More strange experiences in the Great Outdoors

Wednesday, February 8, 2012 - 09:00

In our weekly forays we’ve covered embarrassing moments in the Great Outdoors, bungles and blunders, low-pitched humming sounds and even unusual objects that have fallen from the sky.

But given the fact I have spent decades tromping around Alaska, there is definitely room for some more strange experiences.

The first one isn’t mine, however, but a story related to me by my father. Way back in the 1950s (yes, the glaciers were closer to us then) during a September moose hunt on the Kenai Peninsula, he had a very close encounter of the prickly kind.

Rather than erect a tent for shelter, my dad traditionally used a lean-to made out of canvas. I’m not sure how he avoided bugs, but that’s the way he preferred to camp. One morning he awoke with the feeling there was a nearby presence. Curled up alongside him was a large porcupine, obviously asleep and enjoying the warmth from my dad’s body. My dad says he tried to remain calm and collected.

“This situation requires some thought,” he thought. “A sudden movement might frighten the animal and put it into a defensive mode, which means quills.”

After a minute of contemplation, my dad rolled slowly to his right side, remaining inside his sleeping bag. Seemingly without waking, the porcupine crawled over and again nestled right up to my dad’s body.

My father says that he planned to repeat the maneuver, rolling away from the porcupine, but he was now up against the trees.

“This requires yet more thought,” he said to himself. After another minute of contemplation, accompanied by consternation, he opted for the abrupt exit.

“I’ll stand up quickly, inside my sleeping bag, and make my escape.”

If you’ve ever been inside a mummy sleeping bag, you know that movement is severely limited. It’s the closest thing to a strait jacket, head to toe, that most of us will ever experience.

The standing up part of my dad’s plan worked quite well. No so with the part about remaining standing. In an instant he was sprawled out on the ground, rolling around helplessly in his feathered cocoon. He glanced over and saw that the porcupine, now wide awake, was padding slowly into the woods behind the lean-to.

“Must have been a more traumatic experience for him that for me,” my dad mused. “That porcupine must have thought: ‘where did all that warmth go’?”

On a Kenai Peninsula permit goat hunt with a co-worker many years ago, the Billy he shot quickly disappeared into a gully. We scrambled over the rocks and shale to discover the gully was filled with hard-packed snow for about 150 feet down the slope, and at its top was a large hole.

“Do you think he might have slid down that hole and gone beneath the snow?” I asked Mark.

“If he did, that would be the pits. How would we ever get him?”

We peered deeply into the hole, but the goat was nowhere to be found. We then edged our way down along the snow slide and at its half-way point was a large opening. At that exact spot was the dead goat. If he had stopped anywhere else beneath the snow slide, we wouldn’t have been able to recover him.

Back in the 1990s on a climb up Bold Peak (7,522 feet) at the south end of Eklutna Lake, I had a very strange experience. It was a warm summer day on top of the mountain — a day to savor. On some summers there was still a lot of residual snow on top, but on this day there was some green grass and even a few flowers.

For quite awhile I glassed the Chugach Mountains with my binoculars and finally put them down on the ground for a minute to have a drink from my water bottle. When I picked them back up and began looking around again, I felt a sharp sting on my right eyelid. I quickly pulled the binoculars away from my face, nearly dropping them, and from out of the recessed eyepiece fell a small bumble bee.

Somewhat panicked, I immediately hiked a little farther across the mountain’s relatively flat summit to find snow, which wasn’t that hard to find, and placed it against my eyelid.

“It’s probably going to swell shut and I’ll have to get off this mountain with one eye,” I thought.

As I worked my way back down the mountain, down through Stivers Gully and to the East Fork trail that connects with the Eklutna Lakeside Trail, it seemed like my vision was fine — that there had been no effects from the sting. When I got home and looked in the mirror, my eye looked as normal as the other one. “I somehow lucked out on that one,” I thought.

The next morning my right eye was completely swollen shut, and remained that way for about a day. “Delayed reaction,” I concluded.

On a climb up Bear Mountain near Seward way back in the 1970s, I pitched my tent about half way up and was sitting inside, looking out the front through the open flap,

when a black bear ran by swiftly and disappeared over the hill. I sat up straight and exclaimed to myself, “where did he come from!?” A minute later, something buzzing

came right down in front of me, only about four feet away. At first I thought it was a large insect, and then I realized it was a hummingbird — the first I had ever seen in Alaska. It hovered for about 15 seconds, then darted away.

“The bear was pretty good,” I thought, “but that bird was really something! What’s next?”

You’ve heard people say food tastes better in the outdoors. For me, some of these outdoor experiences — although I wasn’t thrilled to be stung by a bee — forever remain etched in my mind as some of the best times I can remember. Seemingly insignificant things, seeing a spectacular sunrise or sunset, a full moon illuminating the snow-clad mountains, a perfect mountain reflection on a breathlessly still lake, spotting wildlife, or coming across unusual wildlife tracks in the snow, the intoxicating fragrance of summer’s wildflowers, they all take on a special meaning and create lasting memories.

I never made it to the top of Seward’s Bear Mountain, but I saw a hummingbird. For me, that made the trip a success.


Frank Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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