It’s funny how a good read can provoke shelved memories. I just closed the cover on a most interesting book, 200 pages of wilderness adventure, danger and discovery.
The paperback was lent to me by an acquaintance with whom I shared a Lake Erie perch fishing trip this summer. We hadn’t met prior to the trip but I quickly found New Middletown farmer Matt Brungard to be a friendly and inquisitive member of a mixed band of anglers.
Somewhere and somehow we steered our rambling conversation to Alaska, a destination I’ve visited many times but simply an indelible item on Brungard’s bucket list.
As one might expect, casual talk of Alaska between sportsmen always ends up face to face with a bear.
After all, the state is chock full of them and given enough time, every Alaska fisherman or hunter is going to bump into a bear or two or three.
Brungard mentioned that he had just read a book, Death Dance, True Life and Death Adventures from Alaska to Africa by adventure seeker Wade Nolan.
Many of the chapters, Brungard said, described some brutal Alaska bear incidents.
Sometime a couple months later, the book showed up in my mail box. And indeed, it was like being there.
Flashbacks, followed by more flashbacks. I could smell the tundra in a couple chapters, feel the hair on my neck stand up in others. It was 1989 and my first trip to Alaska.
My brother-in-law Dick Bonner teamed up with me and we roughed out a schedule during which we could explore on our own and also visit a string of characters and hire enough side trips to flesh out several magazine and newsprint stories.
The first person we met after landing in Anchorage was a fellow writer who I had corresponded with during pre-trip research.
Dick and I were both taken back as we looked at the stitch tracks that crisscrossed his weathered face. He saw our alarm and led us into his emotional tale of an encounter with a grizzly, a traumatic near-death mauling that left his face and other areas in tatters.
As I recall, it was 450 stitches worth.
Author Nolan describes a similar story in his book. Reading it brought long-relaxed goosebumps to attention.
A few days later, we were waist deep in the current of a wild river casting for silver salmon.
A float plane ride across Cook Inlet got us there and our pilot was standing on the shoreline keeping an eye out for unwanted visitors — just like the one running through the grass like it meant business.
The pilot yelled one word, “bear!”
We scrambled out of the water and the pilot to the Cessna grabbed his always present 12 gauge bear repellent.
That particular salmon-fed brown bear was the largest wild thing I had ever seen. Luckily, it skidded to a stop when it actually saw that we were not another bear in its fishing spot; just a couple wide-eyed, touristy guys waving eight weight fly rods.
Nolan’s Death Dance brought vivid memories of that encounter to mind and more, like the time a momma grizzly and her two cubs wanted to use the same game trail that a good friend, Paul Fedorchak, and I were walking.
We had pitched a tent the night before on the immense and featureless tundra of the Alaskan Peninsula.
It was the first morning of a week-long caribou hunt. We were on our own and by then had just enough experience under our collective belts to not panic.
That bear was not about to give up her claim to the trail and made very sure we knew it. Popping her teeth, spitting slobber, and huffing, she stood up tall and made her intention clear.
We were fortunate enough to back away unharmed but suddenly very well aware of our vulnerability in such a wild place.
If you like to read about wild encounters, some with less fortunate results find a copy of Nolan’s book and enjoy.
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