I was driving up the Haines Highway toward home on a bright early summer afternoon when a sudden thought materialized: I’d better slow down. And with it, a distinct image of a large brown bear loping across the road, left to right. I eased my foot off the pedal and drove onward, more careful than I had been but thinking ahead to all I had to do—and maybe a mile later, a big reddish male bolted out of the brush, over the guardrail and across the road, less than 20 yards off my front bumper as I leaned on the brakes.
Sure, the entire Haines Highway cuts through bear central, and glimpsing one now and then from behind the wheel is hardly a newsworthy event. But this was different. Somehow, I’d not only felt, but seen him before I saw him—forewarned in bright, exact detail, perhaps avoiding a collision. Call it premonition, ESP, coincidence, or crazy, that’s what happened.
Okay, so here’s another. I was making a long solo haul in my van south from Fairbanks through the Yukon on a wind-blasted October day, skirting the fringe of Kluane Lake, when a similar thought occurred to me, but without an accompanying mental image. Better get your camera gear out and ready. Bear ahead. Never mind that I’d never seen a single bear along this stretch, and gale-force winds, time of day (mid-afternoon), and a sparsely vegetated flat seemed unlikely circumstances. Still, I pulled over and dug out my telephoto-mounted Nikon and had it ready. Not too far ahead I spotted a gorgeous blond bear with chocolate markings digging roots 50 yards off the road, and we hung out for a while. She’d have been easy to miss, but thanks to that inexplicable heads-up, I’d been looking.
Weird, right? I mean Twilight Zone music in the background weird. There’s some sort of thing going on between me and brown/grizzlies (I wouldn’t claim the same for black bears or polar)—more than I can explain or expect you to believe. Nonetheless, it—whatever it is—is definitely there, some sort of intermittent interspecies vibe-sharing. For me, this grizzly radar is as rare as it is definite, showing up every year or three and maybe averaging out to one occurrence per 100 to 200 bears. Each of the roughly dozen events, or whatever you want to call them, goes beyond the always-new, thrilling experience of brushing literal or figurative shoulders with The Landlord to some sort of connection I can’t rationally explain.
Most of these involve specific mental nudges that a bear is nearby. For example, my brother and I were boating up the Noatak River 40 years ago, the bluffs on either side of us thick with willow and alder. When you’re driving a hand-tillered skiff through squirrely, rock-studded water, you don’t tend to look behind much. But something told me to glance over my shoulder to a spot halfway up a slope, a slight clearing in the brush above us. And there stood a grizzly, peering toward us. I had just enough time to tap Tony on the shoulder and point, and it was gone. When asked how the hell I’d made that spot, I could only shrug.
The vibe seems to go both ways. I recall watching a bear grazing blueberries halfway up a mountain, so distant that even with binoculars, I could scarcely make out its features. The grizzly suddenly stood on its hind legs, stared directly toward me, whirled, and scrambled over the valley rim in total panic mode. There was no way he smelled me; a relentless wind was falling downslope. And totally unlikely he saw my camouflaged form at that range. But seems he felt those eyes, the way we sense a stranger studying us across a room. I’ve had a few of those, where a bear I was watching hurriedly left, apparently feeling my presence. And likewise, walking in the country, I’ve gotten creeped out by nearby bears I felt but never saw, and turned back. Of course, I can’t prove they were there, but knowing what I do, how could I have ignored
I’m saving this story—different, hard, verging on supernatural—for last. I was camped with Sherrie on an August night in 1996 up the Nuna River when she woke in her sleeping bag, terrified. There’s a bear out there, she whispered, a bear. I grabbed gun and flashlight and peered about—nothing—then slid back into an uneasy sleep. I dreamed I was a ghost, wandering through Russia, of all places, invisible to everyone, trying to find my way home, and woke troubled. Days later, back in Ambler, my buddy Tom Walker called with the terrible news: our friend Michio Hoshino, celebrated Japanese Alaska nature photographer, had been dragged from his tent by a bear at Kurilskoye Lake on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and killed that very same night. More, I’d originally agreed to go with him on that trip, but thanks to having just met my future wife, changed plans. I still don’t know what to make of all that, except to acknowledge that it happened.
The Alaska Native elders I met and lived among over the years would be hardly astonished by any of my accounts. They, like their ancestors, believed grizzlies possessed psychic powers far beyond our own; and would maintain it wasn’t I who projected any messages or foreknowledge. It was the bear, each and every time. As one Tlingit man reminded me, Grandfather knows everything.