News: Puttin' Out the Bone

Almost Loaded for Bear

May 17, 2001 at 2:06 pm

A huge flash of dark blonde knifes through a tunnel of thick Alaskan tundra and stops at the edge of a shallow braid of the Sanctuary River. As if to mock our human frailty, he lifts his thousand pounds full up on his back legs just 20 yards across the water from where we stand next to our cooking tarp.

We'd heard about this kind of surprise wilderness confrontation. We'd read about deadly back-country encounters with bears in articles and books. In fact, the rangers who gave us our back-country permit actually made us watch a video about it. The ursus horribilis — an Alaskan brown bear, bigger, badder and more majestic than its grizzly cousin from the lower 48.

And he stands before us stretching erect to 10 feet, with flared nostrils, probably trying to identify us, deciding whether or not to crush, maul and eat us.

Paralyzed, we watch him watch us, his jaws like a hydraulic vise, his teeth long enough to pierce our intestines, his claws like commercial packing razors.

No cavalry was coming over the hill to rescue us. No helicopter hovered above to swoop us away.

No hunter was going to drop this sublime beast at our feet from a distance. We were four unarmed pack-carrying foot travelers trespassing in bear neighborhood, and he knew it.

Right there, on that flat earth between glaciated Alaskan spires, I wanted a gun. Forget my NRA-player-hater rhetoric. I wanted a big old pistol. A .44-caliber, a flame-throwing hand-held cannon of steel with a solid slug that just might snap this animal's head back.

"Hey, I'm thinking of getting a gun," I say a few months later, standing at the bar at Arnold's Bar and Grill.

Greg Schrand, one of my Alaskan-adventure backpacking buddies looks at me, "You're what?"

"Getting a .44."

"Jene, we hate guns."

"Yeah, but what if once, just once, we become the statistical anomaly and a bear like that one last summer charges us for real? Wouldn't we want to have one line of defense?"

"Nah, a gun is way too heavy. I'm not carrying one. And besides, that brown bear last summer just ran back into the tundra after we did all that yelling."

"Yeah, I know. But what if one doesn't this summer? Every time we go to Alaska, we hear about maulings."

"Nah," says Greg. "Too heavy."

So I call the bush pilot who usually drops us off in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

"Hey, Kelly. Do you carry a gun?"

"Guns? I hate guns."

"Yeah, but do you carry one?"

"Of course. One hundred percent of the time. Because if you decide you're going to carry one here in Alaska because of the bears, you better have it all of the time so that if that one moment comes when you need it to defend yourself, you've got it."

"I know," I almost yell. "That's what I keep telling Greg."

"But," Kelly says, "I hate them. They're so heavy."

I call a local gun shop.

"I'm backpacking again in a remote area of Alaska. What kind of gun would be good to have?"

The answer comes easily.

"Twelve-gauge shotgun."

"No way. Too heavy."

"Well, maybe a .44, if you're a trained competition shooter and skilled at shooting moving objects when your body is pumped full of adrenaline. That could give you some life insurance."

According to the gun-shop guy, the pistol, nylon holster and ordnance will top out at about five pounds. The cost is a kicker: about $600. My wife is now wise to the expense of this "sport," and one more $600 bill will bring a long cold spell to our house.

Then I see the morning paper. State Rep.Tom Brinkman is proposing legislation for total freedom to carry a gun in Ohio: stick it in your pants and pack any-damn-where you want. No test, no background check, no permit, no trigger lock. No nothing. Maybe it was the civil disturbances that made him dream up such nonsense. Maybe it was the uniquely insane conservatism that has troubled him his whole life.

"Oh, my God," I say to myself. "What are you thinking?"

Last Thursday we stand at that same downtown bar. Greg sips a glass of Chianti and says, "You getting a gun for Alaska?"

"Who, me?" I say. "No way. Too heavy."

PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.