Jul 20, 2006

VENTURESOME MINORITY
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.

3 comments:

  1. Wow, Maggie has BALLS!

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  2. Yeah, she's my new heroine.

    Martha Gellhorn, get outta town!

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  3. Margaret Auble9:05 AM

    This article was written wonderfully, and for the most part fairly accurately. However I do need to set a few facts straight. I am the ranger mentioned in this article. I would like to add that someone may feel that they have a general comfort zone, but that it will change depending on the situation. Bear encounters especially. Depending on what bear or bears are being encountered and the activities leading up to and during the encounter. Please remember that 90 percent of brown bear charges are false charges. The bear is most likely trying to see where is stands in the pecking order with you. You don't want to make it feel like it is in danger, but you also do not want to appear weak. I would say that it was this knowledge that helped me stand strong and not harm the bear. She was probably just as scared as me, and after all, I was in her territory.
    I would also like to correct the quote commenting on me slowly squeezing the trigger. I did not have my finger on the trigger at all. Yes a round was chambered, however anyone trained in gun safety knows that you never place your finger on the trigger until you are going to shoot. My finger may have been off to the side, but was definitely not "slowly squeezing the trigger".
    Guns are not an outlandish thing in my life. However I don't want others to think that it is the best choice for every wildlife encounter. A well prepared adventurer has a few options. They begin by behaving accordingly for the areas they are in (i.e. make lots of noise in bear country) and if an encounter should occur with a bear they then are properly educated and have choices on how they handle the sittuation. (i.e. maybe pepper spray in addition to a fire arm.) If nothing else they have something to give them the confidence to stand strong in a trying situation.
    Please keep in mind that this is not a normal occurrence at Pack Creek. And if rules are followed well, then situations like this one typically don't happen.

    May we continue on without fear while embracing knowledge and compassion.

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