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The nature of the beast

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They were paddling easily in the endless Arctic sunlight when they spotted the bear, its blond-brown fur blending into the surrounding tundra. Perhaps 500 pounds, they guessed, but at close range all grizzlies look big, and they were spectacularly close to this one.

Kalin Grigg and Jennifer Stark were thrilled. They paddled slowly, so their oars would not splash or flash in the sun. They wanted to photograph the animal and hoped not to spook him, but as they reached for their binoculars and camera, they noticed something else.

The river they were rafting, the Hulahula, bent left. On the far bank, just beyond the bear, a tumble of brightly colored camping gear was scattered across the beach. Their guide, Robert Thompson, first spotted the strange disarray.

This doesn't look good, he said quietly, almost to himself. It looked as if a small tornado had razed someone's bivouac.

Robert was Inupiat. He had grown up in Alaska, and he knew what he was seeing.

This doesn't look good at all, he said again.

On a rock to the left of the bear sat a seagull, a scavenger on the scene. Two more flashed through the willows.

Longtime lovers of wild places and wild things, Kalin and Jennifer had camped, hiked and watched grizzlies in the lower 48 states. But they had always dreamed of visiting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Both are passionate conservationists. He is 50. She is 33. He teaches sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., high in the San Juan Mountains. Jennifer also works at the college.

Last year, when the Bush administration focused its attention on the oil reserves in the Arctic refuge, Kalin and Jennifer began to fear for its future. Known as the Serengeti of North America, the refuge is home not only to bears, but musk oxen, caribou, Dall's sheep and hundreds of species of birds. It is a wild, at times forbidding, but not threatening place, and the couple believed they could better defend it if they had personally experienced it.

So they sold a car, held yard sales, emptied their bank accounts, outfitted themselves and hired Robert to take them down the Hulahula, which cuts through the North Slope from the Romanzof Mountains to the Beaufort Sea. Named by Hawaiian whalers who hunted bowheads near its delta nearly a century ago, the Hulahula provided stunning access to the wilderness they wanted most to see.

Robert himself is a window into the wild. He is committed to preserving the Arctic refuge, a place Inupiats call simply "Home." He has lived in Kaktovik on Barter Island, near the Hulahula delta, for close to 20 years. He traps, hunts, fishes and gathers food for his family. He is best known for guiding photographer Subhankar Banerjee through the refuge for his 2003 collection of images, "Seasons of Life and Land."

Together, Kalin, Jennifer and Robert took a bush plane to the headwaters of the Hulahula and put in under cold Arctic skies in the shadow of Mt. Chamberlain at 9,020 feet. The whole scene stole their breath. Ahead of them lay the Hulahula Valley, cradled by a steep, treeless tundra angling down to the coastal plain, a patchwork of ice, lakes and barren ground.

They had been on the river now for seven days. Their adventure was nearly over. It was a little after 4 p.m. on a Saturday in June.

The grizzly was directly across the river from them, no more than 40 yards away. Since the animal was upwind and had not caught their scent, they decided to stop and search the trashed camp through their binoculars. They beached their raft in a shallow gravel chute on the far bank.

See if you can find my extra ammunition, Robert said as he untied the webbing that secured their gear. In a waterproof container, he kept a Ruger .45 revolver. He also wanted the Globalstar satellite phone.

The raft was 14 feet long, inflatable, about 6 feet wide and robin's-egg blue. As the two men searched through the gear, Jennifer eyed the grizzly through binoculars. He was staring at them and their raft, and behind him, she could see a knee-high rubber boot, a tennis shoe, an article of fleece clothing and a bear-resistant food canister, which was unopened. This puzzled her; why was the bear staying around? She looked but could not see a boat or any people. Maybe they were on a hike or an excursion down the river.

Walt, Robert said into the phone, this looks like a bad situation.

