Tales of Alaska: Bear Insurance
“BEAR INSURANCE — a very large gun, usually a .357 magnum.”
. . . Alaskan phrase
The only person who has lower credibility than a politician talking tax break three days before an election is an Alaskan with a bear story. It’s not that Alaskans tell tale tales; they lie. These aren’t bare-faced lies because many Alaskans have beards, but they are lies nonetheless.
Now some stories are true. Take, for instance, the story of the joggers in Anchorage who heard the pitter-patter of four feet, er, paws, behind them. They turned around and nearly jumped out of their Reeboks. There, a handful of feet behind them, was a grizzly. They ran faster; the grizzly ran faster. They ran into another jogger who was carrying a .357. The bear left. (Now who but an Alaskan would be jogging with a .357?)
Some of the other stories are bit harder to swallow. There was a case, allegedly, in Skagway where an Anchorage banker and a foreign visitor were fishing for salmon. The visitor was a Czechoslovakian who should have known something about bears, after all he came from a country that was used to dealing with the Russian bear, (that’s a joke.) Fishing wasn’t the problem. But cleaning the salmon and leaving the guts out in the sun was not a good idea. When the two went to retrieve their fish, a boar and a sow brown bear exploded out of the bushes. The banker barely got away with his life but the Czechoslovakian, well, let’s not go into that.
The bear has always been a part of the folklore of Alaska. The Natives gave the bear a lot of respect — for very good reason — but didn’t give the animal a lot of credit for brains. At one time the bear had a long tail, Eskimo legend goes, but he lost it in a battle of wits with Fox. Bear was out hunting one day when he came across Fox near a seal breathing hole on a wide expanse of ice. Fox, stalling for time, began talking to Bear. Bear, who was in no hurry to eat Fox, sat down for conversation but foolishly allowed his long tail to slide into the breathing hole. Fox talked and talked and talked until the breathing hold froze solid capturing Bear’s tail in the ice. Then Fox sauntered away. Bear raged for a while and finally pulled himself loose but at the expense of his long tail. Thus, the legend concludes, bears have short tails today.
Bears haven’t got a lot smarter since those early days. But they don’t have to be smart. When you’re the biggest, baddest guy in the forest, there’s no reason to be smart. Cagy they can be; but not all that brainy. As an example, in one of the national parks there was a ‘problem’ bear that became quite fond of tourist lunches. It learned that tour buses meant tourists and, at the noon hour, packaged lunches. Like clockwork, the animal would wait until the unsuspecting travelers sat down on park benches for a leisurely meal. Then the bear would saunter out of the forest and make for a table.
Just the sight of a full grown, brown bear pushing about l000 pounds was usually enough for the tourists to beat a quick retreat — leaving their lunches intact, it should be added. As the tourists scattered, the bear dined. Upon occasion, however, just advancing on a table was not adequate to move the tourists to flight. In such cases, the bear had a Plan B. He charged. He didn’t need a Plan C.
Sometimes it almost seems that bears have a sense of humor, twisted, but a sense nonetheless. Perhaps the most famous bear in Alaska in the early l950s was Archie Ferguson’s polar bear cub. Ferguson, one of Alaska’s most colorful bush pilot, picked the cub up at Point Hope and tied the animal into his plane before he took off. The bear was relatively quiet when the plane took off but halfway to Kotzebue it became quite animated. It ripped free of the ropes and began to tear at the fabric of the plane. Ferguson couldn’t land so he just kept flying. But Archie couldn’t stop talking. (That’s the way Archie was.) “You hear that noise?” he yelled into his radio. “Christ, that ain’t static. That’s a bear. Yeah, I gotta bear in the plane with me and he’s broke loose. He’s climbin’ right up here beside me, growlin’ ’n’ showin’ his teeth — big sharp teeth. Oh, Jeezus, he’s tryin’ ta eat up the fuselage. There’s two of us up here now, but it looks like purty soon there’s only gonna be one ’n’ it ain’t gonna be me. Stand by, I’ll call ya every other minute.”
Archie did make it down, and for years the polar bear cub, which grew rather large, was a fixture in Kotzebue. During the winter it would hibernate under a building but throughout the tourist season, the bear would lounge around in the sun and attract the attention of tourists. This bear was also adept at frightening tourists. Often it would lie on its belly hiding the chain with its body. Whenever a tourist the bear didn’t like approached, it would explode off the ground and charge to the end of the chain. The shocked tourist would stumble backwards, often ending up seated in a three-inch-deep muddy pool of water. If the bear could have laughed, it probably would have.
Over the years, Alaskans in the bush have come to understand bears. In most cases, as long as the bears are left alone, they will leave people alone. Unfortunately this is not always possible. Bears like food and if they suspect that there is food in a cabin, they will enter the cabin. This makes it a bit difficult for people who happen to be IN the cabin at the time. However, in most cases, the bear waits until the cabin is empty before entering.
The worst bear with which Alaskans living in the bush must deal is known as the “carpenter bear.” A carpenter bear is one who makes his own door into or out of a cabin. Carpenter bears are a problem to bush dwellers because they are usually the ones that have learned that cabins have food, even if can’t be smelled. These bears will enter cabins and bite all of the cans until they taste food. Then they clean the place out. The residents have to clean the place out as well because after the bear is through there is not that much left of the inside of the cabin — except for walls.
There is a cure, incidentally, for carpenter bears. One method of discouraging bears is to fill a balloon with ammonia and then coat the rubber with bacon grease. The bear, smelling the bacon grease will take a bite of what he thinks is a tasty repast. When he comes away with a mouthful of ammonia, he is guaranteed to leave the area immediately. Of course, he may take a wall or two with him when he goes.
Overall, bears are fairly easy animals to deal with. Just leave them alone. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. Keep a clean campsite, gut your fish away from where you are going to sleep and don’t fight the bears for your garbage. If the animals wants your coffee grounds, let him have them.
As a final note, take a tip from the plight of the banker who escaped from the attack of the two bears near Skagway. The banker reported the incident to Alaska Fish and Game wardens who immediately went back to where the devouring had occurred. They found the two bears and tranquillized them. Not wishing to destroy both animals, the wardens asked the banker which bear had eaten his friend, the sow or the boar. The banker thought it was the male, the boar, so the wardens killed the bear and cut the animal open. There wasn’t anything in the stomach. Now they would have to kill the other animal as well. With bear blood to his elbows, one warden looked at the other and said disgustedly, “Trust a banker to tell you the Czech’s in the male.”
[Steve Levi’s mystery books can be found at www.authormasterminds.com.]