Monday, September 28, 2009

Alaska . . . Definitely No Teddy Bear Picnic

Bears in AlaskaThis weekend we were going through the evening routine--dinner, showers, putting away laundry--and Spencer happened to pass me in the hall and say, "Oh, I was going to go to down to the school with Joe but he says there's a bear along the bike trail there so we're going to hang out here."

Excuse me?

Living in Alaska you get used to sharing your space with wildlife--mosquitoes drinking your fluids, moose eating your lilacs--but I have a line and the bears have officially crossed it.

It's one thing to have voles or shrews munching your shrubbery and it's completely another thing to have bears munching your children. Unfortunately the bear situation here is getting worse and worse, last summer there were so many bear attacks here in the city that I was ready to swear they were organizing against us. With their shifty bear eyes and their sneaky bear ways. . . .

One attack involved a woman riding her bike along a trail in town. She was in a race (i.e. going fast) and was grabbed off her bike by a bear and taste-tested just like he was going through a drive-in window or something. Meals on wheels. He roughed her up a bit which of course put her in the hospital but the newspaper reported she made it through without life-threatening injuries. As if that makes everything okay or something.

We've always had animals and it's so common to see porcupine, dall sheep, beluga whales or eagles here and there that you can tell who the tourists are because they're the ones stopping to take pictures when one of our four-footed friends makes an appearance but with bears it's quite another story. Because they eat you.

You'd think I'm joking but I think many people in the Lower 48 have this Yogi Bear-vision of what bears are like, as if our bears here are like the ones that come up to your car and beg for food like circus animals. Not quite. Our bears are like those bears' Asian mafia cousins and trust me you do not want to be involved with the Asian mafia. Or any mafia actually, but I think that for some reason the movies tend to portray the Asian mafia as the worst kind of mafia that there is and I'm not really sure if that is a compliment to our friends in Asia or not. It could mean that the Asian people are just that much better at everything they do so that even their organized crime is a top-notch group when it comes to terror and mayhem. OR it could mean that Asians are stereotypically scary, I'm not sure which image they're going for. Either way, Asian mafia bears? Bad.

Timothy Treadwell with BearsAnyone remember Timothy Treadwell? The California surfer bum guy who was convinced that bears were his friends and that they'd been unjustly labeled as Omnivorous Depravous so he set out to prove to the world how wrong we all were? The sad part was that he dragged his girlfriend into his exploits and the two of them paid for his foolishness with their lives.

They made a movie about him so pardon me if you've heard the story before but the two of them apparently made camp along a bear path and in the middle of the night a bear that was old (ergo too old to catch normal prey and looking for easy meat) pulled Timothy from his tent and ate him before doing the same thing to his girlfriend. The horrifying, hard-to-believe part is that when the whole thing happened out of habit they pulled out the cam corder and began to record what was happening (this is of course presumably before they realized he would die) and though the tape is dark the sounds of him being eaten alive were clearly recorded and found by rescue people when their camp and remains were discovered. I guess the whole point of the story is that bears are really, really scary.

If you get attacked by a shark, they'll maim you, maybe take off a limb but the real risk is bleeding to death. If a tiger tries to kill you they'll go for the throat and the kill before setting down to eat. Bears aren't that picky. In fact, if you watch fat Alaskan bears at the end of the season along the salmon streams they'll often be so efficiently lazy that they'll open up the salmon, eat only the most nutritious parts (i.e. vital organs) then throw the rest away while the poor salmon is still gasping for air. Or water, or whatever it is that fish gasp for.

While it's uncommon to hear about a bear actually killing a person (Timothy Treadwell made headlines not only for his foolishness but because it was unusual for a bear to kill) it doesn't necessarily make me feel any more comfortable knowing that most bear attacks are just a good mauling (there's an oxymoron for you), the bear chewing on its victim until Yogi gives up and moves onto something else which really doesn't make me feel any better.

When I was a child I distinctly remember going to church one day and out in the foyer of the church there was a man visiting. He was about 60 years old and very bald, a big-chested man, and running all over his naked head like train tracks were fresh pink sutures. I watched him with fascination as a child would do (they're not afraid to stare) and he was talking to someone but as I passed him he turned and his ear had been patched back together with more fresh sutures. He'd been out hiking on one of the popular hiking trails, one I'd been on many times, and had met up with a bear who'd started gnawing on him until he'd silently prayed, "Please, Lord, make this bear go away!"

The bear immediately got up and left him alone, which probably explains the man showing up at church the next day. I think I'd be converted too.

