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Walk softly, carry a big gun

Posted: Monday, January 26, 2004

Please bear with me. I am an Alaskan, and Alaskans, for better or worse, are given to looking down on the rest of the nation. We mean no offense; it is just in our nature, and because of our place on this Earth, which leads us to be confused from time to time when we visit the Lower 48.

I am puzzled now by the strange way people here are dealing with mountain lions - which is to say, letting them kill you.

Nature killing people is no big deal for Alaskans. That's the way things are in Alaska.

When you step out into it, you are at risk. If you are wise, you prepare for it. Alaska does not suffer fools. It eats them.

It also eats people who are not fools, those who prepare well and try their best to stay alive. I have lost too many close friends to her, sensible folks who came up against something too tough to handle. Our stories of untimely death are endless, and I will not burden you with them.

I would just mention that I have been breathtakingly close to extinction myself, sometimes for making a mistake but often just for being out there.

About a year ago, in the Arctic coastal village of Kaktovik, my son, Nick, and I were walking from our office to our residence when we came upon huge polar bear prints in our path, going the other way. It being cold and dark and very windy, those tracks would not have lasted more than a few minutes. And so that bear was close behind us. We had passed it without seeing it.

In case you think otherwise, polar bears hunt people down and eat them. And I have eaten polar bears. And grizzly bears. And black bears. And a lot of other critters. Cooked right, bears taste really good.

Apparently the feeling is mutual. This particular night I did not intend to be eaten nor to see Nick eaten. So I drew my .41 magnum revolver, a modest bear gun but better than teeth and fingernails. As luck would have it for all three of us, we missed each other.

I love bears, and not just to eat. I used to study them. I have friends who have spent all their professional lives studying them. You can't spend time around bears and not admire them. But none of us go into bear country without the means to protect ourselves.

I don't know much about big cats. We don't have them in Alaska, and the few I have encountered southward were pretty spooky. They are elegant creatures, and I do respect them. I do not go where they are without the means to protect myself. And I keep my eyes peeled. It is in my genes not to be eaten by bears, large cats or anything else.

Why would anyone go into mountain lion country without the means to protect themselves from attack? I notice the police are armed. The wardens and rangers are armed. Indeed, anyone with any clue where they are would be armed. I have a buddy, an Albuquerque, N.M., cop. She likes to ride mountain bikes in remote places. She is a beautiful lady but tough. I asked her once what she does when she is out there and has an encounter with something nasty.

It has happened. In silent response, she unzipped her fanny pack, which she carries on her belly, exposing both her badge and her .357 magnum pistol. Evil backs away from that lady.

Now that makes sense to me. But then, I'm not from these parts.

• Karl Francis, a former professor and congressional lobbyist, lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.



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