In the long, distorting hindsight with which we hold onto and apprehend most of the events of our lives, the bear will become story.
“She’s out today,” James says. We catch our first glimpse, at mile 9—Denali, the great one. So that’s it, I think. The tallest mountain in North America: austere and remote and imposing—yes, all of these things, just like a postcard image. Now I’ve seen it with my own eyes, but I am too dazed and jetlagged to muster a deep reaction. Is there a box to mark somewhere? Tallest mountain: check.
I’ve spent two nights at James’s house in Fairbanks where I’ve moved in a fog of discombobulation, marveling at the proliferation of pale-trunked aspens and forgetting to sleep at night. “Tell me what time it is without looking at your watch,” James said to me on my first evening. “Eight o’clock,” I guessed, and then when I checked my wrist, I discovered it was nearing midnight, the sapphire gloaming in the sky throwing off my sense of time. I’ve been mildly addled since, going through the motions of grocery shopping for my wilderness adventure, filling my cart haphazardly with bread and canned meats and Ramen and instant oatmeal and apples. How much can I eat in ten days? The question perplexes me, and I buy too much.
But now, driving down the park road, something new: we come to a checkpoint at mile 15, beyond which the pavement gives way to gravel and private cars are not normally permitted. Since we’re in James’s Subaru Impreza, we are required to present documentation and explanation to the ranger in the booth: I’m the artist-in-residence headed to Toklat cabin at mile 53, and James is giving me a ride. We have special permission to drive on the park road. After questioning and document checks, we’re allowed through, and as the miles unspool, I begin to grow numbly inured to the landscape: spectacular vistas flash past with mountain, tundra, braided rivers, fireweed, all the Alaska things, and occasionally we pass green or tan buses disgorging tourists with cameras at turnouts.
At last, in the early afternoon, we arrive at my cabin at Toklat where we unload. With a long drive back to Fairbanks ahead of him, James soon departs, and I’m left wandering inside my cabin and out, looking at the two-inch nails, protruding sharp end out, that stud the shutters—which I should keep closed when I am away to deter curious animals from checking the place out. And when I say animals I think bears. I don’t know what to make of all this, being left here, in the middle of official wilderness, when barely five days ago I was checking my email and Facebook in my suburban New England house. My arrival here was preceded by months of planning, saving money, orchestrating childcare schedules. To come here I have left behind my husband and two children, ages seven and ten. I have given up the opportunity to teach a summer session class. I have put my life on hold to enter the wilderness.
And yet, the term wilderness seems like a misnomer. Though my cabin sits smack dab in the middle of officially designated Wilderness (with a capital W), I can see the gravel park road from my front porch. The Toklat River Contact Station, housed in an enormous tent and staffed during the day by rangers and Alaska Geographic bookstore employees, is perhaps a quarter of a mile down the road. I can easily catch a bus there to travel to other parts of the park. And a half a mile north of the tent is Toklat road camp, the temporary summer home of about 30 people, the rangers and road crew that serve the western end of the park. Running, I could reach people within minutes, if necessary. But standing outside my cabin in the bright silence of the evening, I am alone. I don’t know what to make of the brief, flaring fairy tale summer that burns itself out in an exuberance of light, the fireweed that blooms up its stalk marking the progression of the short season, the absence of snakes and ticks—the critters I’m used to watching for—but an abundance of bears and moose, where treeline is at a paltry 3,000 feet or lower, and where, I am told, some of the plants of the lower 48 can be found blossoming in miniature in the tundra beneath my feet.
When a friend who hails entirely from big cities asked me if I wouldn’t be afraid to be alone in the Alaska wilderness where I might get eaten by a bear, I said with bravado that I found it scarier to walk the streets of New York City surrounded by that terrible press of people, that I found big city life scarier than wilderness, and I still believe that, and I am still mostly unafraid of bears, but that’s not to say that I walk with bravado in the night to my outhouse, which is located about 50 feet up a slope among trees. But I also don’t carry the can of bear spray that I was issued during my orientation; the outhouse doesn’t seem far enough away to necessitate arming myself, and I don’t want to be that clumsy shrinking violet who loses the bear spray down the outhouse hole in the dark on her first night alone, which seems a far more likely outcome than a bear encounter.
