I’ve been bitten by quite a few animals in my life. There was the cat in Bangkok, the dog in Peru, the horse in Columbia, the scorpion in Kenya, and my bunny in California; but the best bite story was the bear in Alaska.
This story takes place on The Talkeetna River sometime in the early 2000’s. We flew in to the air strip with the 185 packed to the gills with rafting gear and Doug Geeting at the controls. The plane bounced down the dirt runway with trees and bushes just feet away from the wings, while Doug smiled and smoothly guided the plane to our drop off. I was working for Nova Riverrunners, owned and operated by Chuck Spaulding. We regularly ran The Lions Head class 4 on The Matanuska River, The Sixmile Creek class 5 near Hope, The Chickaloon River class 3/4, and The Talkeetna River class 4. The Chickaloon and Talkeetna are both fly In backcountry trips that take several days. Chuck had set up these trips in coordination with teen backpacking trips. The teens would hike with their leaders suffering in the Alaskan wilderness for days and then get picked up by us to raft them out. These kids were fired up to see us. We had food and they could finally give their blisters a break. The teens surrounded our plane and helped unload all the rafting gear.
The Talkeetna River is amazing. The water is blue/ green depending on the flow unlike the dark silver glacial water of The Matanuska. It starts off casual enough and eventually channels into a pumping flow through a canyon. This is our second day onthe River. We stop to take a look to choose our line and make sure there are no logs blocking the way. No matter how many times you’ve run it, your stomach churns as you look at the entry move throwing you into The Toilet bowl rapid. That’s the thing about rivers, they are pulsing and alive with a new adventure every time. Always respect and never underestimate their power. A surge of adrenaline rushes through me. I’ve picked my line and I head back to the raft to hopefully execute it. I’m paddle rafting with the teens, which means I’m steering from the back and shouting commands like” All forward”, “left back” “Stop”. Before jumping back in the raft, I lay down in the water in my dry suit next to the boat. I dip my head in. I’m giving myself up to the River Gods in hope for a clean passage through the canyon. The other guide is on the oars with the gear boat and the teen leaders who are relived to take a break from leading this epic adventure. They have been hiking for 12 days in bushy, buggy, terrain without a trail.
We survive the class 4 rapids and make our way down to Disappointment Creek, our last campsite of the trip. This camp is a little bit of a disappointment as it signifies the end of the rapids and the sharing of the River with jet boaters. This site is popular with the fisherman and bears as salmon find their way up Disappointment Creek. We still have a full day of rafting to get to civilization in Talkeetna, but it feels less remote with other people around. As the night draws near, the fishermen go home and we enjoy a campfire after dinner. There are obvious signs of bear around this camp. It is common to see both black and brown bears on The Talkeetna. A nice big fire usually keeps them out of camp. We take the normal precautions. Cam straps around the coolers and clean up any food or kitchen items. If a bear gets into your cooler, you will have a hard time getting him out. If they haven’t gotten the food, they are easily scared away. We have bear spray and a gun, but it is unusual for bears to want to be anywhere near a bunch of loud teenagers.
Sleeping under the stars with the sound of the River is perfect for me. The other guide pitched his tent beyond the teens tents and had the gun in his tent. The teen leaders slept in a mega -mid which is basically a lightweight teepee. I positioned myself fairly close to the kitchen to keep an eye on the coolers. I also collected an arsenal of hand sized rocks which I stacked up by my bed,
1, Brown bears kill people when they are protecting their food, babies or territory. They generally avoid humans.
2. Black bears are likely to get in your trash or coolers. It is rare that they attack humans and common for them to pursue the food that humans have.
With this said, a black bear attacked and killed a teenager during a running race in AK a couple years ago. Brown bears have broken into cabins for food. Many people have been mauled by bears of both colors. ( and the white ones will hunt you!)
I’m ready and expecting to hear a bear come into camp tonight. The teens stay up late around the campfire and I drift in and out of sleep. It’s Alaska in the summer, so night never really gets dark. You can still see without a headlamp at the darkest hours. CLANK !!! I hear something in the kitchen. Jumping out of bed, I shout, “YAH! Beat it, Get OUT,”. The bear looks at me and holds his ground. He’s not that big. Looks like a teenage black bear. I throw my first rock. It whizzes by its head. The bear just looks at me like a defiant teenager. I unleash my arsenal of rocks at him yelling profanities and claiming my dominance over him. I run out of rocks. Now, I’m throwing my shoes, water bottle and anything I have. Finally, the bear walks away. Which is good because I didn’t have anything left to throw, but bad because he didn’t seem afraid, more annoyed at the crazy lady ruining his evening dining experience.
I reload my rock arsenal and lay back down in the sand under the stars. I’m not really sleeping. I’m resting and waiting for the bear to come back. The sun gets higher and soon I hear the other guide awake in the kitchen. After my night watch duty, I think I’ll just zip my bag closed up over my head to make it dark and sleep until I smell coffee. That seems fair since he was sound asleep while I protected the coffee. Now that I let my guard down, I fall into a deep sleep. Deep enough that I don’t notice my colleague walking out of camp to gather a bucket of fresh water from the creek.
I’m sleeping on my side, when I awake to teeth puncturing through my sleeping bag and wrapping around my bicep. My mind races with the thought of a dream I’ve often had where I scream, but nothing comes out. I dig deep and let out the best scream of my life. The bear opens its mouth without ripping my skin and runs off into the woods. I sit up in disbelief, ” He @#$&ing bit me!” I keep repeating myself. I look at my arm and clean puncture wounds with very little blood make the mouth imprint from the bear that #$&*ing bit me! My arm is sore. It’s hard to move it without pain. I clean the wound with soap and water and fill the holes with Neosporin. I drink my coffee and think about how the rest of the day will look. I think about what the bear was thinking. Did I look like a burrito or was he just getting me back for all those rocks. I’m going to need some help getting the boat downstream. We have a full day on the water ahead of us. Everyone is awake now and the story is getting passed around camp as well as new information coming in. The Grover ( our poop container) was knocked over by the bear. One of the teen leaders in the mega-mid woke up to something licking her hand which was lying outside the shelter late in the night. We joked about what happened first, the toilet buffet or my bite or her hand lick.
We finished the trip and heard more stories in Talkeetna about the bad bears at Disappointment Creek. Last week, a bear ripped a fisherman’s backpack right off his back. Must have had a nice lunch in it.
My wound healed too quickly despite all the picking I did. I really wanted a scar from this. Without a scar, it would just be a story. “