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The Great Outdoors

What Doesn’t Kill You Doesn’t Kill You

A visit to a bear sanctuary could cure you of your bear phobia. Or it could turn your fear into a full-blown obsession.

Credit: Jim Benning

More than 700 people, about three times the number of spots available had applied for a coveted four-day bear viewing permit at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. Having your name drawn in the sanctuary’s lottery system earned you the privilege of putting yourself in closer proximity to bears than would normally be considered prudent, yet people from all over the world wanted those permits. When the application my husband and I had submitted was drawn, I panicked.

I live in Anchorage, two hours from McNeil as the floatplane flies, and suffer from a fear so extreme and yet so common here it has earned its own nickname: Bearanoia, a condition in which one’s time outdoors is accompanied by a lingering assumption that every sound in the brush signals an approaching bear with a premeditated plan to drag one off for a good mauling. (Although in a list of more than 600 recognized phobias that I stumbled upon in, of all places, my thesaurus, bears do not make a single appearance. Perhaps psychiatrists don’t spend enough time in the woods.)

What scares us, though, also tends to thrill us. Tempting death can make us feel our own vitality more keenly, but thrill and fear must wash over us in personally specific proportions or the equation doesn’t work. A mountain climbing class I took years ago inspired plenty of fear without the accompanying thrill I had expected. Steep slopes and loose footing combine for a dangerous sport, and an avalanche could send you hurtling to your death, but a mountain will never consciously attack you. My own personal thrill-to-fear ratio, it turned out, required a nemesis more closely connected along the food chain.

My first sighting of a brown bear in the wild, shortly after moving to Alaska, had tipped that ratio. It’s true that healthy fear can keep you safe, but mine had taken a dive over the cliff of obsession, and I knew if I let fear get the better of me I’d never venture beyond my own driveway. Maybe not even that far—bears, both brown and black, have occasionally wandered through our urban neighborhood over the years. The McNeil site seemed the most logical place to face this particular phobia with a kind of makeshift exposure therapy.

My husband, Jim, had encouraged my plan, filling out the application and handling all of the logistics—knowing that if he left it to me, I might lose my nerve. Some husbands give flowers or chocolate; mine gave me the chance to challenge a phobia that has interfered with my enjoyment of the outdoors, where we spend a great deal of time. For this therapeutic opportunity, we would have to purchase our permits, plus airfare on a six-seater floatplane, the only way to reach the McNeil sanctuary where there was neither road nor airstrip. There would be no lodge, no camp cook. We had to bring a tent and our own food, cook over propane burners, and haul water out of a nearby creek. The trip would set us back over $1,000 each.

I say “phobia,” you say “overactive amygdala,” let’s call the whole thing off.

“They have an electric fence around the campground, right?” offered one friend helpfully. (Sure, if by “electric fence” she meant a haphazard perimeter of alder bushes.) She couldn’t believe I had entered the McNeil lottery of my own free will. It had made perfect sense to me months earlier, in the safety of my home, but my level of enthusiasm, I learned, was inversely proportional to the likelihood our trip would actually take place. Once possibility turned to certainty, excitement caved in to the familiar gut-bomb of dread. As the departure date neared, I burst into tears several times, even going so far as to tell Jim I might not be able to board that floatplane—fully knowing we would get none of our money back. I say “phobia,” you say “overactive amygdala,” let’s call the whole thing off.

 

To identify a bear based on color is not only unreliable, it can prove lethal with an animal whose weight is expressed by the hundreds. If you find yourself attacked by a brown bear and you fight back, you will surely lose. Lying down and playing dead assures the brown bear that you no longer pose a threat, and it may leave you alone, albeit in a puddle of your own urine. This same strategy used with a black bear might result in said bear starting to chew on your extremities. A black bear you should fight as best you can. A hard tweak or punch to the nose has been known to drive away a black bear on occasion—but you may very well still lose.