The bears begin on the morning of day two. I’m on a westbound shuttle bus, heading deeper into the park, nearing the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66, when a voice from the front cries “Bear!” The bus comes to a sudden stop, and every head and telephoto camera lens swivels to the left, fixating on the same point a couple hundred yards away.
“It’s probably a male,” our gravelly-voiced driver Mike says over the bus’s speakers. I watch the distant bear-shape traversing the landscape, walking on a sand bar above a braided river. The bus fills with the murmur of voices and the constant firing of cameras; those seated on the far side stand in the aisle and lean over the heads of those on the bear side of the bus. “Well, this is an interesting development,” says Mike. I scan the landscape and spot a lone caribou walking in the riverbed. The animals are approaching one another, the bear from the west above the river and the caribou from the east in the riverbed. We watch the drama unfold. “Probably nothing will happen,” Mike croons. “This time of year the bears are well-fed and lazy.” The bus grows silent in anticipation as the two animals near one another. The caribou plods on at a steady pace, apparently unconcerned about the bear, but the bear stops and turns its head to watch the caribou. For nearly an entire minute, the bear watches the progress of the caribou as it approaches, passes within about 50 yards, and then moves away. Finally, the bear resumes course, continuing east above the river. The camera clicks and chirps gradually die down; Mike puts the bus back into drive, and we continue on our journey to Eielson.
I watch the passengers settle into their seats; some scroll through photos on their screens.
“Well, we’ve seen it,” says a white-haired woman to the graying man beside her. “We got our bear.” They are sitting directly ahead of me. I watch them turn to look at the mountain as we approach Eielson. She’s out again, and the view here—33 miles from the peak—is astonishing. Like a coy beauty, the mountain shrouds herself in clouds every two out of three days in summer, so a clear day is a prize. The woman leans contentedly on the man’s shoulder: they’ve bagged both in one day, the mountain and a bear.
At Eielson, most of the tourists stick close to the visitor center, some of them venturing out to do the Tundra Loop trail, an easy one-third mile walk. But after being on the bus, I want to go further, to step into the landscape, to stop viewing it like a film that unspools its footage in a bus window. I decide to hike up to the ridge and over the other side to get a glimpse of Denali away from the park road. Denali National Park and Preserve has very few trails—most are under two miles and are near the main entrance—in order to preserve the character of a trail-less wilderness. Visitors are encouraged to hike off trail across the tundra, but few do. Today, I am one of those few. As I walk across the springy tundra, a thought sticks in my mind: I might encounter a bear. And I suspect that seeing a bear out here, outside of the safety of a bus, away from people, would be a different experience altogether.
Day three in Denali: I’m hoping for bears. I’m not actively looking for them—that seems foolhardy—but I’ll be glad if a bear crosses my path: safely, at the appropriate three-football-fields remove, or from the refuge of a bus.
This time I’m on an eastbound bus, backtracking out of the park over the miles that I covered that first day with James when I was still in such a daze that my eyes passed, almost unseeing, over landscape. The truth is, I’ve come here to watch people watching wilderness as much as I’ve come to watch the wilderness, and this is why I like to spend my time riding buses with tourists. Many of the visitors are visibly older than I am—and I am 40. I learned during my orientation that the average age of a Denali visitor is around 60. Many have saved for years to make this trip of a lifetime—the one time they will get to see Alaska. For some, due to itineraries that pack in every possible Alaska attraction, today is the one day in their entire lives that they will spend in Denali. In comparison, my ten days seem like an extravagance—but even I will glimpse only a tiny sliver of a single Denali season.
Going over Polychrome Pass—famous for its hairpin turns and sheer drops—I see bear #5. In the distant braided river below, its channels of water glinting like veins of precious metal in the morning sunlight, the bear stands as still as a statue, as if posing in the landscape. The bus stops; the cameras begin to go off. For a moment, I am frozen, just looking. This, I realize, is the bear I will think of when people say did you see any bears in Alaska? Yes, I saw this bear—this still creature that seems to have stopped on a sandbar in order to become part of my ideal photograph. Bear of the Braided River, I have titled it, even before I have taken out my camera to capture a single shot.
