Monday, February 2, 2015

My Mother's Bear

There’s a sun-faded, wallet-size photograph of a bear that hangs on a ribbon from the rear view mirror of my Mom’s Subaru Forrester.  The bear’s name is Melody.  Clipped to the photo is a small package of melba toast crackers, for the bear who isn’t in the picture.

Mom used to be terrified of bears.  She met my dad through the outing club in college, he was her climbing instructor.  When he proposed, he told her that if he married her, moving to Alaska was part of the package.  She was delighted.  She bought a wedding dress and they invited all their friends to a pot-luck at Yosemite, surprising them all with the wedding.  Mom never changed into the dress, and ended up getting married in her hiking boots instead.

 So naturally, my childhood summers were spent hunkered in the jump seat of my dad’s pickup, listening to the rattle of the canoe on the roof, on our way to float the Gulkana, or the Little Susitna.  We’d always try to get a few miles downriver the first night, just to get away from the sound of the road.  We’d find a place to camp a few hours before dark.  Once we’d settled in, Dad would set up the tent, Mom would set up the kitchen, always a good safe distance away from where we would sleep, and I’d head off with the dog to gather firewood.  After dinner and a family assembly-line of dish washing, we’d settle into our standard sleeping arrangement: on the far left, you have a loaded, large-frame, 8-round revolver, next, Dad sleeping soundly, me in the middle, scrunched down two feet to make room for the dog at my head, and on the right, Mom, lying awake until 3 every morning, listening to every rustle and snapped twig.  Because everywhere in Alaska is grizzly country.

When I was little, I couldn’t decide how much of a threat bears were.  I’d try staying awake like my mom, because it seemed responsible, but always fell asleep anyway.  When I got older, watching Mom fumbling, fatigued through the second or third or fourth day of camping, I offered to take watches with her, staying awake so she could catch up on sleep.  “Wouldn’t do any good,” she said.  “It’s not that I don’t want to sleep, it’s that I can’t.” So I gave up, and slept hard, because there was nothing else useful to do.  Summer after summer, I watched my mom worry.  We saw fresh prints, we saw bear scat.  But we never saw bears.   The dog in the tent stayed asleep most nights.  Once or twice she would hop up, barking and growling at the woods beyond the tent, but whatever it was always meandered off, the dog would go back to sleep and our campsite would be undisturbed in the morning.   I became skeptical, growing suspicious that mom’s fear had more to do with a belief that she could control an uncontrollable situation by worrying about it.  And while I saw evidence that our family’s insistence on clean, cautious camping in bear country was enough to keep us safe, Mom saw evidence that her worry was protecting us.

Mom used to say it wasn’t bears that scared her so much, it was what people had done to bears.    Campgrounds were harder for her to sleep in because of “garbage bears”-- the ones that stayed near the campground because they’d learned that dumpsters provided easy meals, and that humans were a stable food source.  Those were the ones she visualized tearing through the tent flap following the smell of an unnoticed gob of peanut butter mashed into your fleece jacket at lunch.

Here’s the cool thing about my mom though.  Her fear becomes her fixation, and she manages it by learning everything she can.  She read and re-read a big stack of books on bears, Scary Alaskan Bear Tales, books on living in the bush, scientific books on bear behavior, feeding habits and population distribution, anything to help her feel prepared.  Then, when I was fourteen, she surprised us all by entering the lottery to go to McNeil River. 

McNeil River Bear Reservation is a 200 square mile preserve, accessible only by float plane, 160 miles away from the nearest town.  Human activity is strictly regulated: you can only camp in specific places, you can only cook or eat with the other visitors inside the fortified cook shed.  The only people allowed guns were the head ranger, the legendary Larry Aumiller, and whatever ranger was lucky enough to be posted with Larry that summer.  This, my mom figured, was about as perfect an arrangement as humans could manage in bear country.  The bears here would be safer, not trained to associate humans with food.  She could to this.  It would be therapeutic.

Her name didn’t get drawn.  She entered the next year and got in.  She got two tickets, and opted to take my dad.  Camping was how they met, after all.  I think it’s possible she might have wanted to show him she could sleep through the night, given the right circumstances.  They had an amazing time.  When they came back, they were full of stories of Larry, who had already spent unwitting years as a Dunn family hero, plus photographers with three-foot lenses in expensive shock-proof cases, like Kiki Mimori, an Italian photographer then in her mid 60s who did frequent work for National Geographic , who made enough to live in Italy and maintain an apartment in Anchorage.   More impressive than all this was the fact Mom slept like a baby every night she was there.

