Rural teacher killed by wolves left behind vivid blog of Alaska wildlife

Posted: Thursday, March 18, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Last August above the Alaska Peninsula, a 30-something teacher from the East Coast snapped photo out the window of a plane. The frame captured the underside of the wing, a distant snowy mountain and a muddy creek snaking through a green valley far below. A few days later, Candice Berner posted her snapshot in the first entry of a blog about teaching in rural Alaska. She titled the post, "The Journey begins ... "

For the next five months, Berner, who was killed March 8 in what Alaska State Troopers say was a rare wolf attack, kept a detailed blog of her time as a traveling teacher based out of the coastal village of Perryville. She averaged two or three posts a month.

Berner's blog shows a woman who was committed, curious, observant and cautious about the Alaska outdoors. Reading it makes her death, a random mauling while running on a remote road a mile outside the village of Chignik Lake, seem all the more strange and sad.

The blog begins in Anchorage, packing with a group of rural teachers. Many, like her, are from Pennsylvania. She flies west from Anchorage, catching smaller and smaller planes. Below her, rivers thread through the land. Then her window fills with ocean spotted with islands. Finally, Perryville.

Her early entries from the village show craggy rocks and sunny, black sand beaches. Her first adventure is a fishing trip, a five-mile hike from the village. She posts a picture of a wide bear track pressed into the soft sand. She says she takes bear spray on her morning runs.

"It's so important to be alert and aware of your surroundings, because we're not in PA anymore and everything is bigger and more fierce in Alaska," she writes.

School starts. She posts a picture of herself on a four-wheeler behind a student on a day trip to Humpback Bay.

"About half of the school went and we got to meet a lot of the parents. The kids loved teaching us all about the wilderness and fishing. It was great for them to see me struggle and make mistakes, and it be ok," she writes.

With students and their parents, she reels in crab pots, hooks silvers, enjoys a feast.

"One of the traditions is spreading seal grease on the salmon and then sprinkling with salt and pepper," she writes. "It's actually very tasty."

Soon the colors on the hillsides in her photos deepen. Rain comes. She learns about trapping and tanning hides. She befriends a couple of village dogs that meet her at her house before morning runs and follow her. Dogs drive bears away, she writes. "In return (the dogs) get milk bones, which is a luxury in the village," she says.

Always, it seems, she's thinking about how the wild land outside the village can be dangerous. Mostly she worries about bears. On a hike with a friend, they run across a massive brown bear.

"Since he appeared to be taking our path, we decided to change course to avoid a confrontation. Andrew carries a 44 magnum, so I felt pretty safe. However, a bear is still dangerous after it has been shot, so the hike back to the village was a little nerve wrecking, but exciting."

In mid-October, she posts a short video, panning of the beach in Perryville on a bright day with lapping waves. The weather is becoming more variable, complicating her commute. She posts a photo of someone pulling a skiff out of Chignik Lake in the rain and wind. The next picture is jarring: a stuffed wolf in a glass case.

"Chignik Lake's mascot is a wolf and it sits in the lobby of the school," she writes. "It's a great reminder of what lurks outside in the wilderness and to be on the alert at all times."

Soon it's Halloween. Children carve pumpkins. She posts a photo of a costumed kids - a princess, a robot, a goblin and a jelly fish - standing in the classroom. Berner captures herself on a trapping trip, a newly acquired ATV in the background, her sweatshirt hood cinched around her face.

Snow creeps down the mountains in the photos in December. She walks on the beach, where sea lions lumber into the icy waves, and fantasizes about surfing. She hikes on weekends in the snow.

Santa Claus comes to the school gym. She lists the potluck delicacies: smoked salmon, candle fish, grilled halibut, halibut balls, fresh grilled shrimp topped with seal oil, crab legs, pie. Then the blog ends, dropping out of her vivid story the same sudden way she dropped into Perryville that day in August, her camera pressed against the window.

"The kids put on a Christmas play," her last entry reads, "and had a great time."

PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TEACHER-WOLVES

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