Monday, September 29, 2008

Bearly A Real Post

I've watched plenty of bears in camp, even scared them off with my car, but all my encounters here have felt pretty safe and I've felt in control. This morning however, it looked like all that was about to get turned on its head.

Around 10 this morning, with the sun shining bright, I stepped out the side door onto the west side of the wrap around deck to check and see how much bread I had left in the freezer as I prepared to head to the grocery store. It should have been a mundane task right?Having just barely opened the freezer's door I heard it, "crunch--pad-snap--crunch--pad-snap--crunch--pad-snap-"

Like falling off a bike or tripping down the stairs, that little primordial part of my brain shifted into gear and the world slowed its rotation around the sun to about half speed. My head was swiveling towards the woods behind me, my mind already racing ahead trying to plan my next move. My ears could see what my eyes still hadn't. I'd never seen a bear in the open at this time of day, but that ambling pace was too distinct not to recognize.

I wanted to see an obnoxious red squirrel or maybe even the neighbor's dog, but as my eyes finally reached the edge of the yard 35 feet away, I saw the light colored fur atop the back of a griz.

Frozen I, watched. He was moving east, I couldn't see him entirely. The spawned out pinks rotting on the shoreline surely brought him here. He was too close to the edge of the deck, but if he kept moving he'd have made it by the stairs and I wouldn't care anymore. I questioned if I should let him know I was here, or just watch him roll through.

He slowed, fuck! I watched his nose come up and start sniffing, double fuck. I tried to anticipate his next move; I knew he was going into hyper mode, he needed to stuff in as many calories as possible right now, otherwise he wouldn't be out foraging at this hour, but there were dead fish all over the shore, I should be fine. To my disbelief, he stopped, changed course, and followed his nose right towards the staircase that lead directly to where I stood.

Still searching the air for clues to the origin of the curious scent, he was now within 20 feet. I was 3 feet from the door, I could slip inside I thought...where was the bear spray, the killing machine, was this about to happen? Should I go hide and let this bear have himself an unsolved mystery, or even let him investigate the deck for himself?

Hell no I thought, breaking my freeze, I moved forward. This is my deck, my yard; I don't care if this guy wants to clean up the shore at night, but not while I'm right here. Past the stairs leading to the deck with a railing between them and myself, I had a clean break for the sliding door now.


Stopped, his ears perked to the sound, though still he continued to search at ground level, sniffing at the air, the thought to look up had yet to occur. He was within 15 feet of the deck as I looked down on him. Smaller compared to the other bruins I'd seen in camp, my eyes shot to the woods to see if maybe mom was in tow. No, this was a young male; he looked relatively well fed, not overly rotund, but certainly not ribby.


His eyes widened and suddenly he was on his haunches wheeling back east away from the deck. He'd connected the dots; put the smell to the sound to the sight of my ugly bi-ped figure. As he spun our eyes locked. I could see the terror in them, he reminded me of a dog, guilty of raiding the trash, fearful of what might happen next.

But my heart leapt too, something in those eyes shot a bolt through me. I knew I had the upper hand, but in those eyes, behind those jowls, locked in the rolling muscles of his broad shoulders, was a message that called for the upmost respect. That bear was trotting in the direction he'd originally been ambling now, checking back to see if I was in pursuit. What I saw however was a beast that could just as well have me on the run.

I'll be damned was all I could think as I scurried inside to grab my camera. Just yesterday I'd ridden by myself for four hours in a valley with one of the densest concentrations of bears maybe in the world, and never seen a one, but I couldn't go to the grocery store without getting far closer than I would prefer?! That's my new life.

Watch for an essay hopefully Wednesday or Thursday with some draw-drop photos-


I couldn't quite keep my hands steady or get a good focus, jeez I dunno why!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Did You Eat Your Way-Ohs! This Morning?

