The first Saturday morning of our family vacation found the four of us at the Albert Loop trailhead near the Eagle River Nature Center of Chugach State Park, Alaska. This was supposed to be an easy, well-kept, three mile loop that would take us past crystal clear streams to a spectacular view of a mountain valley. We assured our nine and seven-year-old that they would be able to handle the hike by showing them through phone apps how far we had hiked other days: one and a quarter miles around University Lake next to our hotel, one and a half miles on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail in Anchorage. Just wandering around the fourth of July fair was probably a couple of miles when it was all said and done. We all felt pretty confident.
We showed up about an hour before the nature center actually opened and read the notices pinned to the door to get oriented. There were bears nearby, and what we needed to do was to stay together and stay loud. You never want to surprise a bear, but he will steer clear of you if you are noisy and generally annoying. If a bear approaches you, you should stand your ground, and never ever run as they may begin a chase. Another chart explained all the reasons why standing your ground is helpful. A guidebook I had assured us that only polar bears stalk humans, and we were thousands of miles from polar bear habitat. As a last resort you could use your bear spray if the bear charged. We didn’t have bear spray (before researching this trip I wondered if bear spray was for spraying on ourselves to repel bears or if it was for spraying at the bears-for the record it’s something you spray in a bear’s face).
We live in the suburbs of Chicago. When I camped as a little girl the most you had to worry about was a raccoon in your tent. A goose coming at you aggressively. A squirrel getting a little too familiar with humans and peeing all over your gear. No bears. No moose. Nothing really… deadly.
And here I was about to march my kids through bear territory for a vacation memory. Without a guide. Without other people on the path. Without bear spray (God help me, if I ever had to use it I’d probably spray myself in the face instead and just be putting a peppery garnish on the bear’s next meal).
But, I do tend to get anxious when there is nothing really to be afraid of. My husband looked like he was still game, so I swallowed it down and we started off. He didn’t look nervous until we were hemmed into a narrow pathway with very high grasses on all sides of us.
Up until that moment we had been talking casually, searching the trees and shrubs around us for less intimidating wildlife. Once we got to the grasses the need to keep noisy became something we both felt strongly about. The boys were confused as to why we needed to keep chatting about nothing, so my genius husband got them talking about the app “My Singing Monsters”. I swear to you that they did not stop talking over the next hour and a half. About two minutes into the boys talking, I realized that they would keep us constantly conversating, but they weren’t particularly loud. I added in claps, loud cheerleading claps with an ever-changing rhythm. We trudged on, past the grasses and through thickets of trees and mosquitos, scaring away every animal within earshot. Except a Great Horned owl. He did, however, seem annoyed.
About three quarters of a mile in we came across a path sign saying that the normal trail had been washed away by recent rainstorms. We could retreat or follow a bypass route. Hoping that the bypass wouldn’t take us back into low-visibility grass, we stomped forward. The trail became a mass of tangled roots that we couldn’t ignore, so our attention became divided between watching the forest and watching our feet. I clapped even louder and faster, exhorting the boys to be careful as we still had a long ways to go and we could not carry them if they got a twisted ankle. My husband was leading the way, and the boys followed him and I brought up the rear, listening to chatter about how to get new monsters on an app and clapping furiously “We will, we will, rock you.” This was definitely not the serene, life-affirming communion with nature we had been promised. At one point I know I was singing Macklemore’s “Ceiling Can’t Hold Us” at the top of my lungs.
Then off to my left I heard something. It sounded like the loud exhale of a very large creature at about the height of my shoulder and ten feet away. I tried to explain to my husband that I heard something. He looked around, decided he hadn’t seen anything and kept going. Between the mosquitos and the large mammal I was sure was right next to me, I wasn’t about to stop and get super quiet to find out what it really was. (Later my husband would confess that he looked in the trees far away, not the shrubs near me, and excitedly said, “Aw man, I wish you had explained where to look, I bet something was there, that would have been awesome!” to which I replied, “Are you insane?!?”)
We advanced on a bridge and were able to relax for a moment, me shaking out my hands, my husband asking the boys to pause on the “My Singing Monsters” talk for a second. There were crystal clear streams, and interesting birds, and most importantly less trees so we could tell that at least here there were no bears within a hundred-yard radius. We took pictures and trudged on.
Finally we finished, unscathed if a little jumpy. The nature center was finally open and we overheard a worker explain that lots of people saw black bears on the path just in the last day or so. Later on I would tell my husband, “And no one will see any today, you’re welcome other hikers. I did the heavy lifting of scaring them away for you.” He guessed that they were probably the sort of people who were hoping to see a bear in his natural habitat. To that I shrugged and gave a look as if to say, “Sucks to be them, I’m all about the self-preservation.” And I’ll be damned if some hikers think that them seeing a bear is more important than me not seeing my baby boys being eaten by black bears on a family vacation.
We ate granola bars and went to the bathroom and set back out for the half-mile hike that EVERYBODY takes. A lady in a skirt and flip-flops preceded us, holding her iPad up to take pictures on this fifteen minute, totally cleared path. A bunch of other tourists like us walked up and down the trails, totally sure that they would not be part of a bear attack that day. And we were finally able to get quiet for a second and actually enjoy the view.
And as much as I was eventually teased for looking like a crazy lady, clapping and yelling through a state park, the kids and my husband and I all decided that that was enough adventure for us for one day. Possibly for the whole summer.