Immediately, we encounter another bear—so blonde it looks white against tundra—and shortly thereafter, we hit the real bear jackpot: just 50 feet from the park road, a blonde sow noses at bushes while her two chocolate-colored cubs gambol and wrestle. The stutter and bleeping of cameras fills the bus, and soon, other buses line up to get a view. As we watch the cavorting cubs, our driver, Mona, tells us bear facts: that the cubs are often born dark and grow lighter in color as they mature, that the brown bears of Denali have an 85 percent vegetarian diet and are not as large as salmon-fed bears, that the bears are so habituated to buses that we are, for all intents and purposes, inside a giant photographer’s blind. “We’ve been incredibly lucky today,” she says. And we have. By the time we reach the park entrance, we’ve seen a total of six bears, averaging more than one per ten miles of park road. Some unlucky visitors can spend a dozen hours on the bus, taking the road to the end and back, and never glimpse a single bear.
Day 4. I’m waiting for my daily bear. And I have confirmed with park visitors: they, too, are here to see bears. And they want to know all about my bears: how many I’ve seen, and under what circumstances. We want each other’s stories, but so far, my stories are just affirmations: Yup, I’ve seen bears. Out of bus windows. They were walking or digging or sleeping or eating or smacking their cubs or just standing there. They were being bears. Nothing happened.
I know the park wildlife rules by heart: the 25 yards of space that moose, wolves, and caribou require, the 300 yards to give a bear. I know the protocol for what to do if I encounter a bear. First, try not to encounter bears. Avoid them. Scan the landscape. Shout “Hello, Mr. Bear!” at willow thickets and over ridges and in areas with poor visibility. If you see a bear at a distance, reroute. Give it a wide berth: three football fields. That’s a comfortable distance from a bear. If you come upon a bear unexpectedly and the bear sees you, don’t run. Raise your hands in the air to look big and talk to the bear. “Look here, Mr. Bear, I’m a human being, and you’re a bear, so we have no business to conduct together. I’m just going to slowly move away while you go about your berry eating. You have to meet your 200,000-berry daily quota, which means you have no time for dilly-dallying.” The bear may have no interest in you and do nothing. Or the bear may false charge you: running at you and then veering away at the last instant. Stand your ground. Keep looking big. If you have bear spray, you can shoot a charging bear when it’s about 25 feet away, and then again when it gets closer. Aim for the nose. A can of spray lasts seven seconds, so plan accordingly.
During my orientation on my first day, Ranger Cass told me not to be fearful. “There isn’t a bear in this park that knows you’re food, and there isn’t a bear in this park that knows your backpack has food,” he said. “So go out there. Be brave.”
But he also told me about the man who was eaten by a bear here in 2012: the first time in the park’s history. He told me all the things the man had done wrong. Since that time, I’ve heard the story from three other rangers and a bus driver. They tell it as a cautionary tale: How Not to Act Around Bears.
The man, 49-year-old Richard White, left a partial record of what happened in the 26 photos that were later found on his camera. He had come far too close to a foraging bear—somewhere between 40 and 60 yards—and he photographed the bear for nearly eight minutes. In the final images, the bear has turned its attention on White and is moving in his direction. According to a news report, the bear seemed “agitated” and had “a definite, focused stare.”
After the killing, the bear secured White’s body in a food cache. Several hours later, three hikers found the man’s backpack and bloodied clothing and summoned rangers. Eventually, the bear—a 600-pound mature boar, about five years old—was found and killed. The attack occurred near the Toklat River about three miles south of the park road—and three miles south of my cabin.
I’m in the Toklat Ranger Contact Station—the tent—talking to Ranger Bob and Ranger Tina, gregarious husband-and-wife ranger team and erstwhile schoolteachers from Tennessee. In the lull between buses, we have the place to ourselves. I’m just back from a hike—it’s past 5 p.m.—and I have yet to see a bear today.
Ranger Bob wanders to the tent entrance—perhaps to look for approaching buses on the park road—while Tina and I keep talking.
“Bear!” Bob suddenly calls.
