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Alaska is for the bears, even if we don't know it

Heather Lende photo

Yesterday morning we cycled right into a fog bank at about 9-mile so thick I had to stop and take off my glasses. This is right along the stretch of road adjacent to the Chilkat River where we always see wet bear prints and piles of bear poop.

Actually, the whole road from home to 10-mile has been like that this summer. If the Haines Highway were a hiking trail, we would carry bear spray, sing loudly, and probably turn around and go home when we encountered, say, the fifth pile of poop. But on a freshly-lined, paved road we feel safe. Sort of.

Anyway, we did not bump into a bruin in the fog, but I sure pedaled faster out of it than I did into it.  My granddaughter, 2-1/2 year-old Caroline, spent the day with me Wednesday. After lunch, Caroline napped in her buggy while golden retriever Pearl, my friend Teresa, and I walked in the sunshine down Mud Bay Road to the cannery.

We had just passed the Mt. Riley Trail parking lot and were heading down the hill -- and of course, chatting the whole way -- when John pulled up on his motorcycle and asked if we were okay. He said he almost ran into two brown bears who had been walking on the road right behind us moments before.  

"You can see my skid marks up there where I stopped," he said when we thought he was teasing us.

They must have been in the alders when we walked by. They must have been just a few feet from us.  Bears? In the afternoon? And a hot afternoon at that? Evenings and mornings I am careful. But this is a busy road for Haines, and it was hot -- almost 70. Everyone knows bears sleep during the heat of the day. Pearl hadn't even barked.

Then, on the golf course Wednesday night, I noticed an alarming number of fresh piles of bear poop -- especially in the rough, where most of my balls landed. Our foursome took a while. Teresa hit a lot of extra shots for practice, and Jan, the priest, gave me tips on foot placement and swing, while Jenny-Lyn, the artist, helped me choose clubs.

My lost ball count per hole read like their score cards -- 4, 4, 3, 5, 7 (whoops), 2 (an eagle!) -- you get the idea. The sun was setting as we played the final hole and I wondered out loud about bears. I mean, we weren't on a road, we were in bear country, on a river full of spawning salmon, at dusk no less. My internal alarms were ringing.

Jenny-Lyn pointed helpfully to a well-beaten path through the brush.

"That's where they come and go," she said, noting that they can sit or nap in the alder and willow clumps between the fairways so quietly that you'd never know they were there, until you go to search for a lost ball.

"They don't want to see us," she said. "Trust me, they know we are here, and are just waiting until we leave."

I thought about the bears I don't see on my bike rides, and the ones I didn't see walking in plain sight right behind me, and the bears that I don't even hear strolling on the beach in front on my house all night long, and hit another drive into an island of brush, and left it there. No need to change my luck.

Meanwhile, my neighbors share horror stories of bears breaking into trucks, garages, and sheds, and at least one home. Bears who are stripping cherry trees and tearing up gardens. I like to believe that we can share the Chilkat Valley with the bears. I like knowing they are here. It seems that as long as we have bears among us, we have a kind of wildness that is rare and wonderful and worth protecting. There is a reason that it is so thrilling to just see a bear.

But I am also very glad, that so far anyway, the ones I have had near-encounters with are like the bears in the book Caroline so enjoys, "Blueberries for Sal." They are shy enough of people, even grandmothers strolling with babies, golfers, and floppy young dogs on the beach, to keep their distance.

Heather Lende writes from Haines. Her new book is "Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs." This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.