Black bears come in a whole range of colors, including many hues of brown. Fear doesn’t preclude admiration, and to my eyes brown bears are the more beautiful of the two. A brown bear tends to have a rounder, less snouty face than a black bear, the kind of face we are more likely to associate with the small stuffed variety we give to children as cuddly toys. Most helpful in identification, though, is a distinctive hump on a brown bear’s back, just behind the neck.

Brown bears are also larger. A healthy black bear might grow to 500 pounds, whereas a brownie can reach 1,000 pounds or more, especially in areas with a source of fatty, protein-rich fish. Grizzlies, the one everyone thinks of when they hear about Alaska’s bears, are actually a smaller type of brown bear found mostly in the interior, with less access to the rich salmon diet. Every summer, spawning salmon return to the McNeil River in force, struggling their way upriver to spawn, fishily ignorant of the brown bears that have traveled there to welcome them. The bears at McNeil tend to grow quite large.

 

Credit: Jim Benning

There are many ways for a salmon to die along the McNeil River. To be fair, 100 percent of the returning salmon will die at the end of their journey. The only question is where, exactly, each individual’s journey will end. The lucky ones, relatively speaking, will make it all the way back to their spawning grounds to ensure future generations return. For others, the last thing they will ever see is a set of claws or teeth—or both—as they feel themselves lifted out of the water toward swift oblivion.

A bear might submerge in the river to pluck out a salmon struggling to swim upstream. That’s more work than some bears care to undertake, though. About a mile from the mouth of the river, the fish slow down as they approach the bottom of the waterfalls they must ascend to reach their spawning grounds and face the leap of their little lives. Most do not make the falls on their first try, and they clump in pools at the bottom as they rest between attempts. Here, a bear can take advantage of their fatigue to nab one before it can dart out of reach. These are the literal fish in a proverbial barrel.

Some bears choose another option and station themselves in a spot along the top of the falls where the water is not so deep. There they wait, eerily reminiscent of a hunter in a tree stand. A fish cannot swim up the falls—it must jump, which means it emerges from water into air, Alaska’s own fleeting version of a flying fish. After two or 20 attempts, at the exact moment the fish looks like it might finally succeed, it may meet the outstretched claws or open mouth of a brown bear.

 

Within hours of our landing at McNeil Cove, Tony, a stocky, no-nonsense staff member at the sanctuary, gathered the whole group of that week’s 10 permit-holders. Inside the cook shack he offered a brief lecture that I thought of as Camping Among Bears 101: Make noise while hiking. Whenever a bear is nearby, don’t make any sudden moves. Use a calm but firm voice to let it know you’re not a threat: “Hey, bear.” These are rules any Alaskan already knows by heart, but in this odd, unique place where bears were thickly concentrated and encountered humans all summer long, each rule took on the feel of a sacred commandment put forth by a bearded, flannel-shirted God.

No staff member has ever had to shoot a gun, and no human has been injured by a bear at McNeil in the 40 years since the lottery permitting program began. Those rules are a big part of the reason. Still, it was hard not to think, There’s always a first time.

“We only bother them,” Tony told us—that is, shoo them off with a clap of the hands or a blast of a handheld air horn—“if they come into camp.” Humans can travel to the sanctuary and see the bears do their thing while learning how to respond to the animals in their natural setting. It’s not a wildlife theme park. McNeil is wilderness set aside, as the state’s website proclaims, “to protect the world’s largest concentration of wild brown bears.” Which was why I had come here. Underneath my fear was admiration and respect, and a desire to revel in my fascination with bears without giving in to its darker counterpart, phobic obsession. I had come here to step outside of myself long enough to experience the pure wonder of these beautiful, powerful, sometimes lumbering, sometimes fast and graceful creatures.

