I am on a black sand beach on an Alaskan island. A bright orange bear whistle dangles from my neck. My wife Robyn is also sporting a bright orange bear whistle. Bright orange bear whistles go with exactly nothing we are wearing but are indispensable nonetheless. The small boat that dropped us off on the island is receding in the distance. Our guide explains that if we come across a bear we should blow the whistle. “Don’t run,” he says. “Running from a bear is like throwing a ball for a dog. It just makes them chase you. If you do run, please don’t run toward me,” he says. I imagine encountering a bear and blowing the whistle. The bear might be startled and run away from the sound. That could happen. But it’s a certainty that the eight other tourists on the beach will head in a direction opposite to the sound of the bear whistle.
We start wandering around on the beach. This is why we came here, to see things we wouldn’t see if we stayed put. Robyn picks up a few shells. I spot some prints in the sand. There are small precise prints from a deer. Another set of prints that look like a large squirrel. And a deeper impression of prints that look like something else. The guide confirms that I’m looking at deer prints, sea otter prints and bear prints. “He’s about 300 to 400 pounds. And those were made less than two days ago. I know because we had rain two days prior,” he explains. I manage not to blow my whistle.
I am on high bear alert because two days earlier a burly Hawaiian man who gave a wildlife talk on board our cruise ship in the expansive Queen’s Lounge explained that when you encounter a certain kind of bear you should curl up in a fetal position and the bear will leave you alone. If you encounter another type of bear (and particularly if you happened to come between a mother and her cub), it would not matter what you do. “The bear will eat you,” he said.
I don’t think he meant the bear would literally devour us. He was just trying to drive home the point that this other type of bear didn’t really care what stance you adopted. I remember wishing at the time I had taken better notes so that I knew exactly which type of bear I should curl up into a fetal position for and which type of bear for which I should simply hope I could outrun my companions. Was it the black bear or brown bear? And did he really say some black bears are brown and some brown bears are black? That seemed horribly unfair. I really should take better notes.
I’m not actually terrified of bears. It’s more like a fascination mingled with a healthy respect. I keep trying to get pictures of wild animals on this trip, and the Alaskan bear is proving elusive. I want to see one from some very safe distance. I have a camera with a long lens. I’d like to spot the bear with a binocular and get a great picture. It should be at a distance from which the bear can clearly be distinguished as a bear with the zoom lens, but only just.
This past year I sat next to Avery absorbing every lesson from his homeschool photography course. The section on wildlife photography fascinated me. It stated that trying to take pictures of wildlife was difficult because wildlife frequently move about in unruly fashion, stand only in shadow or other poor lighting and sometimes even refuse to come close enough to be photographed properly. You might get a sunburn waiting for the skittish photographic subjects to appear. Bugs might bite you while you wait. I am not a great fan of being bitten by bugs. Sometimes the photogenic animal won’t appear where you plan for it to appear, and you have to trudge back to the car with all your camera equipment along with your sunburnt and bug-bitten limbs.
The wildlife section of the photography course was prophetic for the Alaskan trip concerning the issue of bears. Bear tracks in black sand and a decorative bear figure exquisitely constructed with hand towels by our cabin steward, which we were delighted to discover on our bed after turn-down service one evening, are as close as I come to a bear on this trip. But I eventually make peace with that.
You don’t always get the bear, but you might get a lot of other extraordinary things. You might see the tiny world below the Space Needle in Seattle. You might spot humpback whales, killer whales, bald eagles, wild deer and sea otters. Marvel over glaciers, Alaskan rainforests and volcanic islands. You might enjoy high tea in the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia with finger sandwiches with your best beloved. Stuffed with odd crumpets from a three-tiered tea platter. Spoiled beyond reason for your 50th birthday on a week-long Alaskan cruise. Loved beyond measure by a beautiful wife.
That might be. Barely. Enough.