A recent article in an environmental magazine discussed a trip by a small group to the Aichilik River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).  The group included the executive director of the organization, a multimedia artist, one looking to tie racial justice to environmental movements, a photographer, an author, and their guide.  These were important people, head of a national organization, published authors, international exhibitors, go getters.

And they didn’t belong in ANWR.

The first inkling was laughable.  The musician saw caribou and walked towards them holding out his hands in a gesture of peace.  This is Alaska, not a petting zoo.  It quickly became worse.  Shortly after they had set up camp on the Aichilik River, where I backpacked in 2009, a bear came downstream on the other side of the river, then crossed to their side.  The photographer and a club director then went towards the bear, soon retreating, running, hollering, and using their bear spray in such a way that it formed a mist.  The bear came close, later lay down and rolled before departing.   I quote:

“Fortunately—especially considering that …executive director….was part of the trip, dispatching a beautiful grizzly was not necessary.  The bear turned and fled as suddenly as it had approached…”

Sow with one cub crossing a side stream on the Noatak. River.

Cubs crossing a side stream on the Noatak River.

moving away

moving away

I was appalled.  “especially”?  “dispatching”?  The verb is “to kill.”  A bear that was minding his own business until two humans appear, a species he may never had encountered before (that happens in northern Alaska) scream, run, and spray something that he can smell but isn’t bothered by?  Twenty feet from camp?  Why weren’t you backing up quietly long before the bear came?  Why did you approach a bear?  Why would you run, potentially provoking a chase?  And why would you use bear spray nowhere near a bear?

More practically, why would you publish what you did? I would have been embarrassed as hell.

I’ve had a sow, two cubs, and a 2 year-old grizzly suddenly appear out of brush and walk through our camp.  We were obviously alert but hardly shouting, spraying everywhere, and causing a ruckus.  We stayed quiet and still.  I’m a nobody photographer, but I got nice pictures, and I certainly didn’t approach the bear.  Later, on the same trip, a bear came down the shore of a lake towards our camp.  When he got within 100 yards, the guide stood up, said, “Hey Yogi.  Out.”  The bear turned and ran off.  They run about a mile when this happens.

I’m a nobody.  I’m neither an executive director of a club, nor a famous musician, nor a famous author, nor an organizer.  I’m just a guy who has been in ANWR twice, knows the Aichilik basin, been in the Brooks Range four other times, and encountered 17 bears. Lot of people have done a lot more than I.  A lot. True, a couple were killed by a bear 10 years ago on the Hulahula River in the Refuge, the first fatal attack there.  They had done all the right things, but the vast majority, and I am not exaggerating when I say vast majority, of bear encounters end with the bear’s running away, no spray needed.

As for caribou, if one sits down on the ground and stays quiet, and they will walk close by.  The animals don’t see humans as a threat when humans are quiet and low.  Stand up with hands outstretched, and caribou quietly but determinedly move away.  I was new in Alaska once, and I tried to approach one.  It left.  I didn’t state my mistake until now, because as I said, I’m a nobody.  I expected better from world class important people, who write articles for environmental magazines which are well read by millions.  I expected them not to approach a bear for a “perfect picture,” certainly not to shoot bear spray into the air, which does no good at all, and absolutely not run, which will have the bear potentially chase.

Caribou with no telephoto.  I was sitting quietly on the ground.

Caribou with no telephoto. I was sitting quietly on the ground.  Upper Aichlik River, 2009.

Just curious.

Just curious.

The part about “dispatching,” or killing the bear, was most appalling.  Nowhere did the author discuss Alaskan hunting regulations, which require the head and hide of the bear be brought out, which is a huge deterrent to shooting bears.   Had this environmental leadership group been involved in killing a grizzly, I, a life member, would no longer be a member.  My wife, another life member, had a better thought for a letter to the editor:  “You were a disgrace to the organization and should quit.”

Fortunately, at least for the wildlife, it appeared that the group didn’t float the upper reaches of the Aichilik, which may well have been too low.  It was there where I saw Dall Sheep, 10 meters above me and used my camera to view them, not try to approach them “in peace.”

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River, 2009.

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River, 2009.

IMG_1279 IMG_1281


I’ve had a wolverine on the Aichilik run right by my tent.

Wolverine, running away, lower Aichilik River, 2009.

Wolverine, running away, lower Aichilik River, 2009.

I’ve seen the Sun well above the horizon at 2 a.m., and I’ve walked the banks in a pouring rain.  In short, it is part of Alaska, and one accepts the land as “It’s Alaska,” not trying to mold the country into what suits you, but to deal with Alaska on its terms, what comes your way—hunger, thirst, bugs, no bugs, heat, cold, dry riverbeds, floods, wildlife, no wildlife.

I’ve seen solo hikers in Alaska.  This isn’t smart.  Some have had trouble—a sprained ankle is life threatening— and set off emergency locator beacons to get hauled out.  A German did that once up near Summit Lake, not because he was hurt, but he got into more difficulty than he realized.  ELBs are non-specific.  He needed a satellite phone. Frankly, that area is fairly easy hiking for Alaska.  Walking in the stream is fast, walking far from a stream avoids tussocks.  You learn that when you’ve been up there a while.  Alaska hiking is not Europe. He was flown out, no easy feat, costing American taxpayers $15,000.  Our wilderness is for real here.  I could hike the Aichilik alone if I wished.  But I would never do it.  There are far too many risks.

I’m an experienced Alaska hiker, which is to say I am several levels below guides.  I know enough to take weeks getting into shape before I go, have good gear, which isn’t new, but which I can trust, know my limits, and take only what I know I will need.  I’ve gone with one other, I’ve gone with six others.  I’ve hiked in every condition imaginable except freezing rain, and that was close.  I’ve seen wonderful sights up there, from Kotzebue to the Canadian border.  I trust the bush pilots and the guides.  I’m a nobody, a guy from the “lower” who loves the country, respects it and knows his limits.  I’ll never have my experiences published in an environmental journal, but do note the picture at the top of the page you are reading.

I took that in 2010, on the Noatak, from my tent.  She had two cubs, too.  I played by her rules, stayed silent, and she could have cared less about me.

Just like Alaska.


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