Inside the cook shack sat a couple of oversized picnic tables and a long, high shelf stuffed with books such as the Peterson Field Guide to Mexican Birds, James Michener’s Texas, and a Tour de France travel guide. A smaller shelf held a dozen small air horns. Tony suggested we might want to carry an air horn to the outhouse or to our tent at night. We should also keep anything with an odor in the cook shack and away from our tents: toothpaste, lotion, insect repellant. I gazed longingly at the solid door and walls. Humans have an odor. Surely no one would mind if I curled up among the coolers and freeze-dried food and propane camp stoves—

since I couldn’t sleep in the tiny staff cabin, the only other permanent shelter at the camp. But that would defeat the purpose of the trip. Exposure therapy, I had to remind myself.

“If you have to think about whether it smells or not,” Tony said, “keep it in here.” I riffled through my small stuff sack of personal items, opened up a tube of lip balm and sniffed.

“Ah, see?” Tony said. “You’re thinking about it.”

 

The wind blew all the time across the sanctuary’s open landscape, through rain or cloud or shine. Most of us wore long underwear, coats, and hats—in July. After breakfast we pulled on the chest-high rubber or neoprene waders we had been told to bring, while the three camp staff members, biologists all, meandered over to say good morning. One or two of them would accompany us on each day’s hike out to the viewing platform in the morning and back in the evening. Like Tony, both Tom and Drew sported stocky builds and full beards, as if it were part of the job description. None of them seemed the least bit afraid of the bears; instead, they were respectful to the point of awe, with a healthy dose of pragmatism thrown in.

I confronted the pathetic fallacy of phobia, that most self-absorbed of maladies, the kind of obsessive fear that is also, at its heart, the ultimate ego trip.

The hike from camp included a couple of thigh-high water crossings and stretches of slurping, sucking mud that brought quicksand to mind. Unless you were a sure-clawed and surprisingly quick-moving bear, it would take about an hour and a half to cover just two miles. Every dozen steps or so the heel of my back foot wouldn’t lift as expected, bringing the rest of my body to a sudden stop and forcing me to twist the foot until it wrenched free. Then came waist-high sedge thrusting up from marshland that would sink and fill with a small pool of water wherever you stepped. Still, there was plenty to remind me why I have lived in Alaska for nearly 20 years. Vast, uninterrupted openness bordered by distant snow-topped mountains that were accessible only to the toughest of souls. No cars and no roads—the quiet that was just us. Total quiet, however, is the last thing you want when moving through dense bear country.

At frequent intervals one of the staff (“We’re not guides,” one of them had emphasized) would call out in order to prevent surprising a bear with our presence. I positioned myself in the middle of the group, as it wasn’t a question of if we would come across a bear during our hike, only a matter of when and how many. Tony used the standard, “Hey, bear,” while Tom, the sanctuary manager, preferred the sporty, “Hey, batterbatterbatter.” Red-headed Drew liked to call out in his deepest, most manly voice, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.” Their confident, cheery hollers created an aura of security. The Remington 870 Marine Magnum each carried didn’t hurt, either.

Tony’s stoic sureness made us feel as safe as if we were headed to see the old Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyland. Drew served as the teacher of all things “Bear Aware.” The first time we saw a bear with Drew, he halted us and instructed in a hushed voice, “Don’t move your feet, don’t move your feet, don’t move your feet,” which at first I heard as, “Don’t move your teeth.” Not that it mattered, since I couldn’t move anything. If Tom was leading the way, though, we would take miniature side trips to see the sites of former indigenous dwellings, or to find local plant life and name it: white dwarf dogwood, yellow starflower, the low purple beach pea, the nearly ground-level fuchsia of the nagoonberry. Lupine, wild geranium, chocolate lily, Siberian iris: Tom knew them all and wanted us to know them, too, and to appreciate them every bit as much as we appreciated the bears we had come to see.

