Copper River Record, September 20, 2018
By Robin Mayo
In my neighborhood, this summer will go down as “The Summer of the Bear,” or perhaps “The Summer of the Bears.” We were kept on our toes all season by random but obviously related episodes of vandalism in the several-mile wide area around mile 90 Richardson Highway. The description of the perpetrator varied somewhat in size, color, and species, but the pattern was similar. A bear that was bold but wary, that could be scared away but returned soon. It showed up on decks and porches, snagged random tidbits and knocked over garbage cans. Pretty routine stuff.
Other areas of the Copper Basin experienced similar situations. In Gakona, a surge in problem bears is attributed by some residents to better fencing at the landfill. Out the Edgerton, bears raided chicken coops and gave people the scare of their lives during late-night outhouse visits.
We knew we had a problem on our hands when it started getting into sheds, popping off doors or even tearing out walls. And it was rewarded for this new trick with dog food and other goodies. Next came freezers, the ultimate treat for a lazy omnivore on a hot day. A bear tore into an army trailer trying to get a squirrel, and was chased off three times before it stayed away. Several people took shots and there were some tense confrontations, but nothing serious. One of the most disquieting things was a sense that it we were being watched. A neighbor left for the Post Office, returning an hour later in the middle of the afternoon to toppled garbage cans.
At this point you are probably shaking your head, and listing all the easily avoided mistakes that created this problem. Several years ago WISE had a Americorps volunteer who had worked at Glacier National Park in Montana. Glacier has a lot of grizzlies and humans in a relatively constricted area, and a history of negative bear-human interactions. Jamie was horrified at most Alaskans’ generally casual attitude towards bear safety: we store garbage outdoors, eschew bear-proof containers when camping, and practice sloppy camp hygiene. I reassured her that our bears generally prefer to avoid civilization, and there are plenty of places to get away from humans and do the wild thing. Except when they don’t.
In retrospect, if everyone in the neighborhood had followed the basic guidelines for bear-country, we would never have had a problem. But Alaskans are almost universally lax on these things. No one event or household created this nuisance bear, but we all contributed. And as you can imagine, it did not end well. We say it so often it is almost a cliché—In the end, it is the bear who pays the ultimate price.
Over Labor Day weekend, he ripped the door off of a shed and made off with two 50-pound bags of dog food. A week later at the same house, two sheep hindquarters hung high under a porch roof disappeared. As anyone who has ever done the hard work of hunting, harvesting, and hauling out a Dall sheep in anticipation of the delicious meat can imagine, this was the final insult. For Mr. Bear, it was his last supper.
The next night, when the bear came back looking for more goodies, he was shot in the spine. It was a mature boar grizzly, rolling in fat from his easy summer. Now the neighborhood is breathing a sigh of relief, but we shall soon find out if this was the single perpetrator, or if other bears are still roaming the area looking for trouble.
Whose fault is all this? No one in particular, but all of us had a part to play. At the first sign of trouble we should have moved our garbage cans, dog food, and freezers to more secure locations. Some of us did, but the trouble is that it takes everyone cleaning up their act to truly clean up the neighborhood. As is often the case with danger, I didn’t learn until afterwards how close it was. Exploring the bear’s trails, we discovered a large cache of dog food cans stolen from trash cans, and resting places where he could watch from the thick brush. This was less than 30 yards from a trail I walk nearly every day.
This tragic and gory tale does have a warm fuzzy ending. Since I was the one who alerted the neighbor to the bear in his yard, I ended up with the beautiful hide. It is in the freezer, awaiting a trip to the tannery and a final home on the back of my sofa. But I would have much rather left him roaming the wild.
By Robin Mayo
Ask any Rural Alaskan what they are up to, or how they are doing, and the odds are very good this time of year that their answer will include the word “busy.” Especially as the endless sunlight starts to fade into autumn, we wear our busy-ness as a badge of honor, proof that we are keeping up with the pack in the nonstop race that is summer.
And really, how could we not be busy? For many of us, this is full-throttle season at work. Resource managers and –ologists are cramming in as much fieldwork as possible, and anyone with a seasonal or tourism-related job is making every minute count. Hikers, paddlers, climbers, bikers, and backpackers are doing their thing. We are also wedging in building projects and visits from friends and relatives.
And on top of all this, we are filling our freezers, pantries, and woodsheds with food and fuel for the winter. I don’t know of a household in the Copper River Valley that doesn’t harvest fish, meat, berries, vegetables, or firewood for the winter ahead. Many of us do all five, which is a tall order.
On WISE’s Copper Country Discovery Tour, we visit with Princess Tours guests from around the world, and share our lifestyle with them. One of the things that amazes 100% of these people is how much Alaskans are able to subsist from the land. In most developed parts of the world it is uncommon, and we’ve had many people exclaim, as they nibble on a berry or fresh willow leaf, that this is the first time they have eaten something straight out of the wild.
How does it feel? Exhilarating, empowering, and even a little dangerous. I had one guest ask me to please stop encouraging her husband to eat things, she was terrified he would inadvertently ingest an insect, apparently a fate worse than death! For others it triggers fond childhood memories of picking berries or canning preserves with an older relative.
For me, subsistence is a fierce pleasure, a love song to the land. I run my fingers along the jars of amber smoked salmon and golden sauerkraut in the pantry, feeling like that ambitious ant in Aesop’s fable. Recently I posted a picture of freshly caught Sockeye on Facebook, which not surprisingly touched off a small debate amongst friends, some of whom were feeling deprived of their yearly fish with the early-season closures.
One facebooker stated the opinion that subsistence fish should only be shared with family, and that these special seasons should only be available to those who only live in “real” subsistence villages, which she defined as off the road system. As you can imagine, there was a small tsunami of Copper Basin and other Alaskan residents defending our tradition of sharing with all, and our legacy as a place where subsistence is a truly traditional way of life. It was a wonderful affirmation of how these activities not only fill our bellies, but fill our hearts as well.
Busy? Overwhelmed, even? Don’t worry, soon enough the long dark will be here, and there will be time to read that book, clean that house, or knit that sock. For now, I’m thoroughly enjoying the headlong rush of summer into fall, and the feeling of urgency to pick those berries, cut that wood, fill that freezer.
Welcome to the WISE Blog! For many years, WISE has enjoyed generous column space in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record. The original intent was to share news of WISE programs, but given plenty of space and the very open-minded editorial style of the publication, we have not stayed on topic very well. The late Bruce James, WISE Executive Director from 2009 to 2012, started off sharing his love of wildlife and his wilderness adventures, such as morel hunting and blueberry picking. WISE founder and then board president Janelle Eklund took the column in 2013, sharing her knowledge of plants, journals of diverse travels, and many other topics.
I started chiming in with columns somewhere in there, starting with an armchair hiking series with descriptions of local trails. From there I've branched in a whole lot of directions, enjoying the chance to stretch my writing muscles a little, and the discipline that is encouraged by a weekly deadline. That is not to say I've met every weekly deadline! Matt is a tolerant and generous editor, who always seems to find space when we need it, and fill the blanks with something else when we are too busy or distracted to write.
Janelle wants to make her columns into a book someday, so this is the start. Readers complete our circle, and I'm always delighted by the positive feedback that comes from the community. Please let us know what you'd like to hear about, and we will try to oblige!
Robin Mayo, Executive Director September 13, 2018
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.