On our first morning in Nikiski, we decided to go back to the well from which the wildlife gods had favored us yesterday, home of the weasel: Captain Cook State Recreation Area. We went with the full intention of stopping at every possible point and exploring the park. Unfortunately, at the first viewpoint, along the shore of Smith Lake, we climbed out and were immediately descended upon by those furies of the north, mosquitoes. I didn’t even realize until later that we were ducking under the fronds of a nasty plant called cow parsnip. We avoided it this time, but apparently if you touch it, you get a rash that becomes unbearably if you let sun fall on it. Personally, I feel like the botanists missed anopportunity to make some vampire-related pun a la James Howe, but I’m glad I avoided touching the damn things regardless.
We slathered ourselves in cheap bug repellant and made a second attempt to explore on a little creek a bit farther into the park. The owners of our little chateau asked if our brand of spray was carcinogenic. I didn’t know, but I told him that since it didn’t work, it was probably safe. Our second foray was more successful. We poked around on the shores of the creek and I was overly nervous about bears again. After a few more days in Alaska, I’ve learned that the odds of encountering a bear are slim, and certainly not something to spend your time worrying about, but at this early moment, I hadn’t taken that in yet. Other than the bear-anoia though, our nature walk was just like a million from my childhood exploring the creeks of Northern Virginia. Of course, the “deer” tracks and scat we found were on a Pleistocene scale because they were moose, but we felt at home.
Little multicolored birds hopped through the trees, and when we got back to the car, we pored through my son’s pile of nature books to identify them as varied thrushes, a mundane, but still novel sighting. Then the illusion of normalcy was shattered for us when we drove down to a picnic ground on the edge of Cook Inlet. Those white-capped mountains do it every time. It’s like George Lucas using a simple double exposure effect to tell us that no, Tatooine is not earth. We parked and climbed down to a gray-mud beach pelted by icy winds even in June.
When my son was a baby, I took a picture of him on the beach where he was gazing pensively at the waves. It’s a famous family photo that we call the “Admiral of the Ocean Seas”. I got several updated photos of the commodore as we looked west toward Lake Clark and Katmai. They’ll go into my portfolio of the boy as a romantic poet series.
But our appetite for adventure was only whetted by the relative peace of Captain Cook, so we headed back east, through the commercial jumbles of Kenai and Soldotna, typically American in their disorganized scatter of car dealerships, fast food joints, and strip malls. We had seen the sign for a visitor center on the way through the burnt-out district of Kenai Wildlife Refuge, so we thought we would double back and get ourselves stamps and junior ranger guides. No such luck. When we got there, we found a one-room shack that was closed for Covid.
For a few minutes, we were disappointed, but we looked at the map posted on the walls and realized there was a side road, south of the main highway that dipped out into the refuge along the shores of a lake called Skilak (pronounced like a dearth of slaloming equipment). It looked like it was dotted with little hiking trails, so we jumped back in the truck enthusiastically.
A side note about our truck by the way. I had made a reservation with Enterprise, a company that uses the word “reservation” extremely loosely. I learned they do the hard way, when I showed up in Denver and was given a gigantic cargo van instead of car. So, I was really nervous when I got a voice message saying there was a problem with giving us a pickup truck. I pictured navigating the Dalton Highway in a Prius. It turned out that all the pickups had been given to firefighters so all they had for us was a full size Ford Expedition, which turns out to be much more useful for our purposes than a pickup; crisis averted.
So there we were bouncing happily down the Skilak Lake Road, looking for hiking trails. We found our first one, called simply the Kenai River Trail. Now I had to mull over my bear spray in a serious way for the first time. I had tried to puzzle it out at REI, but had made the jet-lagged decision to just but it while still in the dark. Now it was time to get serious. Fortunately, I had a knife, so I cut the little plastic safeguard. All I needed to do now was remove a harder safety clip wedged into the trigger, but I was too nervous to take it out when not needed. Of course, I had no illusions about how well I would do trying to learn a new skill during a bear charge, so I don’t know how much good it does to carry it. But I put it in my back pocket.
My son and I have discussed bear safety, perhaps ad nauseum, but here is our thinking. There are multiple lines of defense. First, make sure the bears can hear you. Surprising a bear is bad news (so is surprising a moose for that matter), so you have to let them know you are there. I made the questionable decision to read through the Wikipedia listing of brown bear fatalities the other night. One guy was killed (in Idaho I think) when he was mountain biking and crashed right into a grizzly on the trail. They didn’t even bother removing the bear after the killing, figuring that was completely understandable behavior. I suppose I might maul some guy who crashed into me on a trail with his mountain bike if I could.
So, if you have avoided surprising the bear, you’ve cut out a certain percentage of unpleasant bear encounters. Next is to make sure that once you see one, you don’t run. Running signals that you are prey and triggers a hunting response in the bear. Of course, the first time I saw a bear in Shenandoah National Park, that was exactly what I did, but I am an idiot. I promise I won’t do it again. Fortunately, that bear was busy eating berries, and may not have even seen me.
One of the hardest things to do in a bear encounter I think, is the third line of defense. This is assuming you haven’t surprised the bear and haven’t run, but it still behaves aggressively for some reason. When the bear charges you, you are supposed to stand still and not run because most charges are just bluffs to scare you. I guarantee this will scare me. I enjoyed the frankness of one of the bear country warning signs which advised you to “pretend not to be scared” when you see a bear. They don’t even countenance the possibility that you might be some Tarzan being who isn’t afraid of bears. Those are imaginary people, the park service admits.
Post bluff charge, and this is something I’m not clear on, you can go ahead and spray the bear. My question is whether I get the time to draw down on the bear once I know it’s not a bluff. Doesn’t the non-bluff charge result in me being torn limb from limb by a raging hell beast? So, I’m amending the list and going ahead with pulling out the spray before that charge happens. That bear gets it in the face if he gets within like thirty feet as far as I’m concerned. Sorry to you bluff-charging bears out there, but that’s my policy and I’m sticking to it. I hope you’ll understand.
On this trail though, we remained bear free. We walked down to a beautiful crystal blue, rushing river. There were anglers farther upstream and a side trail that led to a gorgeous view of the Kenai as it flowed west. A loon crossed the river as we watched from the heights of a fifty-foot cliff. We drove farther along the road and found a second, much longer trail called Hidden Creek. Ominously, there were signs about a man who had gone missing on the trail back in April. The bears, I thought. The damn bears got him. In reality, he probably fell into the cold water back in April and it was hypothermia that got him.
We hiked about two miles down a winding, thickly wooded trail and then out across a sort of alpine tundra of stunted trees and mountain flowers. We saw three-toed woodpeckers, and my son made the dubious claim to have seen a pine marten run across the trail while I was scanning the trees for ursine attackers. Then we were at Skilak Lake. We walked down to the water and scared a pair of yellowlegs who flew to the top of a tree and squawked at us. A bald eagle landed in the trees nearby with the ever-present icy mountains in the background. It was ideal Kenai.
We walked happily if a little tired back to the truck. I joked that it would be crazy if we saw a bear right before we got there. That was why it caught me a bit off guard when my son said, “There’s a bear!” right as we got to the truck. And there was. Just up the road was a momma black bear with two little cubs. She looked up at us as I tried to calmly walk to the truck. I imagine I looked about as calm as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but she ignored us. We got in the truck and took a slew of pictures of her and the cubs. They were adorable, and she was a smallish adult bear. It was a good way to take some of the edge of my bear-anoia. This was no grizzly of course, but hopefully the gentle introduction will ease some of our fears when we see the real deal.