Tina and I move to the tent entrance and step outside with Bob, who is looking south towards the road. We follow his gaze and see a bear nosing around in the willows near the river, perhaps 50 yards away. For a moment, we all just watch.
I am acutely aware that I am standing on the ground, on my two legs; I am no longer up high, ensconced in metal and glass, inside a vessel that can move faster than a bear. Suddenly, this is no longer a wild animal park safari. The bear and I are both just animals out here in the wide world, and our paths just might cross. The bear has claws, teeth, 500 pounds of bulk. I have my much smaller physique, my wits, a can of bear spray in my pack. And today, at least, I have two park rangers.
Bob and Tina watch the bear as it wanders through the vegetation. Because as rangers their first priority is to keep visitors safe, they tell me that if the bear comes closer, I should step inside the tent and shut the door behind me—though the thick canvas walls don’t offer sound protection. But the bear is moving away from us, down into the riverbed and out of view. We know it’s still there only because a couple of buses coming from the east stop on the bridge for the passengers to take pictures. When the buses eventually roll into Toklat, Bob keeps the passengers contained to the northern end of the parking area, instructing them to use the vault toilets furthest from the tent. Then the bear comes back into view, walking out of the riverbed and heading west over a rise, in the approximate direction of my cabin, where it disappears.
“We’ll drive you home,” Bob offers during a lull in bus traffic. I climb into the backseat of his car—parked behind the tent—and he and Tina drive me the short distance to my cabin. They watch me unlock the padlock and go inside, and then they head back to the tent before the next bus arrives.
Toklat was crawling with bears last year. A ranger said this to me this morning, and now I repeat the words to myself as I picture the face of the earth like an animal hide, the vegetation like fur, the bears like fleas, rampaging in every direction. I keep thinking of the bear vanishing over the ridge, towards my cabin. I tell myself that nothing has changed. But something in my mind has shifted: previously the bears were out there, a part of the landscape, not here, near my cabin. Still, I will have to go outside again eventually.
Finally, I head to the outhouse—carrying bear spray. But there is no bear to be seen, a rainbow stretches across the sky, and the fireweed continues to burn itself out in the brief Alaska summer.
“Did you see Fabio last night?” Ranger Bob asks me on the morning of day six when I arrive in the tent. He tells me that last night, when he and Tina took a drive to scope out a hiking location, they saw a bear they call Fabio—an old, thin, long-haired bear—on the road near my cabin. He’s been around, Bob tells, for all four of the summers that he and Tina have been coming to Toklat. I haven’t seen Fabio, but I add him to my mental bear census.
I join Ranger Tina’s discovery hike, and the dozen of us head into a gray, misty rain. Because the ground is wet, we eat lunch standing in the rain on a hillside. Ranger Tina tells us that usually at this point she hands out postcards and asks people to write something to themselves. She will mail the postcards, and in several weeks we will receive a message from ourselves, a different version of ourselves, the version that is out here in the wilderness today, and if we run across the card later, five or ten years from now, we will remember this day: stepping out of our lives to come to this place. But since it’s raining, she waits to give us the postcards on the bus. I hold mine the whole ride back to Toklat. It’s still blank when I get back to my cabin. I do not know the words that I would speak to my future self from my current temporal and geographic position. I could write that I yearn for bears, but is that true? Perhaps I do not yearn for bears, but for what they represent. I want to step outside my cabin, that pocket of safety; I want to disembark from the park buses, those armored pods of civilization. I want to strip down to just myself and walk on my own two legs. Pared to my essence, I want to face the bear—or what the bear means. I yearn for something impossible: to peel away civilization from my being, to slip out of it like discarding a sock, to stare wilderness in the eyes.
“Quick, go find the stamper!” a woman shouts to her son as they burst into the Eielson Visitor Center. They’re being carried on the wave of passengers who have just gotten off a bus—and time is short. The boy, about 12, heads directly for the passport cancellation station, where he stamps the official Eielson stamp onto the appropriate page in his National Parks Passport. I watch rangers at the information desk dispense maps, directions to the restroom, information about the bus schedules.
