Story and Photos By Dan Oberlatz
As my bare feet were swallowed by the sulfurous mud, it took an almost vocal effort to contain the fear that was welling up my gut. I was facing one of those moments that none wish to, and the sound of my racing heart was in near perfect synch with the burp of 6 bare feet sucking from the mud as the three of us hurried across the intertidal flats as quickly as we could. Never has my titanium 44 mag felt so woefully underpowered.
Not 10-minutes earlier, we’d come across the 18th coastal brown bear of the expedition, and all appeared to be going the way of the 17 prior encounters – a few moments of our own anxious anticipation, followed by what we assumed the same for the brownies as they bolted in haste to the safety of alder choked headlands above the Pacific. These bears wanted nothing to do with us and despite their obvious size and strength, Gabe, Chris, and I were almost to that point in the trip when a healthy respect for these creatures was replacing our fear of them. This was night 8, and the comfort of my Therm-a-Rest mattress and new ultralight Navis sleeping bag was occupying more mental real estate than were the thoughts of what might be lurking outside of the tent.
So when I glanced up the muddy creek and saw the huge bear completely still and staring straight ahead, in an apparent standing slumber, I ushered Gabe and Chris forward to catch the sight of our closest encounter yet. This golden bear, nearly 10’ tall, wouldn’t last here long, and at 100 yards away we could see his obsidian glazed eyes and wrinkled gray lips. Within seconds, as if on queue, he caught sight of us and began pacing back and forth in a dance to catch our wind. We gathered close to one another and raised our hands to appear larger than we felt, – a simple act that got him moving on up the hill beyond the creek. He paused about 50 feet above the mudflats on an open rock outcropping to again stare us down. I yelled a familiar “go on, git!” which ushered him further up the hill and into the dense green thicket of seemingly impenetrable alders.
In what was now a routine exercise along our traverse of the Alaska Peninsula , we moved up the creek and out of the tidal zone to look for a suitable place to hop across the tributary without having to take off our boots. This particular creek, at the head of Kejulik Bay, presented more mud than anything we’d encountered thus far, and we were anxious to get across, over the next headland, and into Hook Bay. Our line was obvious – head upstream about 100 yards, hop the creek at the choke, and continue on across Cape Kumliun and into Hook Bay.
About 50 yards from the choke and roughly the same from where the bear had been standing, Gabe noticed it first. He tapped me on the shoulder and pointed his trekking pole “what’s that?” What struck me first was the size and character of the depression on the dirt mound – it was smooth, dry, and nearly the same amber hue as the bear himself. But as my eyes were drawn toward the top of the pile, I took note of raw flesh, part of a ribcage, and the bloody shape of a mammal’s skull. Holy shit – we had stumbled upon the gut pile of a brown bear’s kill and squarely into one of nature’s most dangerous situations – a bear will defend its kill to the death and I could only assume that this bruin was weighing his options in the alders above us. “We have to get out here now!” I uttered in a whisper. We tracked back quickly toward the mudflats, and Gabe and Chris followed my lead as I removed my boots & socks and began the 20 yard crossing of the knee-deep mud. My feet bottomed out on razor clams and barnacles and with each wave of excruciating tenderfoot, I imagined my own blood creating an easy trail for the bear to follow along the beach.
The three of us sat down on the weathered bedrock beyond the creek, put on Crocs over our blackened feet, and continued hastily but quietly around the corner along a sandy beach at the very head of Kejulik Bay. With my pistol in one hand, and trekking poles in the other, I would glance reluctantly over my shoulder all while running the “what if” scenario through my racing mind. At which point would I shoot? Where would I aim? Would my old and partially corroded ammunition even fire? Would the first “non lethal” bird shot scare him enough to send him away for good? If not, would the other 4 shots I had in the cylinder be enough to drop him?
My conclusion was sobering – there was no way any of us were going to survive if this bear decided to come find us. I was, in fact, way underpowered for the situation at hand, and I was really scared. What was most plausible was that I had just enough lead in my pistol to really piss this bear off, and I threw the odds at 50/50 that this bruin was coming our direction and our grizzly deaths would likely go undetected – another mysterious disappearance at the high latitudes.
The waves of adrenalin-induced nausea began to subside with each passing footstep across the narrowest portion of the arrowhead-shaped Cape Kumliun – for each step meant both another step closer to our goal and the successive fade of our nightmare in Kejulik. Within an hour, we are paddling our Alpacka Rafts across the calm seas of Hook Bay. We spent a stunning evening catching pink salmon from the beach, watching spouts of humpback whales, relaxing in our chair kits, savoring an amazing Adventure Appetites dinner, and reveling in the buzz of another intense day deep in the Alaska wild.
Editor’s Note: Dan Oberlatz is an experienced, Anchorage-based guide that has been exploring remote regions of the Alaskan wilderness for almost 20 years. Visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for more information on traveling safely in bear country.