In Bear Country

The floatplane roared, casting droplets of water and chilly Alaskan air into my face. It was only a bit of wind, but it felt more like standing naked in the middle of a New York City block. I could almost hear laughter rolling between the engine roar.

Not 20 minutes prior I was in that plane, gripping my seatbelt like I might fall from the sky if I were to let go, buzzing over a cabin on some map dot on Kodiak Island.

As the plane traced a messy ATV track from the cabin, the pilot came through my headphones, remarking about a sandy-colored mother bear and her cub down on the trail.

I smiled to myself, forehead pressed against the frigid window as I painted this moment in my mind. Those were the first bears I had ever seen.

The bears disappeared below the plane as we began to descend towards a lake that could easily be mistaken for a slab of slate in its color. I clutched my seatbelt tighter, exhaled diligently and closed my eyes. Prepare for landing, I guess.

My boots sucked and squished into black mud on the lake edge and the pilot held the plane by a rope, like a well-behaved dog on a leash. We were waiting for the occupants of the cabin to come gather me from the lake, a rookie intern for the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife.

I was so green my pant legs weren’t even tucked into my Xtra-tuffs.

It was my first time in the backcountry of Alaska and my eyes were as wide as the landscape we had just flown over. Lush was an understatement. Foliage seemed to clamor on top of itself.

Everything was richly colored, reflecting the temperament of the gray and turbulent sky. Royal purple lupines studded the landscape, which was a study of dark green.

If Eden had snarly Kodiak bears and biting flies, this was surely it.

I was only pulled from my bewilderment when the pilot stated they had to get going, despite the fact my ride had not yet arrived. Low slung clouds were pouring over the mountaintops. This kind of weather was enemy #1 to a floatplane pilot in Alaska.

“Ok,” I said, not sure if my mock confidence covered the fear that blanched my cheeks. I was about to be completely alone in the backcountry of Alaska. There was a mother bear and cub heading my way on the trail. I didn’t have bear spray. We had no way to know if the people in the cabin had heard the plane buzz overhead.

If it wasn’t exactly the scenario I had replayed in my head during the months prior, it might actually be funny.

But right then, all I felt was my throat tighten as the pilot told me I could either wait here, or start hiking towards the cabin, ending his instructions with the advice to “just make loud noises.” There was definitely an edge of a chuckle in his voice.

Silence crept down the hillsides into the void the plane engine left as it ascended and I started singing ‘happy birthday’ to no one in particular.

We all have obvious rites of passage. In that moment, I decided I was not a woman who would wait for rescue. I was a woman who sang ‘happy birthday’ to the bears, and tramped proudly, but terrified, down a broken path towards my salvation.