Alaska bruins make themselves comfortable in this neck of the woods
Our cabin is perched on a bench above a small lake in the Bartlett Hills, a few miles east of Talkeetna. The cabin’s south side is fronted by an eight-foot-wide, covered porch with a commanding view of the lake and shore. From the porch we’ve seen moose, beaver, swans, and cranes – but nothing raises the hair and impresses the memory like the bears.
When I first hiked into the place, there were no roads or cabins within miles. I clambered up the bank and stared at fresh tracks where a big griz tore the moss, leaving pad and claw marks in the silt. I clutched my borrowed snub-nose .38 and felt like an ancient Israelite who had just entered the land of giants with a slingshot.
After years of hunkering down in tents I learned that no down bag or loaded rifle offers the sense of security found in our sturdy log cabin. And, for me, the most comfortable place to observe the unpredictable Alaska bruin has been from the porch of that cabin.
One beautiful June evening I drove up alone and settled on the porch to unwind before unloading the SUV. Two beavers, a loon, ducks and a moose cow with calf all were in view, and I felt like I was in a Disney special. Just 100 feet away on the lakeshore the cow eyed me as she waded in the shallows. Strange, she knew I was there, yet she dawdled. Just as she herded the wobbly calf out of sight, a beaver splashed and dove. As I wondered what had spooked him, there came a thumping that sounded like a huge rabbit, followed by a silvery blond grizzly bursting from the brush, straight toward me. I spun to draw my .44 but before I could, the beast flew past almost within arm’s reach. Thank goodness it only cared about the calf. The bend in the high bank obscured the view, but arcing waves hinted that the scene wasn’t your typical Disney ending.
Another summer, the family slept in the cabin as the sun rose over the Talkeetna Mountains. I woke early, brewed coffee on the Coleman stove, and snuck to the porch with the first cup. As I sat and soaked in the serenity of the morning, I gazed down the path toward the small floating dock. Then a coal-black boar stepped silently onto the trail from behind a johnboat that leaned against a spruce tree. He was magnificent – with a large head and neck, heavily muscled, with solid-black fur. I was a little indignant that he would hang out so close to the cabin so, thinking he would run like most bears, I demanded in a loud voice, “Hey! What are you doing?” Rather than flee, he turned toward me and crouched, gathering his hind legs like a cat ready to spring.
“Oh! S#&@!” I thought.
Conceding defeat in the momentary stare-down, I spun and lunged into the cabin to grab and cock the 30-06. When I reemerged, he had disappeared.
The most bears we’ve seen in a single day were four, one black and three griz. My brother and I were at the cabin on a gorgeous evening with three of my girls. The girls were seated by the picture window looking over the porch and the lake. As I came up to the table to serve meat from a cast-iron skillet, the youngest pointed and asked, “Is that a dog or a…” and we all shouted simultaneously “BEAR!!!” The tall but skinny black must have heard us through the window because he looked up at the cabin and froze with one paw testing the water. After a few seconds he smoothly pulled his foot from the water, turned and vanished.
A couple hours later my brother scanned the far side of the lake and spotted a cow and calf skirting the shore. The cow occasionally looked over her shoulder toward the spot where we had seen the bear.
“I’ll bet that black bear is trailing them,” my brother said.
“So you’re the nature expert, now?” I joked.
Turns out he was only partly wrong: three grizzlies dogged the moose. A brown sow and two large cubs followed the moose and calf. The cubs frolicked aimlessly on the five-foot tall bank, splashing in the shallows or stopping and looking about, then galloping to keep up; but the mother kept her eyes toward the prize.
A neighbor whose place is about a mile west told me that he found a calf’s hide the next day. No meat, no guts, no bones.
My brother was also there the time I came closest to firing at a bear from the porch. It was another beautiful Talkeetna summer evening and we were hanging out on the porch with the kids inside. I heard a noise on the drive and tried to shush my brother, but he continued his discourse on some pressing political or scientific matter. I quit listening, intent on the brown humps that appeared and disappeared between the trees toward the parking lot. My brother stopped yammering when I grabbed my 30-06, jerked the bolt, rammed in a 220-grain round, and aimed at the driveway. At 30 yards, a mud-colored sow stepped out, followed by two cubs almost as big as she.
She stopped, and turned her flexible upper body toward me. Her chest filled my peep sight with the bead centered on her heart. I would never have a better shot, but with four cartridges in my rifle and three full-sized grizzlies, the odds were not good. I shouted, “Get out of here!”
Thank heaven she one-eightied and split at top speed with the cubs on her tail.
That’s nine bears as the title promised, but the most exciting bear sighting may have been imaginary. It happened late in the hunting season when the nights get black early. My good friend’s family and mine were finishing dinner around the campfire, just off the porch. There were three women, five children, four men and a large border collie named Max. The guys had been hunting all day, and Jon and his sons claimed we were in the presence of greatness as Max was the best dog to ever sniff out a bear. They told story after story of Max’s prowess, his reliability, how he had warned them, and how he had jumped into harm’s way to save them. As the night grew dark, an uneasy feeling grew among us, around the fire.
With the first mention of “bear” Max raised his head and snorted. With the second, he stood and puffed his chest. With the third he pranced, and at the fourth he woofed. By the tenth “bear” the dog was rabid.
Jon said, “He smells one, now!” pointed to that dark driveway, and shouted, “There’s the bear!” The dog went nuts and so did the crowd. I had no idea that those gals could levitate at the speed of light as they flew with their little ones over the steps and porch into the cabin. No one else saw it, but Jon still swears he saw the yellow eyes. The only reliable witness, Max, never gave a clear statement on the matter. ◆
Morgan Merritt is a longtime Alaskan whose parents met and married in Fairbanks in the ’40s. Raised and still residing in Anchorage, Merritt graduated from West High in 1973 and started his Talkeetna place in 1979.