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It’s January, which means the dark, yet unseasonably warm, weather has us dreaming of summertime. In our nostalgia, let’s consider a fond memory from summer 2021.
Some friends and I went to Hidden Lake Campground along Skilak Lake Road. Per Alaska.org, Skilak Lake and the surrounding areas are known as “the premier wildlife-viewing areas on the Kenai Peninsula.” The website promotes many references to bird watching, bird sightings, and sockeye salmon. Tucked away at the bottom, the website also advertises bear watching tours, mainly with the express purpose of watching the bears feed on sockeye salmon.
At the campground, there is a paved road down to Hidden Lake, and hiking and biking trails around the lake to a large amphitheater. Saturday at midday, three of us took one mellow bulldog for a walk through the woods towards the amphitheater. This bulldog, Riley, is a gentle animal. I’ve never heard her bark, seen her run, or express more than a passing interest in the world around her. Instead, she greeted the squirrel in the tree at our campsite, which was chattering at us angrily, by shuffling over to the tree and looking up for a while.
Riley hobbles along wherever she goes at a meandering pace. If you call her, she will come, but not with any urgency.
And it was in this manner that Riley and I led the Saturday afternoon pack, me alternating between walking her, and dragging her by her leash.
James, the owner of the bulldog, called out.
“Wait, Sarah, hold on, stop for a second.”
He was staring at the ground, transfixed.
I walked back to him.
I stared at the ground intently.
All I saw was the pavement.
“What are you looking at?”
He frowned and shook his head.
“Sorry, I have a thing about this trail. I always think I’m going to see a bear. I don’t hang around, I don’t stop, I’m ALWAYS watching, I just keep moving.”
The two of us looked back at our third walking companion. This friend, Amanda, was wearing a sunhat, sunglasses, and carrying a mimosa. She was poking at the ground, looking for kindling for firewood, and admiring the scenery.
“The sunlight is so pretty,” she sighed. “It looks like a fairy forest!”
James, the bulldog, and I continued, making it perhaps ten steps. Then James stopped us again and began looking at the ground.
Whatever he was looking at must have been impressive, so I looked down too.
“Hold up, Sarah these look – ”
He stopped talking and lifted his gaze. I followed, looking up at the trail ahead.
An 800-pound brown bear was running along the trail, straight at us, and, perhaps most horribly, was making eye contact.
In shock, it took me a moment to register what was happening. The bear was so massive, his extra muscles and extra fat and extra skin rose and fell up over his head with each stride like a large mane. It was like watching a lion run at us, but much taller.
We were at a loss for options. No gun, no bear spray, just a mild-mannered bulldog who didn’t bark.
“Run!” James whispered.
We turned around and bolted, and that naggingly rational part of my brain reminded me that running from a brown bear was the worst thing you could do. You were supposed to stand your ground and look bigger. Or were you supposed to keel over and look smaller? Either, way, what we were doing was wrong.
But really, what kind of a psycho would honestly stop and wait for this monster to run up and grab him?
I ran as fast as I could, full out. I also realized too late that I was wearing flip flops, and this was perhaps the most awful choice for footwear. I kept running.
We rounded the bend in the trail and into Amanda, our flower child companion. She saw the wild looks on our faces, and I could hear James calling, “Run, just run!”
Amanda turned around, and began running wildly, her arms, currently holding a giant stick, her mimosa, and her sunglasses, flailing about. Her sunhat flopped around her face. She stuck her arm out in front of her blindly, attempting to not spill her drink.
That rational part of my brain surfaced again; don’t look back, it will slow you down.
I kept running, my head down, waiting for claws and teeth to sink into my back in three, two, one…
I was still running.
I started counting to myself. Every extra second was another second the bear hadn’t gotten me.
I put on a jolt of speed and leveled with Amanda.
She was looking back.
“There’s nothing behind us! I don’t see anything!”
She looked back again.
“Still nothing. I don’t see it.”
“Don’t look back, you don’t want to see this bear,” James grunted.
But a glimmer of hope flashed through my chest.
Wait a minute, we have a chance.
Brown bears can run thirty miles an hour.
If it hadn’t caught us by now… maybe it wasn’t going to.
The entrance to the forest and the trail were up ahead. Through the trees were roads and cars and maybe more people.
I put on another burst of speed and ran flat out towards the light.
“Sarah! It’s okay! You can slow down!” James called from somewhere behind me. He and Amanda must have determined with finality that the bear was not following us.
But bears don’t stop for pavement. Bursting out of the woods like a bat out of hell, I ran to the middle of the road. I stopped, doubled over, and started coughing and wheezing.
I realized I’d completely forgotten about the bulldog. Looking down wildly, there she was, coughing and wheezing beside me.
I looked around crazily for people.
There were two young dads walking their toddlers down the road.
“Bear!” I started to wave my arms and scream wheezily. “Bear! Bear! THERE’S A BEAR!!!!!!!”
James and Amanda had exited the forest by now, and they were watching me open mouthed as I danced around and flipped my lid in real time.
The dads both looked at me warily. One gave his child’s hand to the other and proceeded towards me with caution.
“Okay, okay,” he raised his arms tentatively, like he was trying to calm a raging beast. “What’s happening?”
I coughed and sputtered and flapped around some more and danced towards him.
He took a few steps back.
“There’s…a bear!” I gasped and doubled over coughing.
“A, a bear? Where?”
One of the toddlers behind him started to cry.
“It’s okay,” the other dad patted the terrified child’s head.
“There’s a bear… running… on the trail.”
“Okay, okay,” the first dad raised his hands again. “Do me a favor, okay? Just tell the camp host.”
James and Amanda caught up to me.
“Are you okay?” James asked patting my shoulder.
I laughed hysterically, which caused me to start wheezing again.
“You know, it’s funny what you think about,” he mused, as we ambled back to the campsite, all desire for a walk gone. “The whole, time, all I could think about was how glad I was I wasn’t wearing my crocs.”
Sarah Brown is a champion sprinter. Try to catch her on Twitter @BrownsClose1. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac. All names have been changed to protect the guilty.