Tales from an Alaskan Cabin: Chapter Fifteen

Gerald told this story:

When I was driving in from Canada, I made one mistake. I didn’t fill up at the border. I don’t know why I didn’t. Maybe it was the stress of going through border patrol, or it was the hours I had been putting into driving. I was tired and not thinking correctly. Whatever the reason, my car sputtered to a stop about 30 miles from where I thought the border was – the place that was marked by the U.S. flag on one side and the Canadian Maple Leaf on the other.

I looked at my dashboard clock and did some quick calculations. I fi were to hike back, it would be about six or seven hours to get back to the border. I had five hours of daylight left. I could go ahead and take the chance. A car might stop to pick me up. There might be no cars. I would probably have about six hours if I included the light from dusk – I could make it.

I was wrong.

I grabbed a gas can and my pack of food and water. I popped the hood of my car hoping that would alert any vehicles that came by to be on the lookout for a wandering person while alerting the police to the car’s breakdown. Hopefully, I wouldn’t get a ticket. I made sure I had money, but I knew quick access to my bear spray and Swiss Army knife was probably more useful. I walked away from my car, down the highway, and toward civilization.

I walked for about two hours when I realized I had miscalculated the number of hours of daylight I had. I also miscalculated how quickly it would get dark after dusk. I was at the 10-mile marker. Another half hour of walking, and I only had the light of the stars to see by. There are a lot of stars in the northern skies, but it wasn’t enough to see much by. I hadn’t brought a flashlight, so I walked along by feel keeping to the roadway.

I hadn’t seen a car since I started out, and the moon wasn’t up. I thought about stopping for the night, but the temperature was dropping. I thought about waiting for the moon to rise for the additional light, but I decided that continuing was my best course of action. The air was crisp. I would be warmer if I kept moving, and I might avoid encounters with wild animals, too, especially bears and wolves.

No sooner had I thought about those predators than I heard brush snapping to the left of me off the road. I couldn’t see what was out there, but there was an enormous amount of scuffling and huffing. The occasional growl gave me cause to worry. I stepped quicker, but I didn’t want to arouse the predator’s chase instinct.

The animal was content to follow me, so I pulled out the bear spray and fingered the safety. I wasn’t sure if I should go ahead and remove it or if I should leave it in place. If I accidently set it off, it wouldn’t so me much good, but if I wasn’t prepared for the attack, it also wouldn’t do much good. I decided to remove the safety.

The road rose up. As I ascended the hill, the highway was engulfed in a dense fog. I became disoriented. The animal sound seemed to echo from everywhere: sometimes, directly in front of me, sometimes, to the right of me, sometimes, right behind me. I spun around with my bear spray poised.

I thought I saw lights out of the corner of my eye, and I didn’t want to miss the vehicle. I turned to the light, but it wasn’t there. It was behind me. Then it was beside me. Maybe, they weren’t headlights. Maybe, it was a house. I tried to head toward the lights, but they flashed intermittently and not always in the same place. My footsteps crunched under me. I had left the road.

The animal sounds continued, but there was something on the air under them. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it sounded like something whispered in a foreign language. The whispers grew louder but no more distinct. The whispers beckoned, warned, and yelled.

Time distorted with the fog, and I felt like I had been walking all night. The flashing lights were now in front of me. I couldn’t tell what made them, and my eyesight was impaired. I became blind and could only follow the voices and avoid where I thought the animal was. Vertigo set in. Shutting my blind eyes didn’t help. I stumbled over a loose rock and hit a curb with my left foot. I fell onto a sidewalk.

The fog had dissipated. I was in the border town; the sun was shining. My knees and palms were scraped and bleeding. I picked the gas can up off the sidewalk where it had fallen and went to the gas station. The attendant looked at me and the gas can.

“Where’d you come from?” he asked.

I blinked rapidly, “I hardly know. I think I walked. My car ran out of gas yesterday on the highway.”

The attendant scoffed, “You left the safety of your vehicle to come get gas?”

“I didn’t know what else I could do,” I said.

“Well,” he took the gas can, “you’re lucky. There’s been a couple of maulings by a rogue grizzly in the area. He usually strikes a couple hours after dusk.” He filled the gas can. “Should I call the tow truck guy and have him drive you back to your vehicle?”

“That would be great,” I said. “I have never told anyone that story before.”

“One of the first things I learned in Alaska was ‘It’s never the first mistake that kills you,’” said George. “A lot of people make that first mistake and then compound it with poor decisions as time goes on. It sounds like you were lucky. I wonder what saved you.”

“Me, too. I’ve done some Internet searches, but I haven’t found a satisfactory explanation. If I were to believe those searches, it would be aliens or fairies. The Inukin may have had their fun with me and then taken pity on me.” Gerald replied. “Probably, I was hallucinating due to hypothermia, but the gas station guy didn’t say anything about me needing medical help. I figured he would notice if I had some serious medical issue.”

“In the future, you should know to talk when you’re in the woods,” said John, “It will generally keep the bears away. It lets them know you’re human. They don’t think of us as food, so they leave us alone. A lot of people just shout ‘Hey, bear!’ at short intervals.”

“Thanks,” Gerald said. “I’ve heard that from other people since then, but I thought they were just messing with the newbie.”“Most Alaskans like to have fun with the cheechako,” John said, “but not when it comes to bear safety. Even if the person doesn’t like you, he or she wouldn’t want a bear to have to be killed because you did something dumb. We like bears.” He chuckled. (Tales at an Alaskan Cabin is now available for preorder in eBook format at Amazon.com.)