But the point is, living with bears is just one of those things about living in Alaska. It's been strange for my husband who grew up in Colorado because he never had to worry about that kind of thing. As a kid I'd go with my family camping all the time though I never worried about bears or being attacked or anything. It wasn't until I married him and he was constantly talking about taking precautions against bears that I started to get nervous. Add to that all the recent bear attacks and I don't go anywhere where there are stretches of trees and bushes without at least a tiny twinge of "Man, I hope there are no bears around."

My feelings toward our bear neighbors are probably best summed up by a quote from a highly entertaining article that Kelly at Love Well sent me. It's from a blog called Renegade Gardener and the writer recently returned from a visit to our fair state:

With a one-hour layover before boarding my connecting flight to Homer, I wandered into the fine little bookstore within the sleek Anchorage airport, and quickly came to realize what all tourists visiting Alaska come to realize: At some point during my visit, I will be killed and eaten by a bear. One’s only prayer is that these two events occur in that order.
I don't think there have been any fatalities in a while but it makes you wonder how far things have to go before people start demanding that something serious be done. I suppose I made it through all those years without becoming an h'ors d'ouevre so the odds are probably very remote that I'll ever see a bear close up. At least that's my plan, let's hope it works out.

***

And speaking of scary things . . . did you catch Qadafi's speech? I loved SNL's take on it. If you can't laugh at Qadafi, who can you laugh at?



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41 comments:

Lucy said...

I'd like to feel sorry for that Timothy guy, but I sure can't. He wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer and neither are about a zillion other tourists who go to Yellowstone Park and try to get a "good pic" of the wild animals up close and personal. Having grown up near Yellowstone and in the Rockies, I'm well aware that the animals are 'wild', and not some kitten or puppy to pet. Others who won't realize that, I have no sympathy for.

Edi said...

Recently my mom sent me an email about a bear...b/c I didn't read the email carefully - but later read the newspaper account - I didn't realize at first that the black bear was actually on her street on her block! No they don't live in Alaska - they live around Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada - hardly the far north or "the bush"...they live in a decent sized town.

Mom24 said...

Yikes! Scary threat indeed.

SNL was funny, but they could have just shown outtakes of the speech itself (like The Daily Show did)--he was crazy!

Shannon said...

Yikes. I have never been to Alaska and this isn't exactly enticing me...but I have been camping, and the risk is there too! Have you ever heard the story of the guy whose sunglasses saved him from a bear? Or at least saved his eyesight and therefore his life? I think his story is called Bear Tracks. Pretty miraculous! Thanks for the reality check!

Shelly @ Life on the Wild Side said...

"Meals on wheels" . . . pretty funny, even if the subject isn't. :)

Your post is so interesting, and more than a little scary, too. Keep everyone safe!!

Trixie said...

My husband and I don't believe in evolution, but every time we hear something about Treadwell, we like say he was "naturally selected".

jubilee said...

Man. Oh, man. I am beyond horrified. If I weren't already terrified by bears, this certainly would have done it.

Our zoo has a couple old bears and I loath going into the exhibit. Once in a while the bears get energetic and run along the window and pound on the glass. I always try to make the kids stay waaaaaaaay back from the glass, but you know kids . . .

Yikes!

Susan said...

Hello from your reader in Switzerland who grew up in Alaska. I'm thankful to report that the only bears I saw were running away from me! I do miss the occasional Moose sightings - now when I come up for a visit with my family, I'm always trying to keep an eye out for a Moose. But I would be just as happy to never see another bear again.

Thanks for blogging!

SarahHub said...

So scary! I get annoyed with the deer who eat my flowers around here. Thanks for the perspective - and be safe!

Laura said...

I live in bear country too and frequently have them in my carport and yard trying to get at our garbage. We bought a $200.00 garbage can that is completely bear proof. Too bad for them! :)

Genny said...

I don't think I'd want to go hiking or biking in Alaska...lol. As it is, when I do go hiking, I look around every time I hear a crunch or noise in the bushes. My husband laughs at me. This was interesting! And scary.

chelle said...

What can be done though. Kill all the bears before they kill? It is such a tough balance between encroaching on nature and ensuring the safety of people. People need to learn to respect animals a little more and remember Winnie-the-Pooh was a STUFFED bear, bears are not our friends!

Chrissy Johnson said...

There was a show on Animal Planet last night about bears in Anchorage. The Fish and Game guy was stressing that if everyone just was a bit more careful with litter and garbage the situation wouldn't be what it is. He also said that all the salmon streams running through town don't help, either! :) We live in Eagle River, and their presence is always on our minds. We seriously don't care if folks call us "cheechako's" while we sport our bear bells on hikes. We revere us some bears, but doesn't mean we aren't healthily scared of them!

