless; even the scattered bands of caribou seemed frozen.
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