A chilly fog hangs in the air. Visitors stand at the enormous window that’s meant to frame the mountain, only there’s nothing there to see. An etching in the glass shows where Denali would be, if she were visible. Some take photos of the white bank of fog. Others photograph the large picture of the mountain that hangs on the wall: an image of what they almost saw, of what they could have seen, had they come on another day. It’s day seven, and I haven’t seen the mountain for three days now.
For many day-trippers, Eielson is the end of the line: the round-trip bus ride to mile 66 and back is a full eight hours. This is as far as they will go into the park and as close as they will get to the mountain. I watch the people milling about the window that frames the empty space, and I think about something that Ranger Dan told me: the mountain is even more present when she’s not out. Obscured, ineffable, she becomes in their minds a specter, a possibility, looming larger in imagination than she ever does in reality. Because the idea of the mountain is more potent than an actual mountain.
And maybe it’s also true that I’m after not actual bears but the idea of bears. And the idea of bears for me has come to permeate every inch of landscape, every vista, every breath I take. Most of the bears I’ve seen—I’m up to 15 now—are distant and two-dimensional, barely more than flat representations on a screen. But the bears in my imagination take away my breath. They come to me in my dreams. Almost everything about the bear is mightier than me: its bulk, its muscles, its fur, the weight of its bones, its teeth, its charisma, its solidness and comfort in the world, its claws—especially its claws, glinting in my dreams like sickles.
According to Alaska writer Sherry Simpson, people who encounter bears “soon realize that the bears living in their heads are not the same creatures walking the world around them.” Is this why I seem to be having trouble seeing—really seeing—a bear? Because my mind is clouded over with a thousand ideas and myths and images of bears? Some bears “are trophies, some are meat. Some are predators, some are prey. Some are noble, some are nuisances, some are clowns,” Simpson writes. “Most difficult to understand are those that are just bears, animals whose purposes and desires and lives belong only to themselves. Those are the bears most of us never see.” And that, precisely, is the bear I want to see: the one that no one else sees.
On day nine—my last full day—I’m on a hike in the East Fork River led by Ranger Emily, and we are talking about bears. Emily is telling me why she thinks people are so fascinated by bears: because they can eat us and so in their presence we no longer feel like we are at the top of the food chain. Because they’re mysterious and there’s so much we don’t know about them. Because of the myriad and often contrary ways in which they are depicted—as cuddly Teddy bear versus ferocious beast. Because they are our kin—they resemble us, or perhaps we resemble them, in body form, in diet—and because we have lived together—or near one another—for thousands of years. Where bears go, people go. In some Native American legends, humans are descended from bears, or bears morph into humans.
We have hiked some distance north and are well out of sight of the park road when we stop for a break. I pull out my water bottle and let my eyes wander over the hills of tundra to the west, and suddenly my gaze snags on something: a bright blue tent, and on the next slope, a small orange one. Further in the distance I can just make out a third tent, tan with green accents. Suddenly, the wilderness—or rather, my illusion of it—shimmers like a mirage, disintegrates. I am not in wilderness at all; I am surrounded by people. And the pristine vistas as seen from the park road—preserved by rules that require campers to be out of sight of the road—suddenly seem artificial, maintained so that tentative bus-riding tourists clutching big-lensed cameras can be secure in their illusion that they are seeing untrammeled nature, so that they don’t get a tent in their photograph, so that the picture is not marred by the corrupting presence of humankind. But for me, suddenly, that illusion evaporates; Denali is crawling with people.
I think of Roderick Nash’s concept of an environment’s “carrying capacity”: how well a place withstands human influence while still remaining wild. When too many people visit a wilderness, there comes a breaking point at which the place ceases to be wild, losing the very quality we were protecting. According to Nash, “This impact of wilderness lovers upon other wilderness lovers is the main reason why wilderness can be loved to death.” Three tents do not make a mob. And yet, just as that first bear in Toklat made the whole region crawl with bears, so now does the presence of three tents transform this into too-crowded terrain, the wilderness version of a New York City street corner. The truth is, the landscape is crawling neither with bears nor with people—or at least no more than it ever was since my arrival. It is my mind that crawls with bears and people, and that places them in opposition. The problem with wilderness—or my idea of it—is that I can have it only at the expense of others not having it. Wilderness is finite, a special condition of not seeing too many other people or the mark they make. Wilderness is the willful erasing—or at least the temporary concealing—of other members of my own species. With our superior brains, we have thought ourselves entirely out of the wild—the very world that birthed us and that is, or once was, our home. This is the paradox of wilderness: that we can destroy it by our very presence, and in the end, it is only an illusion anyway. But the bear knows no other state but wilderness; the bear is always in wilderness, or put another way, he has no grasp of wilderness as a concept because he does not make demarcations between the tame and the wild. He does not draw lines upon the globe separating himself from other living creatures, for the bear is wilderness. He carries it with him wherever he goes—and it is for this, perhaps, that I envy him most.
