Fish, bears and cheechakos

Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2001

In 1975, I married an Alaskan game guide. He was working for Don DeHart out of Slana. During the seven years we were married, I learned a lot about Alaskan wildlife.

Earle took me to the Kenai River to catch salmon. He had been giving me lessons in fly casting and I had gotten good enough to catch my limit of grayling at a small, out of the way lake. Now, for the big fish!

When we arrived I got the shock of seeing thousands of people lined up on both sides of the river where it meets the confluence of the Russian River. People were in front of each other, elbowing one another and about four people deep. I couldn't see how any fish could escape to spawn.

Earle suggested that we climb up the mountain, where the fish were headed, and see for ourselves.

It was summer, light pretty much all night, so we started out about 10 p.m. The sun was high in the sky. We walked on a well-traveled path, through an area of previously burned forest. When we reached the top there was a lake, about a mile long and maybe a half-mile wide.

We were greeted by the Forest Ranger/Fish and Wildlife person. He told us we were at the weir, a gate in the water to let fish in or out. He was the guard to keep folks from catching fish trapped by the weir.

Earle explained who we were and what we wanted. The ranger laughed. He assured me if he let any more fish in, they would suffocate from the overcrowding. He told us the lake's dimensions, adding that it was about 15 feet deep in the middle. We could see the fish moving over the surface of the lake. I understood, for the first time, what people meant when they said, "you could have walked across the lake on the fish, there were so many."

Being satisfied that my poor little fly trashing the water was not going to make a difference, we started back down the trail. I could imagine the fish's dismay at not being able to go into the lake, after fighting all the steep waterfalls to get up there.

About three-fourths down the trail, it started to get twilight. The sun had dipped behind the mountain and it was about midnight. Visibility wasn't so hot, so we started hurrying.

Suddenly, there was a roar and into the middle of the trail charged a large grizzly bear. Tootie, our little poodle, jumped straight up into my arms, quivering all over and not making a peep. I instinctively stepped behind Earle, who automatically had his .357-caliber Magnum in his hand.

Now, we both knew a .357 was no good against grizzly bears, but it was all we had along as we were not expecting to meet any big bears.

The bear could not smell us - the breeze was blowing towards us, thank heavens. Nor could he see us very well, because it was nearly dark and we were about 10 feet above him. He stood up and I saw he was a tall as Earle, who was 6-foot-5. He roared and stamped a foot towards us. Earle roared back.

I thought he had lost his mind, but he said quietly, "Roar and stamp your feet whenever he does and we'll bluff him." I already knew never to run from a bear.

For about 45 minutes we played the roar and stamp your feet game with the bear. He would charge, then we would charge. I grew hoarse roaring, but I knew we had to keep it up, and continued to pray the wind wouldn't shift.

The dim light, bear's poor eyesight and the fact that the two of us stood close together as we roared probably saved our lives. All of a sudden, the bear went down on all fours and stormed off through the burned out forest, knocking down trees as he went. Earle said, "Now let's make tracks to the campground."

We fairly ran down the trail, keeping a lookout for the bear. When we neared the bottom, we came around a bend and there were two women putting up a tent, though the whole area was posted no camping.

Earle kept on moving, but I stopped and told them that there was a big grizzly nearby. The one gal started pulling up tent stakes and while the other didn't believe me and hammered them back in. I had to leave or lose Earle.

Later, I asked him why he didn't help warn them and he said, if the women were stupid enough to disobey the park rules, he had no sympathy for them. I guess that's what they mean by the survival of the fittest.

We told the camp attendants and they said others had seen the bear several times. It seemed angry and everyone thought it may have a festering wound, maybe from a bullet, or a bad tooth. All agreed it was to be avoided.

I have no idea what happened to the women, but I caught my limit of king salmon the next day, in three hours. Those were the good old days.

Ellen Northup has lived in Alaska for 30 years and now runs the Senior Center downtown. She lived many years in the Interior with her husband, who was an Alaskan game guide out of Slana.

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