Dieter and I drove north on the haul road out of Fairbanks, Alaska in my crummy little GMC pickup. We were headed to the Brooks Range, about halfway to the North Slope. Somewhere along the 250 miles of gravel, a bearded man in an orange vest stopped us with his sign.
“Where you fellas headed?”
“We’re going to climb a mountain called Emma Dome. Near Wiseman.”
“Grizzly country. What kind of gun you got?”
“Uh. We don’t have one.”
His eyebrows went up. He spun the sign around so it said SLOW. I wondered if he was telling us to drive through the construction zone or commenting on our mental powers. After hours of dirt road, we pitched our tent next to the airstrip in the village of Wiseman.
I had just read some books by Bob Marshall. He was a famous man in the early history of the US Forest Service. He was one of the first to systematically explore this range of mountains north of the Arctic Circle. He landed in an airplane at Wiseman in 1929. I got it into my head that Emma Dome was the first mountain he climbed. I was born too late to be a pioneer, but I could mimic one, at least.
We woke up to clear blue skies and arctic August air. We got above tree line and into the snow. When I looked down to the village where we started, I tried to imagine how long it would take to get to a hospital. Even for something simple. My math added up to at least a whole day. I put that out of my mind. I mean, I could walk up a hill with dehydrated food on my back. I was like a god.
But then, since mortality was on my 25 year old mind, I said, “If I’m going to die, I want it to be one of three ways: in an airplane, while having sex, or on top of a mountain.”
I don’t remember Dieter’s reply. But, I bet he rolled his eyes.
Later, my cleverness increased with altitude and I said, “The best way to go would be to hit a mountain while having sex in an airplane.”
Years later, Deets was the best man at my wedding. Mostly because he puts up with my crap.
After a full day of hiking along the ridge to Emma Dome, we agreed we weren’t going to make it. Bob Marshall was renowned for walking dozens of miles per day. We might’ve gone five. We decided to camp in a saddle in the ridge that night and make it to Emma Dome the next day. As a consolation prize, we dropped our packs and walked up to a nearby spur peak to take in the view.
We stood on the cone of this nameless mountain and took the required hero photos. The jagged peaks went on forever like a stone ocean and drew our eyes up. We looked at the horizon all day. I noticed the foreground for the first time as I retied my bootlaces.
“Deets. A bear.”
“What?” he asked.
“Dude. A grizzly bear.”
We both looked down the ridge and about a hundred yards away a big brown bear was moseying up the ridgeline toward our little peak. We were in the snow, but since we’d been hiking with heavy packs, we were only wearing shorts and t-shirts. Our packs were a quarter mile away. No fangs. No claws. No guns. I felt like a squishy pink bear snack.
Deets asked, “What do we do?”
It was as steep as a stairway down the ridgeline. I said, “We could throw some rocks on him.”
Dieter didn’t like the gallows humor so I quoted the textbook answer instead: Don’t surprise a bear up close. We hollered and waved our arms to get his attention as early as possible. We were downwind and he was quite a bit lower than us. He stopped and swung his giant head from side to side, trying to find the noise. He put his head back down and his plate-sized feet kept coming straight for us. He was about fifty yards away.
Deets and I looked at each other and then yelled even louder. He looked right at us. My knees got wobbly. He turned sideways to us and started yawning nervously and snapping his jaws. I read somewhere that this was bear-talk for, “Look how big I am” and “You should leave.” We accepted his invitation to scram. My spinal cord was screaming, “Run, Idiot!” But, I also read you shouldn’t run in front of a bear. It triggers their predatory instincts. We backed slowly away from the summit and broke line of sight with the bear. Then, you bet we ran. As we scrambled through the snow-covered boulders, I yelled to Dieter that I wasn’t going to stop if he broke his ankle. He didn’t laugh at that one either.
We jumped into our packs, strapped them on, and dove off the side of the ridge.
We ran for a while and stopped to look for the bear. We both have bad eyes and, squinting back up the hill, we took turns saying, “Throw me the binoculars.” We glassed the hill for our grizzly friend. Run. Squint. Repeat. All we saw were scary looking shrubs and menacing spruces. Amen for that.
When we shuffled into Wiseman like zombies, we peeled off our boots and soaked our feet in a brook. We hiked uphill for nine hours. We got out in three.
“You still want to camp somewhere?” I asked.
“No way,” he said. Correct answer.
We drove south and slept in the bed of my truck at the Arctic Circle rest stop. With the tailgate up and the topper closed.