 

I had envisioned our destination as a raised wooden deck with railings. Instead it was a flat gravel pad, the shape and size of a large galley kitchen without the luxury of walls, that overlooked the short bluff to the river below. More than a dozen brown bears fished in the churning waters below while several more lounged or sauntered around us in the tall sedge, enjoying their most recent catch or sleeping off their overindulgence, none appearing to notice the dozen humans suddenly in their midst. But they skirted the gravel as if it had an invisible barrier, as nonchalantly as though we, too, were invisible. And here I confronted the pathetic fallacy of phobia, that most self-absorbed of maladies, the kind of obsessive fear that is also, at its heart, the ultimate ego trip. The bear will maul, the plane will crash and kill, the confining space will crush not the others who happen to occupy the same space, but me, the person who fears it most. Yet here I now stood on an open patch of land, my body no more appetizing to a bear than the wind or the sky.

 

From the platform we watched a young adult brown bear running gleefully up a hill with a fish intestine flapping from its mouth and witnessed a scene involving one large rock outcropping, two dying fish, three hungry bears, and dozens of raucous gulls. That’s the real circle of life—carnage, scavenging, guts, and blood. Watching, we learned what the young adult bear had learned: how to eat. The steps were as follows: Once in the water, stand on your hind legs while flinging out your front legs so that it looks like you’re about to bend over in prostrate prayer, but instead plunge forward and down to submerge your head in a quick baptism, coming back up with a fish caught in your unforgiving jaws.

Next, find a good spot among the mud or rocks or the higher-up sedge where you can dine in peace. Pin the fish with one claw for leverage. If you’re hoping for roe, start with a strategic bite about mid-fish, so that all of those glistening orange eggs spill out in a clumpy blob. Slurp those up, then use your teeth to tear off a long section of skin. Gobble it down—chewing is optional. Note that the fish may still appear alive at this point, its head and tail thrashing, gills gasping. Ignore that. Start tugging at the insides with your teeth. If you’ve been eating salmon all day, it is perfectly acceptable dining etiquette to walk away without finishing. Leave it to the seagulls and occasional bald eagle to tussle over the remains until finally, after multiple stabs by frenzied birds, the gills cease to move and the twitching stops.

 

At McNeil we saw 10, 15, upwards of 20 bears at once, all engaged in the hunt for swimming meat. You could hardly swing a dead fish without hitting an ursine. (I couldn’t help thinking: It would only take one to give us humans a second look and decide we were nothing more than really big fish.) They fought over fish, they chased other bears that had caught a fish, they stole fish outright. It was all about the fish. The staff called it salmon fever. Often one bear would make its way, step by stalking step, toward another bear that was busily ripping at a fresh kill. Possession does not count for 90 percent of the law in the world of the ursine; hierarchy does. Whichever bear had superior status usually ended up with the meal. A feeding bear might quickly turn on an approaching intruder and chase it away, or it might feign nonchalance, never making eye contact, acting as though no another bear was in the vicinity. Then suddenly it would decide, apropos of nothing, that it didn’t want this particular fish and skulk off to land another. The encroaching bear, meanwhile, would snap up its prize without having had to burn much-needed calories by actually fishing.

Sometimes a bear would forego the stalking and simply give chase in the hopes that a fish would be abandoned or dropped out of panic or haste. The pursued might run blindly away from the water and up the bluff. It was almost funny—almost—the way a bear would come to a cartoon-sudden stop when it found itself at the pebbly border of our platform, its eyes widening as it registered our presence, and then wheeling around to sprint off in another direction. Oddly enough, though there were many bear-to-bear conflicts, they rarely let loose with a roar or a growl. Or if they did, the noise of the rushing water, constant winds, and cacophony of scavenging birds drowned them out.

On the platform I pretended to have courage. I stood still when a bear came too close, was surprised at the calm, confident sound of my voice when I said, “Hey, bear” as instructed, and was pleased when the bear turned away at my two simple words. After a few such encounters, I started to long for these brief moments in the vicinity of a bear in which, for the first time, I felt in control. It was like suddenly discovering magical powers and wanting to use them right away and often. I willed the bears to come close, closer.

