We watched a comedian some time ago on television and he joked about his fear of bears. Before his first visit to Alaska, he discussed his concerns with a friend. His friend told him not to worry, because “the bear is more afraid of you than you are of it.” The comedian responded by saying, “I’m pretty sure the bear is wrong.“
And based on the tale that Richard Proenneke tells, I would have to agree with the comedian.
For Proenneke, July 2, 1969 was a day of celebration. He had lost his axe the previous day, and that was a terrible loss. He would write in his diary, “After all the miles we had traveled together, building everything, I hated the thought of losing it. A man could no more afford to lose his axe out here than he could his wallet full of folding money in a strange city.” All plans for the day were scrapped and the search was on. He scoured the cabin, he retraced his steps over the last several days, which meant walking trails and digging through the brush. His relentless search paid dividends, as he finally found the axe on the third search of his cabin.
As you may recall, Proenneke had come to Twin Lakes, Alaska the year before and carved out his own little existence, building his own cabin in the midst of fantastic surroundings and almost complete solitude. Over time, he had augmented his in-ground cool-box with a stilted cache, where he put things out of the reach of the local wildlife, particularly bears, which rambled around his home in search of food.
Today he would see another bear, though not at all in the manner he desired.
Proenneke decided his celebration would be spent in the high country. He left his camera and his rifle at home, not wanting the extra weight on what promised to be a day of strenuous exercise. He paddled across the lake with just his binoculars and his sixty-power eyepiece and tripod.
He climbed up high, past the pesky insects, and watched bighorn sheep, moose, and even a brown bear with her cubs in the distance. As the temperatures began to drop, he headed back down. He had just broken out of the willows when he heard a crashing the trees to his right.
Richard turned, expecting to see a moose, but instead saw a huge brown bear charging at him just fifty feet away. When yelling and waving his hands failed to stop the bear’s charge, he turned and fled, only to trip and fall on his back. He penned in his diary, “…I started kicking at the great broad head as it burst through the willow leaves. And then as he loomed over me, a strange thing happened. The air whooshed out of him as he switched ends. Off he went up the slope, bunching his huge bulk, climbing hard, and showering stones. Not once did he look back.“
Proenneke believed the bear, at the last moment, caught the strange scent of human. The bear probably saw Proenneke’s movement from a distance and charged, thinking it was dinner. Just in time, the bear relented and left. Richard continued his trip home, unable to think of anything but those few deadly seconds, and unable to stop shaking. From now on, his rifle would be an automatic accessory for travel.
When he finally went to bed, he wrote, “I lay awake for a long time. My mind kept returning to the bear.“
Recommended Reading: One Man’s Wilderness