And Timothy Treadwell, good Lord that dude was weird.

Heart2Heart said...

Michelle,

I think it is something we take for granted living down in the lower 48. We don't realize that with your moose grazing in your front and back yards in past posts and other critter encounters that you would run into the occasional bear. Yikes!

I think it would make me a bit paranoid and wouldn't really want to venture out! How do you manage all this?

Love and Hugs ~ Kat

Patricia Linehan said...

I recently saw a Primetime special on a guy who lived among the bears.. you may've heard of him. here's a link to the show description: http://blogs.abcnews.com/pressroom/2009/08/the-man-who-lives-with-bears-on-primetime-the-outsiders-airing-tuesday-september-1.html

I seriously he was just as, if not more, crazy as Timothy Treadwell.

Also, now I don't feel so bad about the armadillos and cockroaches we have here!

Kris said...

As people encroach on the areas that bears require for survival it is no surprise that bear meets people happens more and more often. Their hunting areas are taken away and they are forced to come into populated areas for food (the disgusting garbage that people don't seem to like to put away properly in Anchorage and area), then the bears are labelled "problem bears" and killed. How is that fair? Just last week some group decided that the valley behind my house should be a bike trail system...the problem is that the valley is used as a bear corridor (and probably has been since long before there was a community here!) for the bears to get off the mountains and into the areas they roam. Take that away and guess where the bears go. No offense but I find it offensive that people think bears are the problem when in fact it's the people. The attitude of "do something about the bears" could very well apply to "do something about the people". *sigh*
K.

K.

Susan Berlien (warmchocmilk) said...

I am scared of bears and other wildlife. I lve camping, but I think a certain amount of fear is good. Those crazy people who have no fear....it's not surprising when they suffer a terrible fate.

Angela Fehr said...

We were just talking yesterday about a recent mauling in our region of northern British Columbia. We take bears seriously, too. And grizzlies? You can NEVER trust them or predict what they are going to do.

Kathryn said...

Hey Michelle, I loved reading your thoughts on bears! Even though it is shocking to read about bear maulings on the public trails, I'm always even more surprised that those people don't have bear protection with them. I won't go near a trail with out our .454 (I didn't grow up thinking that bears are our fuzzy friends). The scariest thing is that the bears are roaming around in neighborhoods and both Fish and Game and APD frown on discharging firearms within city limits. :-)

I watched about 5 minutes of the Timothy Treadwell movie and decided that if I was a bear he wouldn't have lasted nearly as long as he did. That guy was weird! That bear guy in Willow is really weird too. I can't decide if he'll die of old age or if he'll get eaten first. And don't even get me started on the Binky incident. Nothing says stupid like trying to climb into a bear cage!

SeaBird said...

We watched (suffered through) the Treadwell documentary a few months ago... my husband spent a couple summers during college fishing up in Alaska (back when that was economically viable) and was particularly interested. His brother lived in Fairbanks for several years and actually shot a moose point-blank in his front yard one time.

Mommy Cracked said...

Wow. Knowing that guy's death was recorded sent chills up my spine. I remember the summer after i graduated I went to work in Yellowstone Park and had to be "schooled" about having a healthy respect for the animals. It never crossed my mind when I went out there that I'd have to be on my toes while walking around. Very scary stuff!

Terresa said...

Great Scott! Here in Las Vegas, our biggest "wild life" problem are scorpions (my husband was stung twice last week in the heel). But bears. Those are much bigger and scarier. Much!

Tatiana said...

@ Kris - I have to say I totally agree with you. Humans have encroached on every species' habitat, and for them it's either adapt or die. So we end up with a dichotomy, when they finally go extinct we decry the vanishing of the wolf or polar bear, and if they adapt (very few do), we immediately label them problems with contempts in our voices, i.e. seagulls or rats or pigeons. C'mon people, surely there is something other than fear to be expressed when thinking of the earth's natural predators.

Tatiana said...

contempt... I can spell, honest.

imadramamama said...

Yeah, there's a reason they're called "wild" animals, right? So glad Spencer has a good head on his shoulders!

denverallens said...

I think I'll share the article with my girls next year for Girls' Camp! Nobody takes the bears seriously, especially teenage girls!

Trailer Wife said...

