ADMIRALTY ISLAND, Alaska: A freckled woman welcomes us to the Pack Creek Brown Bear Sanctuary, a .375 H&H Magnum rifle over one shoulder.
Maggie more formally Margaret Auble of the Tongass National Forest began training on firearms at age five. But guns are a necessity, not a passion, the Alaskan native stresses. We've had no pesty bears this year, no curious subadults. I've never even loaded a bullet into the chamber.
Every ranger has their comfort limit for a charge. I'd shoot at 10-20 yards.
She also briefs our three-person group on sanctuary survival tips. All food, even gum wrappers, disappears into underground bunkers. If we encounter a brown bear a coastal variant of the humpbacked, bad-news grisly we should stand our ground, look large and speak firmly.
Then she radios north. The estuary trail is clear, so we pick along the high-tide line, alert for ursine grunts and rustles in the thick brush.
The cinnamon bear romps on the beach. She bellyflops across the mudflats, plowing through channels in cartoon starbursts of spray. Then she rears onto two legs bruin rampant like a knight's crest with a rose-and-sage-fleshed salmon bucking between her teeth.
Maggie's voice fuzzes through the walkie-talkie, manned by wildlife technician Paul Converse of the Department of Fish and Game.
I had a bear encounter, she observes.
What type? Over.
Uh. The charging type.
A half hour later, the young ranger arrives at the Windfall Harbor observation point. Her preternatural calm is dissolving into chatter and maybe even a few shakes, as all that sour, jittery adrenaline flushes.
I was helping some people cast off their boat, Maggie says. This subadult bear was eating and moseying nearby. Maybe 10-20 yards off.
Suddenly she wheeled and charged. I talked firmly to her. I said, 'you turn right around, Missy!' I'd seen her pee so I knew she was a girl.
Two hours ago, Maggie told me her panic-zone was 10-20 yards. This bear probably the teenager called Pokey started from that distance. And the ranger's so highly trained, so alert to the moment, she assessed the animal's gender and addressed her accordingly, as she chambered her first bullet ever on Admiralty Island.
I was watching her frontal muscles, to see if they bunched to move forward more, she says. It was beautiful. Scary, but beautiful.
I was slowly squeezing the trigger, when she stopped that far away. Maggie points to a log maybe three or four yards from her boot.
It was a false charge after all. Both of us had faux-fronts on, but I won.
A venturesome minority will always be eager to get off on their own, the Idaho Law Review once observed. Let them take risks, for God's sake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches that is the right and privilege of any free American.
And Alaska, the last frontier, is still a playpen big enough for all our shaky steps and false starts. Even Pokey's.