On their second day, Mom and Dad went out with Larry.  It was early in the summer, and the salmon hadn’t started migrating up McNeil River yet.  But they were running at Mikfik Creek, which was, in some ways, better.  It wasn’t as picturesque, with the famous falls you’ve seen in almost every documentary on bears, but you could get a lot closer to the prime fishing spot, and therefore the bears.  This was where Larry, his rifle strapped to his back, led Kiki, my parents, and about six other people.  Any more than that, and Larry said he got more worried about managing the humans than the bears.  They settled in on a flat grassy patch just before a steep bank that led down to the stream.  Any bears who had been there first took off at the sound of the pack of hikers, “But they’re here,” Larry assured.  “They’ll be back soon.”

The first grizzly showed up within twenty minutes.  Then more, sometimes as many as four sharing the same fishing hole.  My parents witnessed a constantly shifting social dynamic on the other side of the creek; blustery competition for the prime fishing spot, male bears trying to push in on the females with cubs and getting rebuffed.  They never saw an all-out fight, but my parents got to see plenty of fake charges, bared teeth and serious swats with thirty-pound, six-inch-clawed paws.  The social scene was made all the more engaging by the fact that at any time, the tensions could boil over from the bear side of the river to the human one.  Larry never had to cock his rifle, but it came down off his shoulder a few times, just in case.

One of the bears who was a regular at that spot that summer was Melody, a female with two yearling cubs.  Twins are more common for bears than humans, but still an exception to the rule.  Larry kept a mental genealogy of bears going decades back.  He never named cubs in their first year, since so few make it into their second.  But Melody had managed to raise twins to a stable age where they could begin to make it on their own.  Larry said it was time to name them.  He wanted names that sounded like their mother’s, so he could remember who came from whom.  Kiki suggested Carmel.  Larry thought that sounded good.  My mom suggested Melba for the other twin.  Larry nodded, saying, “I could remember that.”

My parents came back from their five days at McNeil River with rolls and rolls of film.  Printed up into slides and projected on our silvery screen back in our living room, I was amazed how my parents could tell one bear from another.  Mom never got a chance to take a good picture of Melba, the cub she named, but she got one of Melody.  She had the slide printed up so it could hang from the rear view mirror, a reminder of a great adventure and a fear—if not conquered, at least faced, negotiated with, and left on better terms.

Mom’s not afraid of bears anymore.  She left Alaska to join me down in Washington State not long after Dad died.  The black bears we encounter hiking in Washington’s parks don’t concern her much.  Here, her fear is hobo spiders—Teginaria agrestus—German forest spiders that hitchhiked in shipments of furniture to Washington where they decided they prefer living indoors.  Their necrotic bite will eat out a divot in your flesh the size of a hand.  Mom is dealing with her fear much the same way as she did with bears.  She takes precautions for living in spider country, putting up night lights and screens over the heating vents.  She’s bought books.  She captures Teginaria around her house and sticks them in the freezer so she can take them to a local entomologist she’s made friends with; so he can peer through his microscope and tell her if she’s caught a poisonous agrestus, or one of the nearly identical but harmless gigantea or domesticus species.  So far, they’ve all come back gigantea.  That’s good news.  The gigantea can give you a good scare as three inches of spider goes scuttling across your foot; these are spiders big enough to hear.  But they prey on hobos; so the fact my mom shares her house with a lot of them may be more of a blessing than a curse.  These huge, creepy arachnids are actually keeping her safe.  I can’t tell my mom not to be scared, or, I can; It’s something I’ve done enough to know it doesn’t help either of us.  In the past few years, however, I’ve noticed some of my mom’s night lights have come down, some of the screens have fallen and not been replaced.  Like the bears, she’s finding a way to live with them.

 As a teenager, I was angry that my mom let her fears get in the way so much.  My rejection of her  caution turned me into a bit of a daredevil, diving through city traffic on my bicycle on the way to work, climbing trees way past an age that such a thing is considered appropriate.  I wanted to throw myself into the world and show her it would catch me, so maybe she could finally relax a little. But the older I get, the better I’m able to accept that I’ll never change her caution, not even by offering myself up as an example who remains unmauled, unbitten, and unsquished by angry drivers.  Accepting this about her has allowed me to see and respect my mom’s disciplined approach to encountering and making peace with the things that scare her.  If she can find peace in her house full of monster arachnids, certainly I can accept her in her entirety, with her fears and limitations, and admire her skill at finding her unique, quiet way past them.