Growing Up Alaska: Stories From My Life

As we go into a new year and thankfully leave 2020 behind, I decided to recommit myself to telling stories. I love to write, but in the last year I have seen many things take priority and my creative side take the hit. So, I am going to write one story a week from my life.

All the stories you are about to read really happened, though some names have been modified to protect the people I am writing about, namely myself so those people don’t hunt me down. LOL

I have decided to start my first story about a bear encounter while my family was out prospecting.

The Bear, The Bridge & Breakfast

When I was about 8, my family took a trip up the Dalton Highway through the interior of Alaska to look at some mining claims up near the Brooks Range. The Dalton Highway, also known as the “Haul Road” is the only link from Fairbanks to the oil fields of the North Slope.

The road has never been much more than a dirt road through he Alaskan wilderness, but in the early 80s, it was even less than that in places. There weren’t any campgrounds, so we found a gravel pullout next to a creek to stop for the night.

The next morning, mom ordered me and my older brothers to head to the creek to wash. This wasn’t something uncommon since we didn’t have running water at home anyways, but the side of the creek we had parked on had a steep embankment with large boulders to shore up the side for the bridge making it nearly impossible to climb down.

The other side of the creek had a nice slope to the creek, but you had to cross the long narrow bridge to get to that side. This wouldn’t seem to be an issue except for the fact that the semis that were carrying supplies to the Slope flew down the road and if they came to that bridge and you were in the middle of it, there would be no time to stop.

I followed my older brothers up to the bridge and struggled to clamber over the mid waist high guard rail. I will admit I was scared and didn’t really want to go, so when my brothers laughed and left me behind, I didn’t really care.

I marched back to the motorhome where my mother met me at the door. It took her only a moment to realize I hadn’t washed up and she ordered me across the bridge that instant. I tried to explain the problem and my fears, but my mother wasn’t having any of it and threatened no breakfast if I didn’t wash up.

Nearly in tears, I’m not sure more out of fear of missing breakfast or fear of getting smashed by a semi, I climbed back up to the road. I stared both ways and listened for an oncoming truck. I double checked the bend in the road and looked for signs of dust churned up by wheels. Heart pounding, though I was sure no truck was coming, I bellied up onto the guardrail and swung my leg over.

I was just about to step down onto the bridge when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. Panic made me freeze as I was sure a truck was coming around the corner and I couldn’t hear it over the sound of the creek below, though logically I knew that couldn’t be because I could hear my brothers across the creek laughing and splashing each other with water.

Straddling the guardrail, I turned to look over my shoulder and spotted a black bear walk up onto the road not fifteen feet behind me. It was at that same time I heard my cousin yell for my dad.

Frozen with fear, I stood there, one foot tip toeing on the bridge while I sat astride the guardrail. I heard the pump action on my dad’s shotgun as he pulled it out of the truck and my mom scream as she came out to see what all the commotion was about.

My cousin and dad started yelling in hopes of scaring off the bear, but she clambered up onto the road more curious than anything. And that is when things went from bad to worse as her cub scrambled up next to her.

The yelling did cause her to turn away from my dad and cousin, only she started walking right towards me as she crossed the bridge. I wanted to run. I wanted to scream. But I was frozen and listening to my dad’s calm voice to tell me not to move, that everything was okay.

Mama bear walked down the middle of the bridge and passed so close that if I’d wanted to, I could’ve reached out and touched her. She didn’t pay me any mind as she ambled across the bridge which to me, seemed to take hours.

She was about a body length in front of me when her cub came up next to me. I was more focused on mama and wasn’t paying much attention to him until he stopped to sniff my boots.

I wanted to kick him away, but knew that if I did, that would only enrage mama and I wouldn’t stand a chance. So, I tensed up and held my breath and prayed he would go away.

Mama stopped and slowly turned her head and growled. I nearly blacked out with fear and was surprised that I didn’t scream, but the little bear scrambled to catch up to her.

Both bears continued across the bridge and as soon as they were ten feet away, I scrambled back over the rail. I wish I could say I did it gracefully or with pose, but in reality I threw myself over, scrapping up my inner thigh and landing hard on the gravel embankment that I promptly rolled down.

I ran back to my dad and watched as my brothers climbed up underneath the bridge to get away from the bears that had finished crossing over and turned towards them. We watched as the bears went to the edge of the water and drank before disappearing into the woods.

As soon as the bears were gone, my brothers ran back across the bridge yelling about the bears. Everyone talked at once for a few minutes before my mom once again told me to go wash before breakfast.

I refused and pointed out that the bears were still over there and I didn’t want to go. Mom just crossed her arms and said that the bears were gone and breakfast was almost ready.

My cousin offered to take me across the bridge so we climbed up the embankment and were about to the guardrail when the bears came out of the woods along the bank of the creek where my brothers had washed earlier.

We promptly marched back down to the motorhome as everyone came out to watch the bears again.

My mother was still set on me washing but I refused to go, so dad stepped in with a plan. He tied a rope to one of his three gallon buckets, slid down the steep slope to the boulders and tossed the bucket. He carried the bucket with water up so I could wash and with my mother satisfied, we sat down for breakfast.

And it was oatmeal. We did all that for my least favorite breakfast at the time.

As we packed up and left, we saw the two bears come out of the woods numerous times and as we crossed the bridge and drove up the road, I saw them come out and stare at us as if to say goodbye.

I’ll never forget that day. And while it was the closest encounter with a bear that I’ve ever had, it would not be my last.

I hope you have enjoyed this story and will be back next Friday to read another account of Growing Up Alaska.

Author: matthewlasley

I am a school teacher and an author. I like to write picture books, middle grade, science fiction and short stories. I live in Alaska and I love history, so those two things often influence my creative writing.

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