The following day could have been an outdoor documentary titled Flyfishing With Brown Bears. After making the tundra deathmarch from camp to creek, we hiked downstream of the stretch we had fished before. The route took us along a steep bluff, and I was glad to be atop it. Almost directly below, another sow, this one honey-colored, was teaching her cubs to fish. When she lunged into a deep pool, it was like a fur-covered Volkswagen had struck the water, and we saw the shadows of several huge salmon streak away. The 2-year-old cubs weren’t very attentive, preferring to wrestle with each other on a gravel bar. Eventually, she gave up and led her young up the bluff to browse on willows and forage for ground squirrels. We moved on, glancing over our shoulders, then went down to the stream to fish.
Leslie was designated to watch the bluff, in case the she-bear appeared behind us. We had made only a few casts to a mixed school of chums and sockeyes when a young, muscular boar of some 350 pounds suddenly showed up on the opposite bank.
With the bluff behind us, we had little maneuvering room, so we talked to the boar in low tones and waited for him to walk downstream. He ambled along, gazing into the water just like a fisherman, but then crossed the stream to our side. Time to leave, and we did, fording the stream with linked arms to support each other on the slick rocks and against the strong current.
Farther up, we were able to fish for a while without interruption. And what fishing it was. Leslie caught and released a fat Dolly Varden on a 5-weight outfit, then a 10-pound chum. Marc landed a 15-pounder a few minutes later. Oswald made the prettiest catch of the afternoon–a three-pound rainbow so perfect in its shape, color and markings that it looked the Platonic idea of a rainbow trout.
We wanted to stay at that spot, but it was claimed by another bear. Every move this animal made said that he meant us no harm, that he was concerned with catching salmon. At the same time, through some language I cannot explain, he made it clear that he expected us to leave. It was as if we were poaching the private waters of some powerful lord tolerant enough to overlook our trespass, so long as we got out of his way when he decided to fish. After more fancy footwork, we found a gravel bar we hoped to call our own. Jeannie and I each caught Dolly Varden. Then two kings came swimming slowly upstream. Looking at them, I thought of an old Koyukon Indian riddle: “Wait, I see something. What is it? We come upstream in red canoes.” The “red canoes” are king salmon, and the male resembled a canoe in miniature. He might have gone 40 pounds. I was casting to him, concentrating intently, when Jeannie softly called, “Bear.” I looked to my left, and there, only 30 feet away, was yet another brown. He too went at least 350 pounds, and he had come out of the dense tag alders without a sound.
I was downright upset to be driven away from such a fine salmon, and before I could stop myself, I said, “We’re leaving, Bear, all right? He’s all yours, you son of a bitch.” I know this will sound like a tall tale, but it happened: The bear raised his head and stared at me, as if he’d understood the insult. That’s when I recalled something else I’d read about the Koyukons: They have powerful taboos against speaking ill of certain animals, the bear especially. Considering the circumstances, I figured it was foolish to test the truth of this folk belief. Backing up slowly, I raised my hand in a placating gesture and said, “I’m sorry, Bear. I didn’t mean that. I’m out of here.”
I was rewarded for my apology. At the next spot, a fast, straight run, I caught and released a Dolly of four pounds, then hooked a big king that struck my streamer with authority. This time I was able to mend line downstream and prevent him from running away with my line. When the fish rolled, thrashing with his tail, I saw that he was a good 30 to 35 pounds. Then he got his head, and I had to chase him, praying not to run into the bear I had disparaged. Fifteen minutes later, I had my hand on the fish’s tail, but Oswald stopped me to pose for a photograph. The salmon then wriggled into the deep water, shot downstream, and threw the hook.
“How about we call that a Palm Beach release?” I said.
Toward the end of the day–that is, around 10:00 p.m.–Oswald caught three Dolly Varden for our supper. We cleaned the fish quickly, throwing the entrails into the fastest part of the stream, and double-bagged the meat for the walk home. The trek took an hour, and it was past midnight by the time we’d cooked the fish, cleaned up, and crawled into our tents.
Dawn was a gift. I woke to see a cow moose swimming across the lake in the sunrise. The crags and peaks of the Aleutians were violet and rose, and a strong wind was up, the mosquitoes down. I went down to the lake, stripped, and did an arctic push-up, dipping myself quickly in the cold water. Then I stood, naked in the wilderness, letting the wind dry me while I looked at the light-painted snows on the far mountains. Tom McGuane once said that fishing trout streams makes him feel the way you are supposed to feel in church but seldom do. And I certainly saw more of God in that lake and in those mountains than in the grandest of man-made cathedrals, and the big chinooks in the stream and the brown bears had a lot to do with that sense of transcendence.
My tale should end there, but we had a final encounter with a bear. This fellow shambled into our camp that afternoon, after we had fished the lake for pike and packed our gear for Hartley’s arrival in the bushplane. The brown, every ounce of 400 pounds, must have caught the smell of the pancakes we’d cooked for lunch. We made quite a racket, but couldn’t drive him off. Once he came very close to Oswald, who sprayed bear mace–concentrated pepper spray–toward him. It didn’t faze the bear, and I recalled what an old sourdough up in Fairbanks had to say about the stuff: “It’s real good–brown bears like their meat well-seasoned.” Not that he wanted us; wanted to raid our pantry. Oswald and Jeannie thought he would learn bad habits if we let him do that, so every time he moved off to one side, looking for an opening, they moved to block him, hollering, “Bear! Bear! Go away, Bear!” Several yards behind those two brave souls, I took photographs in case their families wanted pictures of their last moments.
Finally, Jeannie started banging a pot with a fork, and that convinced the bear to leave, though he did so at his own leisurely pace. It was as if he were telling us that he was not to be hurried by the likes of us.
I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t been scared during the confrontation, but I would not have had it any other way. The night before, over our fish dinner, Oswald had told us about a U.S. Congressman he had guided on the Brooks River some 10 years ago. They had had a day of spectacular fishing, and several bear encounters. When Oswald asked the politician what he’d thought of his experiences, the man answered that the fishing had been great. Then he added, “But we ought to get rid of these bears. This is a national park. People come here to have fun, and you can’t have fun with all these damned bears around.”
After seeing Alaska, I knew I would have to take up Canadian citizenship if that congressman ever got his way. An America without the grandeur and menace of the brown bear would be a toothless country, not worth living in.