For the few hours that it gets dark in Alaska during the late summer, it gets really dark. Remember, there’s an almost guaranteed chance that it’s either raining, or the sky is overcast so there’s almost no chance you’re going to have any moonlight. It’s at that moment that you realize just how dark a dark night can be. I never kept up with it but I know that even until 10 o’clock at night you’d still see sunlight, but every now and then you’d wake up in the middle of the night because nature was calling.
There is a small trail that leads from the tent to the rear of the small island. This was the place that we mostly did our private business whenever it demanded to be dealt with. Walking with a flashlight towards the back of the island with a shotgun and a roll of toilet paper can be unnerving. You’re constantly on alert for bears and other critters. The night is so dark it feels as though it swallows your entire surroundings except for whatever your flashlight is aiming towards. Such circumstances make it tremendously difficult to relax, which in turn makes the entire process seemingly impossible. It’s at times like this that the reality of your remoteness really starts to settle in. How far away you are from everything, and just how foreign the feeling of trying to use the bathroom on a tree in the pitch black is. At some point though the need overcomes the angst. You accomplish what you came to do, and hurry the hell up back to your sleeping bag; bears and boogeymen be damned.
A story my dad tells often is one night he got up to answer the call and poked his head out of the tent. My dad can’t see very well. In fact, without his glasses, he’d admit his eyesight is pretty much useless. Add that to the fact that you’re not exactly the most alert when you first wake up, and you can see how frightened he must have been when he made his way out of the tent flap only to greet a mother black bear and her two cubs. When they caught sight of him both cubs shot up the nearest trees almost as though a tether yanked them into the treetops. The mother bear immediately hunched her neck and began to growl.
“George…” he called with a whisper that quickly crescendoed into a shout while slowing backing into the tent, “I thought you said they wouldn’t bother the tent.”
At the beginning of our trip, George had assured us that no black bears would come up into our camp because he had marked his territory all around the island. He informed us several times that “the bears around here are on the program. They know better than to mess with me.”
This momma didn’t get that message, and while I was half asleep I heard George yell at my father, “GET INSIDE!” and the rest of us to stay where we were.
He grabbed one of the two shotguns propped up near the entrance and barrelled through the tent flap shouting at the top of his lungs every four letter word imaginable and then some that he made up. He had the gun in one hand, but the other hand throwing everything he could grab at that bear. I think it was a folding camping chair that finally caused her to turn around and run towards the back of the island.
George has had more experience with bears than anyone I know, have met, or am likely to meet. I’m still not convinced that was the most likely outcome from such an encounter, and I’m not sure how he got away with not having to shoot her out of self-defense. Still, the bear was gone, and dad decided to hold it until the morning.