In my final bus ride across the park back to Toklat, I see bears #17, 18, and 19. But bears glimpsed through bus windows have become so commonplace that they’re barely worth a mention in my notebook.
It’s my last evening in the cabin, and I’m rereading an essay by William Cronon: “if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves. The absurdity of this proposition flows from the underlying dualism it expresses…. The tautology gives us no way out: if wild nature is the only thing worth saving, and if our mere presence destroys it, then the sole solution to our own unnaturalness, the only way to protect sacred wilderness from profane humanity, would seem to be suicide.” Is the extreme form of seeking wilderness a wishing away of my own existence? Have I come here, in part, to get away not just from other people, but from myself?
This thinking is not conducive to what lies ahead: my leaving the wilderness, returning to my regularly scheduled life. I keep reading. “Without our quite realizing it, wilderness tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others,” Cronon writes. “If it isn’t hundreds of square miles big, if it doesn’t give us God’s eye views or grand vistas, if it doesn’t permit us the illusion that we are alone on the planet, then it really isn’t natural. It’s too small, too plain, or too crowded to be authentically wild.” Soon I will be returning to my modest New England landscapes, to the classroom and student essays, to the cooking of meals in a well-appointed kitchen and the shuttling of children to swim team and piano lessons, to gridlocked traffic and the wails of sirens on city streets. I am leaving the realm of grand vistas and grizzly bears.
These are my thoughts as I venture outside into the night, headed for the outhouse.
In the morning, after a restless last night at the cabin, I make one last trek to the Toklat tent where I find Ranger Bob on duty. We say our goodbyes, and I leave with him the postcard that Tina gave me on our hike. Instead of addressing it to myself, I’ve addressed it to her. Thank you, I’ve written. I will never forget that day. I’ve filled the card with words, but I make no record for myself of what they say.
Now, with all of my gear and excess food packed in Ranger Dan’s car, we’re headed east to park headquarters, where I’ll spend my final night in Denali. As I watch the landscape spool by one final time, we talk about bears. Dan tells me that he used to lead a ranger program on bears, and that he would begin by describing his own bear encounter, drawing the story out and making it as dramatic as possible. The entire encounter lasted maybe 30 seconds, but it took him ten minutes to tell the story. It’s not even a remarkable bear story—he encountered some bears and then they left him alone, which is actually how the majority of bear stories go—but the point is to have a bear story. The point of seeing a bear is having a story to tell afterwards.
“This may be our oldest, truest survival skill: the ability to tell stories and to learn from each other’s stories,” writes Simpson. “In some ways, Alaska is nothing but stories.” And an archetypal Alaska story needs a bear in it. Yet a life is not the same as a story—not even close—but a story is all I can make of another being’s life, and when we are speaking of other species, that story is not just imprecise but sometimes fatally wrong. Bears have no need for my stories, and to turn their lives into one is to misapprehend them entirely, and it is also to surrender to the impulse that makes us most human. In an encounter with any wild animal, a rift exists between the event itself and the story we tell of it afterwards. The bear sees me as a creature, something to be apprehended and appraised entirely within the context of preserving and furthering that one immeasurably valuable thing he has in his possession, his life, and I see him as a danger, as something that threatens my own life—in that way, we are both creatures simply trying to live—but later, in the long, distorting hindsight with which we hold onto and apprehend most of the events of our lives, the bear will become story, defanged and declawed and disempowered and worn to harmlessness with my words, something utterly foreign to what he actually is: the bulk of flesh and bone and blood and hide, the intellect that nestles deep in his alien bear brain. Words are never as sharp as teeth or claws, for by my very ability to tell a story, I have given away its ending: that I came to no harm, that I am still here.