 

From a distance, it looked as though Otto’s tongue hung perpetually from his mouth. Upon closer viewing, the tongue morphed into his lip, torn loose in some long-ago fight. He had a tendency to drool on himself, but the injury had not prevented Otto from becoming a huge success at fishing and reaching a weight of more than 1,000 pounds. Otto, of course, didn’t know what he weighed, that he had been named Otto for research purposes, or that his species was known as ursus arctos horribilis. He fished. He fed.

According to Tony, the point of naming Otto or any of the other bears had nothing to do with anthropomorphizing.

The bear named Ears indeed had the largest hearing appendages around, one of which had been clipped by some unknown biologist years before.

“They’re not names, they’re identifying labels,” he emphasized, used for tracking data such as which bears are returning to the stream each year and how many fish they’re catching. Otto’s lip flapped. Elvis shuffled his feet so that his haunches jiggled, a display that communicated, in bear, that he was a badass not to be messed with. The bear named Ears indeed had the largest hearing appendages around, one of which had been clipped by some unknown biologist years before. The small red tag made him look like the ear-pierced hipster of the crowd.

We watched the bears and took pictures of the bears and did nothing else. Not once during all of our time on the viewing platform did anyone pull out a book or a magazine. It is hard to believe that anything in nature still has the power to mesmerize people into gawking for 10 hours straight, four days in a row. With names, the bears became characters in a story, and their every move—from a swipe at a struggling fish to a menacing move toward another bear—offered the start of yet another narrative arc. We knew better than to delude ourselves into thinking that the bears surrounding us were anything but wild creatures, but we could not help wanting to identify with the animals in some small way.

“Oh, look, here comes Elvis,” we said, proud of our ability to tell them apart, and “Wow, look at those Mickey Mouse ears!” Despite my fear I found myself referring to Otto, the underdog-turned-victor, as my favorite. I’m going to hazard a guess that Otto had no favorite among the humans who crowded a prime piece of nap-worthy real estate. He caught fish after fish, a flailing chum dangling from his teeth after nearly every dunk of his head into the rapids. He would saunter with his catch onto the rock jutting below our platform and then proceed to rip and chew and gulp. Sometimes he left nothing but the brainless head. Other times he went after a female salmon and tore at the bulging sac of roe, gobbling the eggs and leaving the rest for the entourage of winged scavengers that hovered and brawled over the remains.

Credit: Jim Benning

One afternoon, Otto lumbered up the bluff and stopped less than 10 feet away at a spot level with the platform. He plopped his large body onto the ground, intent on sleeping off his feast. One salmon can provide four to 18 pounds of sustenance for a hungry bear, since they often scarf down nearly everything from the silvery, fatty skin to the bright red flesh and the brain. Even at Otto’s size, gorging on 10 to 15 salmon in a row could not end in anything but what the staff called “salmon stupor”—a kind of hangover following a salmon fever–induced binge. It would be like eating five Thanksgiving dinners in a row. The tryptophan nap could last for days.

Otto captured the full attention of every camera. With the first click his head bolted up so he could glare at us, but his eyes fluttered and drooped, and he lay down again. Someone took a step on the gravel pad and up popped his head again. I knew how he felt; I had gone through the same struggle the previous night, the need for sleep battling against the many distressing noises outside the tent. Finally, as had happened with me, he could no longer fight the fatigue and simply passed out.

Emboldened but still slow and careful, my heart pondering a relocation to my throat, I stepped toward the edge of the gravel, propelled by an absolute driving need to come as close as possible to the object of my fear and fascination. I made no more concession to Otto’s anxiety than he would have made to mine.

The first thing that hit me was the smell. Start with fish after dead fish down the gullet, add the heat of a thousand-pound animal’s breath, and you might conclude that this was the origination of the phrase death warmed over. Even 10 feet away, Otto’s every exhalation wafted over our group like a noxious cloud, causing me to wish humans hadn’t been burdened with the necessity of breathing. Most people leave McNeil with images they’ll have for the rest of their lives. I took with me the olfactory memory of Otto’s breath.