He was talking to Walt Audi, a legendary bush pilot who owns a local flying service. We have a bear in a camp with what looks like three smashed-in tents, and at this point we can't see anybody. We don't know where the people are. I think it would be a good idea if you get Search and Rescue up here, quick.He, Kalin and Jennifer would wait, and maybe the bear would leave, allowing them to cross the river and explore the camp.

Robert knew bears, and in all of his years roaming the refuge, he had never had a bad experience with a grizzly. It was coastal polar bears that had given him trouble. In the interior, however, he felt safe without a rifle or a shotgun — only the Ruger — and he knew handguns, dating from his tour as a military policeman in Vietnam. Besides, Kalin and Jennifer each had a can of hot-pepper bear spray.

Still, Robert viewed grizzlies with cautious respect, and he wanted this one to leave.

Get outta here, he shouted across the river. Hey, bear! Take off. The grizzly paid no attention.

Robert slapped a paddle hard on the water — whap! Whap! He yelled again. Get outta here, bear.The grizzly, Jennifer thought, was starting to show some interest in them. The river here was narrow, no more than 2 feet deep, and crisscrossed with shallows and sandbars. She knew it wouldn't be an obstacle if the bear decided to cross.

I'd like to go, she said. It was a terrible feeling, trying to reconcile her growing fear with her sense of responsibility to the people who had occupied the camp.

OK, Robert agreed, finally. Let's move downriver a ways.As they dragged their raft over bars of gravel about 200 yards downstream, Jennifer, an experienced rafter, looked for the fastest current, just in case.

The grizzly had started to move around. They watched him as he climbed into a copse of willows just behind the camp, where he appeared to be feeding. They watched him as he dropped down to the river's edge and started pawing at a black and blue fleece. They watched him as he suddenly started wading across the river, tramping through the water as if there were no current at all, until he stood on their side and then disappeared behind a small knoll.

Let's get out of here! Jennifer said.

But it wasn't that simple anymore. By crossing the river, the bear had changed the dynamic. It would be risky to turn their backs on him, not knowing what he was up to.

Binoculars in hand, Kalin jumped atop a boulder, trying to keep the animal in sight. He's rolling around on the snow and playing. He's probably going to go up on the ridge. Jen, come take a look.Jennifer paused for a moment. They hadn't come all the way to the refuge for her to be the spoiler. She took the binoculars, found the bear and felt the back of her neck tingling. Her breath came hard.

The bear wasn't playing. He was cleaning himself, and now he was on the move.

At home, Jennifer and Kalin have a big Labrador retriever named Hobbes, and a smaller, mixed-breed Lab named Sally. Whenever Hobbes and Sally are up to no good and know they're being watched, they move in a telltale way. It's a slinking motion, a running side-step and then a stop, a running side-step and then a stop.

Which is exactly what the grizzly did, bringing him closer to where they stood. Then he reared up, as if he had caught their scent. Standing 6 feet tall, he stared at them intently.

Every fear has its own feeling. There's the fear when you hear a sound in the middle of the night. The fear when you're approached by a stranger on a darkened street. The fear when your house is broken into. This time, fear came from feeling small and slow and insignificant in the presence of a creature who views you as prey. It wasn't panic. It was a solitary, strangely confined feeling.

We gotta go, Jennifer said. We gotta go.I have to make a stand, Robert said. And if it comes to that, I don't want to have to try to kill this bear with a handgun from a moving raft.

OK, whatever you need to do, Kalin said.

Jennifer walked the raft into the river and held it there just in case. The bear crested a small dune 40 yards away and started to charge toward them.

For a moment, Robert paused. Alone, he would have dealt with the bear then and there, but Jennifer and Kalin clearly wanted to avoid a confrontation.

Let's get the hell out of here! he yelled.

They jumped into the raft, and their momentum helped launch the cumbersome inflatable into the balky current. They pulled hard at the water. The river was 40 yards across and braided with bars of sand and gravel. At one point the raft started to scrape bottom, forcing them to jump out, calf-deep, and push, paddles in hand, bear spray in mouth, push and push, until they were floating free again. Back aboard, Jennifer glanced over her shoulder.