For two years after my time in Denali, I speak little of the bears I saw, believing somehow that if I don’t speak of them, I will be able to maintain their true essence, their astounding bearness, in my mind. But as soon as I name the bear, I will occlude my vision of him; he will become my bear and not his own bear. He will become the kind of bear that we see, not the kind of bear that we don’t see.
But it is words—written and spoken—that make the best, most lasting containers for our memories, so in the end, before my memory of the bears grows fuzzy and distorted, I capitulate to that most basic human urge: I tell my bear story. My 20th bear finally becomes that which I have resisted by remaining silent, that which I have been protecting him from with my self-willed muteness; he becomes the only thing I am equipped with my human brain to make of him: a story. And no matter how many times I tell it, how many details I include or leave out, how long I stretch it to spark wonder and dread in my listener’s heart, how viciously I tear at the veil of wilderness that obstructs my vision, it will not be the bear’s story—it can never be the bear’s story—but remains ever only my own.
My 20th bear came to me that final night in the cabin, when I was walking to the outhouse. I was thinking about leaving Alaska, about returning to Connecticut, about seeking the wild in my own backyard when I stepped blithely around the corner of my cabin—and there, 30 feet away, coming out of the vegetation, was the bear, its coat glowing burnt sienna in the twilight. When I appeared and then stopped dead in my tracks, the bear rose up onto its hind legs to see me better, the dark pits of its eyes fixating on me, pinning me to the landscape, to the fireweed and night sky, to the wilderness. I was close enough that I could see the subtle variations in color of its coat, from strawberry blonde to chocolate, and the gentle rise and fall of its massive chest as it breathed. I was close enough to see it apprehending me, its mind working on me like a problem that needed solving. For some time—ten seconds? a minute?—we stared into each other’s eyes. This is what it is to be seen by a bear, I thought—and it was nothing like merely seeing a bear. Suddenly, I was stripped down, a weak, two-legged creature completely at the bear’s mercy. But that was not the right word. Bears don’t have mercy. But looking into those eyes, I understood that bears have will, that they are self-willed like the land. I was at the bear’s will. To be seen by a bear was to be rendered to flesh, to muscle and bone; it was to be overpowered in every way, by body and bulk, an intellect that is keener and more alien than I ever imagined. To be seen by a bear was to be put in place on the chain of being, which at its essence is the food chain. And I was clearly below the bear, for I had nothing: no bear spray, no weapon, and even my sneakers were untied. This, I thought, is to enter the wilderness. At last.
I did none of the things I was supposed to: I didn’t raise my arms to look bigger, I didn’t talk to the bear, I didn’t shout, “Hey, Mr. Bear, fine night for a stroll! How about we both go on our merry ways?” Simply, I looked at the bear, and the bear looked at me. And then slowly, I backed away from the bear, reversing my steps to the cabin, maybe 15 feet behind me. The bear only watched me. When my feet hit the porch, I lunged for the door and crashed inside. Then I stood there, my back against the shut door, my jellied legs trembling, waiting for the bear’s bulk to come slamming against the wall. I watched the windows, waiting for its massive skull to appear there and its dark eyes to seek me out and for its mighty paw to smash through glass. I waited for a monster bear, a mythical beast whose aim was to devour me. I waited for a bear that never came, a bear that didn’t exist at all. All night, even after I was in bed, I waited, and nothing happened. The bear that saw me did only that: see me. Then it continued on its business of being a bear. The whole episode was but a chance encounter between two species—like a billion others, utterly unremarkable. We simply left one another in peace. My story was no story—only it was, because in the end, a story was the only thing I could make of it. The bear—this bear—was the fitting conclusion to my Denali story. I had come here to see—and be seen by—this bear.
Read Yelizaveta P. Renfro’s Letter to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by Terrain.org and Trinity University Press.
Read Yelizaveta P. Renfro’s essay “Woods in Winter” appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo of bears in Denali National Park and Preserve by Don Kosmayer, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Yelizaveta P. Renfro by Kate Chritton.