Through years of epic adventuring, I’ve learned that the key to the start of a long day on the trail is a solid breakfast. My personal favorite all season fuel up: scrambled eggs with a bit of cheese thrown in, lightly buttered whole wheat toast, a tall glass of orange juice and of course, and a hearty bowl of oatmeal. Up here in the north, however, that breakfast requires an injection of something different.
While I’ve substituted flakes of my smoked coho for cheese in my eggs, and black bread whole wheat toast, I might never come back from a solo ride without a big bowl Way-Ohs! Hey-Ohs! Owwooohs! and YipYips!
So what’s the deal with this, what the heck am I talking about, and why doesn’t my local grocery mart stock up on any of these bottom shelf sounding cereals?
Well here’s the deal, I only eat my Way-Ohs! before I head out on long mountain bike rides by myself, I might have less if I’m going with company, and in a month or so, I won’t need them anymore; at least not until the weather warms in six months.
Ten miles from the trail head, 9 miles from the last person I saw, and 7 days since another person stood on the deck of the cabin I’m munching a Cliff bar on, I have two defenses against a hyperphaisic bruin.
One is a little black can of pressurized irritant with a fire extinguisher styled nozzle. I carry this at the top of the mesh pocket on my pack for a few reasons: It adds weight surly making me a stronger rider, I one day I’m so luck as to see someone else I could use it if I saw them being attacked instead of relying on a hopefully available really big stick, it offers peace of mind… whatever. Two, it’s located high on my pack so in the event that I was attacked and thrown to the ground, I could curl into a fetal position and perhaps the bear would pierce it and then he wouldn’t need to season me.
So I don’t have a lot of faith in pepper spray, and I don’t own nor would I bother to bring a gun for protection. This leaves one last defense, my big mouth, or Way-Ohs!
I’ve spent some solid time keying in on my Way-Ohs! and I have to say I’ve really got a talent for belting out non-sensical calls into the wilderness. Don’t think either, as a pseudo science major, that I haven’t spent some time conducting advanced studies on different pitches and variations to the Way-Oh! I’ve been on rides with others and seen, or perhaps heard of the “yips,” the howls, and the time honored “youts.”
Yips yowls howls and youts however, are more commonly associated with a sudden change in altitude or directional travel. They usually indicate an event that is either really good, or about to lead to something very very bad.
If I went yip-yowl-howl-youting every 15-30 seconds on a trail I’d probably be indicating to my fellow trail users that I was suffering a prolonged vertical or perhaps emotional instability. I might also be indicating to hungry bears that I was actually a pocket dog that ought to be consumed as soon as possible.
More importantly, I really do need a call that will last the duration of my ride. There really could be a bear around the next bend, beyond the tree line or hunkered 20 feet away in the head high grass, probably wanting as little to do with me as I it.
Last Sunday as I rode farther up the Russian river I saw more and more bear sign. The steaming piles of excretion hardly raised the hair on my back as the sight of tracks freshly gouged in the soft earth where a bruin had bolted into the brush likely no longer ago than my last call. But they, along with the fact that I had yet to actually see a bear, confirmed that my incessant calling was working.
So what makes a good Way-Oh! Frequency and volume based on environment. I’ve got to call as fast, or slow as I travel to match my surroundings. It’s common sense here. Bombing down a hill in a spruce forest, I’m not going to give anything much time to react, so I’ve got to call frequently, maybe every 10 seconds. Climbing slowly in an open meadow, one or two calls in the course of a minute would be fine. I can’t go half-way on volume either. Saying way-oh to the rock in front of me isn’t going to do squat, so I’ve got to be comfortable hollering, constantly.
It’s a strange new concept for sure, and one that I’ve adapted only out of necessity. I still remember when I first rode in Alaska four years ago, and our guides told us we need to make noise if we were at the front of the pack. I couldn’t do it. Every shout I released was a reminder to my petrified little self that big bears walked the trails too, and I just had no interest in meeting any of them.
Now I shout so frequently, I sometimes laugh at the thought of getting back in my car and shouting as I drive back down the Sterling highway to camp. More, I wonder about the day, where I may be on a trail in a place not inhabited by such terrifying beasts, and wonder if Way-Ohs! will have become such an integral part of a ride, that I find my own silence as peculiar as I now find my shouting.

Lost Lake Sunday Sept 21
Mari poses at the tundra plateau

trail on the plateau

said lake

It has a name, I'm too lazy to figure it out right now

Seward and Resurrection Bay

Upper Russian River Sunday Sept 28
Upper Russian Lake

Lower Russian Lake

Russian River

Hole where I saw my first Alaskan Salmon four years ago

Upper lake cabin


Skilak glacier and Harding Ice Field

Skilak Roubaix Monday Sept 29
Mystery Hills

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Writing in the Dark: UPDATE

Top of the tundra plateau on the way to Lost Lake outside of Seward last weekend. Resurection Bay and Seward are in the distance. By far my numberone favorite ride in the Kenai

