Remembering to be bear and Alaska aware

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 - 23:00

When news of our orders to JBER got around, a family friend said, “Oh, Anchorage, you’ll be just a couple miles from Alaska in any direction.” I didn’t understand that sentiment until I got here. Anchorage, even out here in Eagle River, is much more civilized than I imagined in rough, wild Alaska.

I grew up watching “Northern Exposure” and listening to stories from military families stationed at Ft. Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base. I was prepared for no chain stores, moose walking down the main street, and days without sunset in June. The sun still sets every night in Anchorage; it may not be for long, and it may not get dark, but the sun does set. Shopping at Tikahtnu Commons is an experience so like shopping at strip malls all over the Lower 48 I can almost forget where I am.

Anchorage does often more resemble Any City, USA, than the last frontier. However, we are still just miles from Alaska in any direction.

News of a woman being mauled on JBER reminds me that it is just as easy for the Alaskan wildlife to come visit Anchorage as it is for me to visit the “real” Alaska. While the sun sets every night and we have chains, the moose walking down the road is reality here.

I know I’m culpable of forgetting where I am. In my neighborhood I have been walking along, taking a short cut through some brush, unconcerned about wildlife because I’m in my neighborhood. It doesn’t feel like I’m in the wild. And then it happens, I walk past moose droppings or bear scat, and I remember I really do live in Alaska. Last summer my husband and I actually saw a bear on Firehouse Rd while out on a walk. We were quite fortunate that the bear was unconcerned about us.

I need to remember my “bear aware” safety tips before I go out on more walks.

First, make a lot of noise while outdoors. I’ve heard that bears don’t want to run into me, and that they really don’t like to be surprised. If they can hear me coming, the bear might just leave and avoid an encounter altogether. So while hiking, or just walking through the neighborhood, I carry on loud conversations with my kids, sing, or just start saying “Hey bear. Hey bear.”

Second, there is safety in numbers. It isn’t always possible to bring company though. That is when it is really important to pay extra attention and make lots of noise. It can feel awkward to talk to myself or the bears I’m hoping to not run into, but when alone I need to do everything I can to avoid an encounter.

Third, bear spray. It may be bulky, it may seem unnecessary when I carry it everywhere and never use it, but it may save a life. It is important to remember that bear repellant is not used like mosquito repellant. It is sprayed between me and the bear, downwind from me. I do not want to wear bear spray myself.

I am thankful that the JBER woman who was recently attacked by a bear is alive and pray for her continued recovery. I will use her story as a reminder to not become complacent. I will not forget that while surrounded by signs of civilization that I live in Alaska, home first to bears, moose, lynx, foxes and other wildlife.

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