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I once narrowly escaped being mauled by a bear, an experience which has left me anxious at the thought of another close encounter of an ursine kind.
So it might seem perverse to go on holiday to Alaska, a state where bears are everywhere – be they roaming the bush or stuffed and put behind glass to liven up hotel lobbies.
I suppressed my bearophobia because there are so many other reasons to go to Alaska, where the land is vast and wild and the men tend to the woolly and bearded, living out dreams of freedom on America’s “final frontier”.
Right now, though, I am wondering whether I’ve been foolish, for my wife, myself and a few other hikers are standing in the middle of dense spruce woodland, deep in the vast tracts of Denali National Park, staring down at the muddy paw prints of a very large grizzly bear.
“They’re fresh,” says our guide. Gulp. She points to an accompanying set of baby bear paw prints. Double gulp. As any lecture on bush safety will tell you – and we have had many since arriving in Alaska – one of the most dangerous things you can do is get between a grizzly sow and her cub.
Before we set off the guide told us she is armed with a bear deterrent spray, and has been trained in its use. That’s reassuring. But she also told us you have to be careful which way the wind is blowing, which is less reassuring. To avoid surprising a bear we should talk loudly as we walk or yell the all-purpose phrase, “Hey bear!” And if we do meet one, we should back away slowly, speaking in a low, calm voice while spreading our arms above our head. Never, ever run. The bear is much faster than you.
The guide seems edgy. I certainly am, because of my previous bear encounter. I was fishing alone near dusk in the Rocky Mountains when a black bear came crashing through the undergrowth, heading for me. I did not back away slowly, which would have landed me in the river, but ran for my life to my car and reached the left side just as the bear reached the right.
I threw myself in and slammed the door. Phew, safe! But not so: the bear had clambered on to the bonnet and was now nose to the windscreen, staring down at me as vast quantities of slaver ran down the glass. One swipe and it would have been through. I turned on the motor. It slid off and stalked away.
This, it must be said, is hardly typical bear behaviour and it was only several days later, when I discovered some forgotten, rotting fishing worms in the boot, that I realised I had inadvertently made myself and the car into delicious-smelling bear bait.
It is laxity like this over foodstuffs that makes bears much more likely to engage with humans, in whom they are not naturally interested, with potentially tragic consequences for both. As they say in Alaska, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”
At the start of our Denali walk, we had been pretty halfhearted about our “Hey Bear!” yells. They can sound a bit silly; suggestive of a kind of fawning, anthropomorphic desperation. But shaken by the paw prints, we lose our inhibitions and march on, enthusiastically chanting in an almost musical canon.
Whether or not a bear hears us, the hike goes without incident and my bearophobia recedes. But now I have a new worry: the moose, which many Alaskans fear more than bears.
“Their hooves can split open a wolf’s skull!” says the guide. “Think what they can do to us!”
Barrow, the northernmost settlement in Alaska, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, is one of the most singular places I have visited, with a bleak and oddball romance about it. If Alaska appears psychologically semi-detached from the rest of the US, then Barrow seems to inhabit its own, even more distant world.
We have flown here for the day from Anchorage – a 1,500-mile round trip that is not good for our carbon footprint – and emerge from the tiny airport building to an odd combination of slow, fat, swarming mosquitoes and cold intermittent rain. As well as having the lowest average temperature in Alaska, the town is one of the cloudiest places on earth.
Everything about Barrow is extreme. It is separated from the rest of the state by a vast buffer: 200 miles of flat, treeless permafrost tundra. The ground is frozen to a great depth all year round but the surface thaws in summer to form a patchwork of lakes and bogs. No roads connect Barrow to the rest of the state – you have to fly in, or come by barge in summer, when the sea ice thaws, leaving the town rimmed by ice floes. Because of the permafrost, the local roads are unpaved.
The town is a jumble of very modest, makeshift-looking buildings. The houses are surrounded by abandoned cars, rusting containers and other junk. Frozen ground and lack of roads limit your ability to throw stuff away. The sun never rises for two winter months and in summer it never sets.
It is tempting to think you are at the edge of civilisation but that’s a very western-centric idea. An Inupiat Eskimo civilisation has survived in this harsh environment for thousands of years, hunting seals and bowhead whales. The town is still mainly Eskimo and the hunting tradition lives on – a vital part of the local culture – despite the perils of whaling in small boats and the wealth generated by the Prudhoe Bay oilfields further down the coast.
Our young Inupiat guide, hearing distant gunfire from beyond the ice floes, confesses that he would much rather be out there hunting. But the Inupiat culture in Barrow, as elsewhere in Alaska, is under threat from climate change. The Arctic sea ice is retreating, making hunting conditions more difficult, sea levels are rising and the permafrost is slowly thawing. The effects of global warming are most marked close to the poles, and are worryingly visible in other parts of Alaska, too – from fast-retreating glaciers to temperatures which allow destructive spruce tree beetles an additional breeding cycle a year. When it comes to global warming, Alaska is not the final frontier, it’s the first.
We need breakfast in Barrow, and are recommended Sam and Lee’s, a restaurant (4.5 stars on TripAdvisor) housed in what looks from the outside like an ordinary house. As we wait for excellent omelettes and hash browns, I idly listen to the staff conversing. They seem to be speaking a language similar to one of the great tongues of east Asia. I start speculating wildly about possible Eskimo-Oriental language links across the Bering Strait. My wife asks if I have noticed that Sam and Lee’s is, in fact, a Chinese restaurant (run, as it turns out, by Koreans). I wonder how many travellers’ tales have been built on half-baked assumptions like mine?
Martin Dickson is the FT’s US managing editor
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