I'm so glad you blogged about this... when we learned that we would move to Alaska, all I could think about was that terrible documentary. When I first saw it, I honestly couldn't decide if it was in earnest, or more of a mockumentary! I'm still loathe to have my first Fairbanks bear experience, and rarely enter the woods without clapping like a maniac to scare away any wandering fauna. Everyone up here is so cavalier about it. Oh, bears. You get used to them. I think not!

Cheers,
Christie
www.trailerwife.com

Daisy said...

I presume you won't chase one down and throw things at it -- oh, wait, that was the moose.

A Happy Heart Blog said...

This is why you have such a wonderful following! You wrote this so well, even with the length of text before me, I read it all! Here in Montreal, I've been close to skunk, squirrels, raccoons, and something sort of animal we couldn't identify. I'm OK with all of them, except I am still baffled by the unidentified animal walking that was walking our streets. Bears - no thanks. As for Timothy, what an awful story, but a good lesson to all.

Stephanie Frieze said...

During the summer of '08 I thought I had a dog-in-the-garbage problem at our house in Ilwaco, WA. After cleaning up the yard five mornings in a row (I cried the 5th) I wrote a letter-to-the-editor of our weekly newspaper about people who let their dogs loose at night. A gentleman called me the day the paper came out and told me that my problem was a bear-in-the-garbage problem and to put the can in the barn. I did. It's still there. Fortunately this summer our problem was only deer eating the strawberry leaves.

I didn't see Qadafi's speech, but thanks for the SNL version. Libya and Iran are competing for craziest learder.

Janet said...

Here in the Appalachians people are generally pretty respectful of bears and their potential for serious damage. We don't have grizzlies, but the black bears aren't exactly teddy bears either.
Treadwell had issues, but I do think his girlfriend should have had better sense. He's not entirely to blame.

planetnomad said...

I want to see the SNL-Quaddafi thing!! I can't find it on youtube.

And yeah, bears ain't pets. One of Donn's favorite books is "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance" which is great if you want to sleep at night. (Uh, not) Do you carry bear mace? We used to carry that when backpacking but never had need of it when we had it with us.

An Almost Unschooling Mom said...

Living in Montana, I can feel your worry. Our grizzlies might be a little smaller than yours - but they will still eat you. And, I wasn't too thrilled when my husband ran into a moose, with her little one, in the bank parking lot either - they're pretty cool to look at - but not exactly friendly. But, we have yet to have a bear on the bike path (just a little black bear in a tree near the school last summer) - drawing the line at bears seems very reasonable to me. Though, thinking about it, I might put wolves behind the line too.

~3 Sides of Crazy~ said...

I was taught to quietly respect those things that are bigger and more dangerous than I am so I like to keep a very cautious distance and I agree it is sad he convinced his girlfriend to go along, but I don't have much compassion for a guy destined to win the Darwin award.

Cookie baker Lynn said...

My husband, who used to travel to Alaska for business, tells me that there is a ginormous bear in the airport (dead and stuffed). A show piece or an ominous warning? Thankfully the worst i have to worry about here is voracious squirrels and the occasional cougar sighting.

alotalot said...

My husband was attacked by a black bear here in Ontario when he was 4. His uncle shot it and saved his life. He is still pretty covered in scars though. At the school where I teach, we have an emergency plan in place in case a bear wanders into the yard during recess. :)

When I saw the Timothy Tredwell movie, it was like watching a car crash: I just couldn't turn away. Bears are no joke! We have a crazy bear guy living near us as well. "Crazy" being the key word. They aren't good pets.

Sheila (bookjourney) said...

So cute! I have relatives who live in Soldotna.

Lori said...

You sound like Stephen Colbert!

My husband is convinced that if he had to choose his death it would be by bear...

That bicycle incident is incredible! Better start packing the bear mace.

The Quadafi video isn't working. I'll try to find it on my own.

Great-Granny Grandma said...

That sounds very scary.

Bears have been sighted on the West Virginia mountain my daughter lives on, but no horror stories like yours. Mostly they've just rummaged through people's garbage cans.

Marketing Mama said...

Seriously - I'm just glad this didn't end like the Moose story - with you throwing rocks at bears. Crossed my mind!!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm late joining the party, but I just had to 2nd the fact that bears are indeed scary and dangerous. My husband lived in Alaska for several years and worked for awhile clearing paths. He was out in the wilderness. All.by.himself. One day, he was approached by a grizzly who was standing on his back legs and chattering his teeth! My husband's gun wasn't close enough to him. So, he did the only thing he could think of. He started singing "Jesus Loves Me"! And the bear left him. :) I have NO desire to see a bear up close and personal. And I don't understand the crazies that do. :)

Heather T