Over my years of backcountry hiking around Alaska I’ve had a few close-call bear encounters: chance encounters exponentially multiply the more you spend time in the wilderness, and it’s one of the more rare opportunities that alternately instantly invigorates your very existence and simultaneously scares the shit out of you. Personally I feel far more unsafe around people, especially driving, so it’s all a matter of perspective and experience I guess.
For many years until going strictly-off trail, each season I'd hike the 40-mile Kesugi Ridge trail in "Little Denali," mostly solo trips but a few dear friends have accompanied me for some spectacular and memorable excursions. My habit was to leave my pickup at the lower Troublesome Creek trailhead and hitch uproad to the Little Coal Creek put-in, and spend five to seven days exploring the spectacular and diverse range of landscapes offered by this often overlooked alternative to the national park. I also always timed it to fall on the same weekend the rangers would close that last particular section of trail down later in the season so as to minimize bear/human “conflicts,” which seeing as how the last five+ miles parallels a salmon steam is only prudent. I also saw it as a handy way to guarantee solitude, and watching herds of black bears and grizzlies amble around the tundra enjoying blueberry hors d'œuvres before hitting the spawn buffet adds to the thrill of potential, well, death. While hiking the gauntlet it’s not uncommon to step over piles of bearcrap on the trail with enough frequency it’s like a walk in the local dog park. Excepting the part that these are 6-800 pound carnivores that happen to occupy the top of the food chain you are traipsing through.
On one trip, while hollering my favorite and appropriate theme song en route to the end, I noticed an alarming alignment of factors: grass so high it limited visibility, river running high and fast enough to drown out any sound of approach, and a stiff headwind carrying my scent (absolutely gourmet by this part of the trip) to boot. And yep, rounding a bend and cresting a slight rise I came upon my first-ever intimate encounter with a grizzly in the water less than a hundred feet away. I’d like to say that I had a more noble reaction than the sudden instinct that overrode any musings on the majesty of wildlife, the innate beauty of the animal and the totality of the transcendent moment, but nope, I can’t. I froze in my tracks, reached slowly down with one hand, hiked up the leg of my shorts and piddled like a bad puppy. So much for any manly outdoorsy image – you have all the dignity of a sandwich. And within a few (very long) minutes the bear looked around, caught my scent and bolted away in the opposite direction, which is what happens the vast majority of these situations: given the chance they’ll bail on the scene,
Anyways, a long story for a short gag, but a twisted example of how so many of those adventures help to shape the well of experience you draw from. Not the least of which is coming up with ideas in the outhouse.
“When you try to formalize or socialize creative activity, the only sure result is commercial constipation. The good ideas are all hammered out in agony by individuals, not spewed out by groups.” - Charles Browder