The grizzly was running along the riverbank, closing fast. Then he was running beside them.

The bear's coming down the bank, Robert yelled.

Let Kalin and me take care of the boat, Jennifer said, and you get ready to shoot. OK. Just don't get between me and the bear. They knew they first had the revolver, then the bear spray. That was their defense, the game plan. But beyond that, nothing.

The bear's crossing the river again, Robert shouted.

The huge animal clambered up the opposite bank. There, the current ran faster and the embankment was higher — perfect for leaping down onto the passing raft.

Keep us away from that bank, Robert called out.

But that's where the current is!The bear crashed full speed along the shore, disappearing briefly behind a knoll, then reappearing, almost next to the raft.

Jennifer struggled to steer toward the middle, but Kalin's strokes overpowered hers. The raft began side-slipping, passing just below the high bank and then into a more open stretch.

Now he's in the river, Robert yelled.

Kalin looked back. The bear was muscling forward, full speed, mid-channel, and gaining on them. Thirty yards. Twenty-five.

Neither Kalin nor Jennifer had come to the Arctic to kill a grizzly. But now Kalin was convinced there was no other way to escape. To stop an attacking bear with the Ruger, Robert would have to hit it in the head or the spine. Each bullet would have to count, and for the animal's sake and for their own, he could not risk wounding it.

We'll handle the boat, Jennifer said again. You get ready to shoot.

She and Kalin could hear its huge paws slapping the water. All Jennifer could do was paddle and focus on the river ahead. Paddle and hope they didn't beach on a sandbar. Paddle and wait for the crash of the revolver — or the explosion of the raft when the bear clawed at it and snapped at it, lunging aboard.

Now he was 50 feet behind them and closing.

Back home, Jennifer worked summers as a commercial river rafter, often on the Yampa River. She knew water. Ahead, she saw it turn darker and more turquoise. That meant it was deeper, faster.

I'm going to have to shoot, Robert said, his voice oddly calm, as if he were merely asking them to cover their ears.

Jennifer glanced back again. The bear was swimming deeply, almost underwater, his nose high and snorting like a dog. He was 30 feet away.

As Robert raised his Ruger to shoot, Jennifer spotted a boulder in their path. It was the size of a dinner table; shallow water surged over its top. River runners call them "sleepers," and for a moment she was back home, grinning and calculating how to shave a sleeper so close that the rafter behind her would not see it in time and end up parked on top, beaten and embarrassed. It was a game, and she was good at it.

Let's shave it, she yelled, shouting paddle commands to Kalin. A couple more strokes. Now! Now! Now!As the sleeper slipped past, inches to spare, everyone turned to look, each falling silent.

The grizzly, still swimming at full speed, its long fur flowing back and forth rhythmically in the water, slammed hard into the rock. Stunned and panting, he climbed onto the flooded boulder and stood upright — wet, huge, a stone's throw behind them. In that instant, time froze.

Surrounded by the rushing river, water cascading off his back, the wet coat gleaming in the sun, the towering animal that had tried so hard to kill them now seemed suddenly, eerily lovely.

Horrifyingly beautiful, thought Jennifer.

After a few moments, the bear lunged off the boulder and splashed back to shore and resumed trotting along the bank in pursuit of the raft, but his gait seemed less determined.

Still paddling hard, Jennifer, Kalin and Robert opened their lead to 50 yards.

Jennifer felt herself collapsing. Just stop, please. Would you please just stop? she begged the bear. She was soaked in sweat, her back muscles burned, and she felt them beginning to cramp.

We've got about 150 yards on him now, Robert announced.

After 45 minutes and more than half a mile, the grizzly had finally stopped, so far as they could tell.

Adrenaline kept everyone paddling hard until Robert said, I've got to get back on the phone. We've got to get somebody up there to that camp.The call was insistent.

Walt, he said, this is very serious. The bear just chased us. You've got to get somebody up here. There's another group somewhere behind us. If they come down into that camp and encounter the bear ….