I could see the thick fur but also a few bald patches and a smattering of old scars, and a short tail, maybe two to three inches long, easily forgotten in the focus on faces and teeth and claws and sheer bulk. I saw the face distinguished by that torn lip. And I recognized a sudden surprising, taboo urge to step beyond the gravel pad, to place my hand onto a tuft of dark brown fur. I wasn’t the only one. We all inched as close as we could, in what Tony called with great exaggeration “pad rush,” until the lump of us stood crowded at the very limits of the gravel. But what happens beyond the ragged edge of what we perceive as our perimeter of safety? Catastrophe? Appreciation rather than fear? A focus on what appears before us rather than on our reaction to it? Maybe we would let go of the self-absorption that leads us to snap photos of a place and then leave, having never really seen it. Before us lay 1,000 pounds of rough, scarred beauty that could kill us as easily as ignore us. Or 1,000 pounds of rough, scarred beauty, period. But no. I couldn’t quite make the shift to an appreciation unburdened by phobia. Thrill-fear-thrill-fear-THRILL-FEAR. This was the most palpably close my personal ratio had ever reached to horrible perfection.

 

Otto gave us a visceral understanding of salmon stupor, but we didn’t truly understand the power of salmon fever until our final hour on the viewing platform.

“Hey guys,” Tony said in his eternally unflappable tone, “there’s a sow with two spring cubs.” To keep their cubs safe, mothers will usually avoid combat fishing zones; most of the bears we had seen at the falls had been adult males or sows without cubs. Although we had stopped once along our hike to watch a sow with yearlings, we were like every other visitor to McNeil in our desire to see cubs, their fuzzy, floppy cuteness making them  as irresistible as puppies—only with a much larger mother who would never be far away. Or so we thought.

The cubs, maybe a dozen pounds each, scampered close behind the sow as she made her way along the riverbank below. Plentiful bounty in the river kept the other bears too busy to notice or care about the young family. A light brown just this side of cinnamon, the sow appeared to be searching for a fishing spot that might afford a comfortable distance from another bear—no easy task.

Back and forth they went, chasing, lunging, defending. The cubs couldn’t have had the first clue of what to do—all they knew was that surge of fear and adrenaline that together compelled them to flee.

The sow slowed. Stopped. Off to her left on a patch of sand and gravel and mud stood a chocolate-colored bear with a fresh catch in its jaws. It was all too much for the sow; maternal instinct be damned, she lunged toward the fresh catch. The rightful owner charged back. Back and forth they went, chasing, lunging, defending. The cubs couldn’t have had the first clue of what to do—all they knew was that surge of fear and adrenaline that together compelled them to flee. In the melee and panic of the moment they became separated from the sow and each other. One cub ran in the general direction of the platform while somehow managing to avoid it, and the other one ran in the opposite direction; we never saw it again. Still caught up in the scuffle over the fish, their mother didn’t notice either cub’s disappearance.

The next surprise came when the sow ultimately triumphed, the other bear dropping the fish and loping back to the water to try again. It was over; the family could reunite and the sow could feed her cubs the rich protein of her prize—the whole reason she must have taken such a risk.

Except it wasn’t. Snatching up the fish in her teeth, the sow trotted up the bluff without once looking around her. At the top she let the salmon fall to the dirt, leaned down, and began devouring it. We could see her, and we could see one of the cubs, but none of the three family members could see each other. Technically we now stood between a sow and her cub, never a recommended position, but she still had not noticed anything amiss.

Not until the sow had sated herself did she lift her head and take a look around. She stood up on her hind legs. Lifted her head so that her nose pointed like a beacon toward the sky. Sniffed. The air told her nothing. Given that a bear’s sense of smell is stronger than a bloodhound’s, and that the cubs were probably bawling for her, the sow’s inability to locate her cubs could only be blamed on the strong, persistent wind, which carried both sounds and scents up and away. The sow began pacing, lifting her nose skyward every few moments, to no use. She expanded her wandering, agitation showing in her quickening pace and sudden shifts in direction. When her increasingly frantic search brought her near the platform, Tony and Tom decided a large group of humans might offer less than a calming influence on a distressed bear and organized our departure.