Ok, after my last post almost 2 months ago, I apologize. The early weeks of August were absolutely nuts. Camp continued to stay booked. Despite a near drag in fishing after King Season closed and Silvers continued to feast out at sea, we had pink salmon up to our ears. Ryan decided they made excellent "Salmon patties" and began pushing pink fishing on our guests. It was unbelievable, if you had more than three casts without a fish, you were doing something wrong. It was a bunch of fun to catch them no question, I could only compare it to fishing in a stocked pond of jumbo small mouth bass that'd been starved for weeks. We challenged guests to fish-offs to see who could get a five, or ten fish to the boat first, or held the "Olympinks" at the end of the day to see who'd caught the biggest, smallest, and of course, ugliest fish of the day. While this got a few of our guests excited to go haul the buggers in by the boatload, literally, that meant I was filleting and skinning hundreds a day for essentially pennies, as the little fish can hardly tilt a scale when all is said and done.
Fortunately the Silvers came in thick and strong so the pinkolympics came to an end. My father came up the week of the 20th. At that point camp had cleared out so we more or less had the run of the place. Ryan was able to fit my dad onto his boat in the morning with the charters while I took care of any work that needed to be done. Through the afternoon dad went out and nailed the pinks, which had finally started getting up to camp, good and ugly. In the evenings we went back out with Ryan to chase after the silvers, doing well each night. One of the days we went to Seward and fished a combo trip on Resurrection Bay. Though late in the year, we did pretty well considering the rough seas. We also got to watch humpback breaching only a few dozen yards from the boat on the run back in. We did a trip for halibut in the inlet, but some lessons are learned the hard way; unable to get the day I wanted with my preferred captain, I tried a new guy from Texasssss. He was a fool, bottom line, but I know enough about what I'm doing out there that we did fine, though we didn't really have a chance to go after any lunkers like I wanted.
My dad hooked himself into a strange chrome late run king. The 40-45 pound fish gave him a solid 10 minute fight. I was just estatic he got to fight a bright king on the Kenai.

To top off the wildlife experience, three bruins, a mother and her 2-3 year old cubs walked right through camp not 30 feet away as we sat on the deck enjoying cool brews. I had to hang onto the back of Dad's shirt as he tried furiously to run inside and hide (I'm not exaggerating here folks) but those bears were far more interested in rooting through the rotten salmon carcasses piled up in the river.

The whole experience was truly awesome. Between the great fishing, wildlife and exceptional weather (probably the best I saw all summer), I really felt like the trip let me get closer to my father. I know he was a bit hesitant to come up here, and apprehensive about my decision, but I think getting to see what a blast it was, how hard I had to work, and how good the people I met/lived and worked with were, let him see what an opportunity it really was. Then again, I could be making all this up, smoking cigars, drinking Alaskan Summer Ale, and whacking pinks off the dock is pretty good too!

My mom came up the following week. Originally the plan had been to drive back to the lower 48 together, but as of mid-August, after my boss Joe offered to live in camp rent free while he was gone and watch over the place, I decided I would at least hold in Sterling while I searched for a job. We had a great time as well, no fishing, just sightseeing. We spent a day in Anchorage, Homer which I hadn't visited yet, and Seward. She also did a half day horseback ride in Cooper Landing, allowing her to see the mountains I play in on the weekends at her pace instead of mine (always a good thing).

With the parents gone by the beginning of the month, Joe and I closed up camp, and I began searching for jobs. Adam, one of the guides helped me get a place in Anchorage, so all I needed was some work. I started putting in applications with environmental firms in Alaska, Washington, California and Colorado. Life slowed down big time. Joe left with his wife for Arizona in their motor home mid month, and the neighbors had largely cleared out. I had the place to myself and almost nothing to do besides apply for jobs, fish, watch the bears and get back into riding. Life was pretty good, but winter has been coming down across the area quickly. Snow started sticking high up in the mountains and has slowly been working its way lower and lower. Next week we're forecasted to get some down here, though I doubt it will stick. The cool wet weather along with the waning light had me really wondering if I was sure I wanted to stick it out up here or consider making a break for the lower 48.

Fishing into the evening, I lit camp up when it got dark while I cleaned my fish given the bear activity

A week and a half ago Bernie shot me an ad from for a general new reporter position right here in the peninsula. I'd been avoiding applying for journalism positions because the pay for an entry level position is so low, especially compared to those at say, multi-national oil companies...
Suddenly the option of doing something I know and enjoy, while living rent free was sitting in my lap. I jumped on the ad and hand delivered my resume and clips, something they hardly expected. The following day they asked me to come in for an interview. I had to rush to the local clothing store, as in my haste to leave Vermont, I chose to leave behind my sport jacket, and the nicest pair f pants I brought still had grease stains on the bottom of the right leg from my bike... Anyway, less than three hours after the interview, standing knee deep in the Kenai fishing for the second run silvers, my phone rang, and I was hired. I'm not going to write the name of the paper here to avoid catching screens, not that I'm planning on writing anything deceitful about the paper, but I'd prefer not to attract the attention of corporate eyes, especially having just started. If you're interested in following my work shoot me an email and I'll send you a link.
I'm still concerned from time to time about what it will be like in a month as the cloak of night sweeps in and the temps continue to plunge. More, I long for the closeness of friends I once had in Saratoga and Middlebury. I suppose those will come with time, but when I'm sitting around wishing I could go bag a peak, or grab a drink, time is not my friend. If in a year I'm ready to be done with this place I can always head south. For now, I'm really excited about this opportunity, living rent free, in one of the wildest most beautiful places on earth, doing what I love, and getting paid for it all... what else could a 22/23 year old want!?