Jennifer remembered how she had balked when Robert tried to show her how to use his GPS device. She now understood how important it was.

Five miles farther downriver, they stopped at an uninhabited clapboard survival cabin. Its door was pushed in, a can of caulking compound in the upstairs loft gnawed upon.

Later that night, they heard a helicopter and stepped outside, watching it pass low to the south. Scenes from the chase kept playing in their heads. They talked about the missing campers, the people they had hoped to find here at the cabin.

I should have shot that thing, Robert said.

Night brought thick fog, gleaming bright in the summer sun. In the morning, Robert called Walt again and learned that the grizzly had been killed. Searchers found the bodies of Richard and Katherine Huffman, an attorney and a retired schoolteacher from Anchorage, a couple well-experienced in the Alaskan bush.

Every sign suggested they had been responsible campers. They kept their food in a bear-proof container and went so far as to stop to cook, to eat and wash their dishes well upstream from where they slept. And they had a rifle in their tent. The cocking lever was pulled back, but the weapon had not been fired.

The Huffmans were the first people on record to be killed by a grizzly in the refuge.

The bear, shot four times in the legs, head and heart, was airlifted to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. A necropsy showed it was the same bear that attacked the Huffmans, though authorities say they don't know why. He was a typical male grizzly for the Arctic north, 7 years old and 300 pounds — considerably less than they had guessed.

The bear seemed to have acted within the parameters of his predatory nature, especially in the context of this ecosystem. Neither the grizzly nor the Huffmans appeared to have done anything "wrong."

News accounts of the attack rolled out more statistics. In Alaska, about six people a year are injured in bear attacks, according to a Fish and Game spokesman.

Two-thirds of the victims are hunters who surprise bears at close range, prompting the animals to react in instinctive defense of themselves, their young or their food.

Some reports focused specifically on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Since Congress began debating oil drilling in the area, the refuge has seen a 5% increase in visitor inquiries since 2003, according to Richard Voss, the refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Last year, between 60 and 100 people floated the Hulahula.

For Kalin and Jennifer, encountering a killer grizzly only strengthened their feelings for protecting the refuge.

"What that bear did for us was shatter the idyllic, romantic image of wilderness and bring home the pragmatic reality of what a huge privilege and responsibility it is to actively participate in the day-to-day workings of natural wildness," Jennifer said, weeks later. "Once, all the world was wild. That was the world the human animal evolved in, and for. And that fact alone makes the final few fragments of original wildness worth saving."

"Whether we 'need' wild places in some utilitarian way or not, they have intrinsic value and deserve to exist apart from our experience of them," added Kalin. "But we do need wild natural places, because we need wild natural experiences to help define and structure our overly civilized lives. And we need to be willing to enter such places on their terms, not ours."

Even so, and without irony, both Jennifer Stark and Kalin Grigg accept the fact that venturing into such places requires preparation, sometimes the preparation to kill in selfdefense.

"The decision whether to carry a weapon, or bear spray, or nothing at all," Kalin said, "is a personal choice based on one's felt need for security in a defensive situation. But with or without a weapon, wilderness travel requires people to become personally and experientially educated about the meaning of true wildness."

"And," Jennifer added, "we'd go back tomorrow."

*


Thomas Curwen is the editor of Outdoors. David Petersen is the author of "On the Wild Edge: In Search of a Natural Life." They can be reached at outdoors@latimes.com.*

About this story

This story is based on an interview with Kalin Grigg and Jennifer Stark, conducted by David Petersen, and a telephone interview with Robert Thompson, conducted by Thomas Curwen. Italics designate comments spoken during the chase and recalled by the subjects. Comments recorded by the writers are enclosed in quotation marks.

Information about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and bears in Alaska is taken from interviews with Richard Voss, refuge manager, and with Bruce Bartley, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Information about the Huffmans and this particular grizzly is taken from an account of the attack and the necropsy results published in the Anchorage Daily News, the Connecticut Post, on KTUU.com and through the Associated Press.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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