Two researchers there on a special permit, both of whom had extensive experience in bear country, opted to stay a while longer. The rest of us strapped on our daypacks, pulled on our waders for the slog back, and left for camp, making sure to veer well out of the sow’s widening path. The last we saw of her, she was still frantically searching for her lost offspring. With nothing else to be done, we left the bear to her solitary, futile battle with fear.

 

After a full day on the viewing platform, the excitement of our last moments there, and the slow hike back to camp, everyone was exhausted. We hurried through dinner and dishwashing to crawl into our respective tents. But once I was in my sleeping bag, my eyelids refused to droop. I worried about the sow and her cubs, but mostly I continued to worry about myself. Any one of the many bears roaming around out there could wander into camp, grab our tent, and shake us loose like chips from a foil bag. Some fear of bears is indeed normal, but normal fear does not include lying awake in one’s tent at night analyzing every snap of twig and rustle of leaf, as if the bears have spent the day strategizing and now surround the campground, watches synched, waiting for the moment to strike.

Friends attending my funeral would shake their heads in pity at my ignorance. “Saline?” they would whisper. “Everyone knows you don’t keep saline in your tent!”

With the other campers snoozing in their tents, the staff sealed up in their solid cabins, and my husband in a deep sleep beside me, every bit of wind transformed itself into the heavy breathing of an ursus arctos horribilis outside our nylon wall. There was none of the telltale rankness of dead-fish breath, but phobia and logic are mutually exclusive. I lay in my own cocoon of pathetic fallacy and knew as surely as I knew my own name that out of the half-dozen tents, ours would attract a hungry bear in some unique and irresistible way. It would ignore all of the other tents in favor of ours; a bear’s nose was so powerful it could smell my phobia. I worried that items I thought of as odorless—hand sanitizer, the saline for my contact lenses—might turn out to be bear attractants, with me the only one not in the know. Friends attending my funeral would shake their heads in pity at my ignorance. “Saline?” they would whisper. “Everyone knows you don’t keep saline in your tent!”

Over the heavy winds it was hard to tell, but had I heard the crunch of gravel? A brushing-up against the alders? That final night I lay exhausted yet wide awake once more, all hints of daytime bravado carried off by the windy dusk, buzzing on the adrenaline of what must surely be fear. Here at McNeil, the object of my longtime phobic obsession was not some unseen bear roaming around that might stumble upon our tent; it was a community of dozens, each of which knew perfectly well the location of the human camp. We had paid a lot of money and gone to a great deal of trouble to immerse ourselves in their habitat. How could I call my “bearanoia” a true phobia? There is conquering one’s fear, and then there is going out of one’s way to feel it at its most extreme. It had come to seem more like flipping the coin of obsession over and over, going from the heads of fascination to the tails of phobia and back again, with no real change. The experiment in self-styled exposure therapy ended with me lying prone in a thin fabric shell, no less afraid, just as obsessed, and with nowhere to go but the inside of my own head.

 

A few hours before we were to fly out the next morning, the two researchers came into the cook shack as the rest of us were finishing breakfast. By the time they left the platform the previous night, the sow still had not located either of her cubs. How could such a thing happen? Salmon fever, they said. When it hit, a bear’s behavior might become unpredictable, even for a mother with cubs just months old. The researchers also said that this might have been the young sow’s first time having cubs, and that the strong lure of a favorite food source could have combined with her maternal inexperience to overpower her.

We’ll never know if the sow ever found her cubs, if the cubs were again relaxed, safe and sound in the aftermath of salmon fever. We’ll never know if the bear was able to assuage her fear.

Credit: Jim Benning

Karen Benning lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and is currently working on a memoir as well as a book about an Armenian mystic. She is also afraid of moose, but that’s a whole different story. More by Karen Benning