Discover more from Brent and Michael Are Going Places
That Time We Were in a Cabin in Alaska Surrounded by Grizzly Bears
We were just taking a floatplane into the Alaskan backcountry. Why was everyone saying, "Got a gun?"
Back in the 90s, Michael and I rented a cabin in the Alaskan backcountry.
It was going to be so rustic and romantic! The fact that we had to hire a float plane to fly us in made it seem even more exciting — and also guaranteed that we would have total privacy.
We flew into Sitka, where we’d be catching that float plane the following day, and caught a cab to the church where we’d arranged to spend the night — they rented out a room in their basement.
We told the cabbie where we were headed and asked if he’d be willing pick us up the following day and take us back to the airport.
“Lake Eva, huh?” he said. “Got a gun?”
“A gun?” I said. “No, we’re not planning on hunting.”
“Not for hunting,” he said. “For protection. There’s a lot of grizzlies out there.”
I looked over at Michael, who’d been the one to arrange this cabin. But he stared out the window, not meeting me in the eye.
When we checked in at the church, the pastor asked us what we were doing in town, and we told him about Lake Eva too.
“Is that right?” the man said. “Got a gun?”
“No,” I said, giving Michael the stink-eye. “No one said anything about grizzly bears or our needing a gun.”
Alone in our room, I confronted Michael, “I’m not so sure about this. Why does everyone keep saying we need a gun?”
He was busy unpacking — still not meeting me in the eye. “I’m sure it’s going to be fine,” he said. “Worse cast scenario, we hang out by the cabin. If we see any bears, we just go inside.”
This did kind of make sense. Plus, we’d already paid for everything.
The following day, we went back to the airport to meet the pilot, who was a lot older than I expected, and not particularly fit.
“So I’ll be picking you up again in three days, right?” he said, wheezing, writing a line about us in a very small notepad — in pencil, I noticed.
“Yeah, three days,” I said, wondering what would happen if he had a heart attack in the next three days. It was September, and I knew we were the cabin’s last reservation for the year. If he died, would anyone see his little note?
Hell, what if he had a heart attack in the next hour, while we were up in the air?
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Still wheezing, the pilot turned to our bags and equipment. But he stopped, puzzled.
“No, we don’t have a gun,” I said. “And yes, we know there are a lot of grizzly bears up there.”
He whistled. “Oh, well, at least it’s September. You’ll probably be okay.”
Probably? I turned to glare at Michael again, but he was already busy loading our things into the plane. And what did the fact that it was September have to do with anything? Were the bears already starting to hibernate?
The flight from Sitka into the backcountry really was beautiful, even if we flew frighteningly close to some of those mountaintops, and I swore I could hear the wheezing of that pilot even over the roar of the propellor.
We landed on the lake, and the pilot sputtered his way over to the dock, where Michael and I climbed out and started unloading our things.
“Well, see ya in three days, I guess,” the pilot said, sounding decidedly dubious, like he was just as likely to return to find our mauled corpses.
“Right, three days,” I said, probably sounding equally dubious, wondering if it would be insulting to tell him to lay off the bacon, at least until he picked us up.
And then he was gone, and we were alone, deep in the backcountry of Baranof Island in Southwest Alaska — just me and Michael and what were apparently several thousand grizzly bears.
At least I didn’t see any nearby. And the lake was beautiful. I’d never been anywhere so primal and unspoiled.
Then I turned and saw the cabin, which was operated was the Alaskan state government.
As a writer, I believe in the importance of precision when it comes to words. Words have very specific meanings, and chaos and confusion results when people use the wrong word to describe something.
Suddenly, I was annoyed by the state government using the word “cabin” to describe the building in front of me.
In writing this article, I looked up the cabin on Lake Eva, which is still available for rent, at about four times the price we paid. Then again, they’ve completely rebuilt it since then.
Here’s what it looks like now:
I don’t have access to the photos we took then, which are in deep storage, but here’s a fair approximation of what it looked like:
Most toolsheds were bigger than our “cabin.” And just like all those toolsheds, it didn’t have windows.
Inside was even more disappointing. I’d been expecting cozy bedrooms with creaky beds and homemade quilts, and a grand front room with elk antlers over a crackling fireplace made of river rock.
Instead, it was a windowless room with narrow bunk beds and a very meager cast iron stove — and that was it. No dishes, no bedding. I guess we were lucky that it had some musty, grey mattresses.
This was not a cabin for a couple looking for a romantic getaway. This was a place for people to sleep while up here hunting and fishing, and that’s all.
And did I mention that it was completely surrounded by fourteen thousand grizzly bears?
Michael was busy unpacking our food and cooking equipment, so as usual, he completely missed my steely glares.
As I looked around, I found one more thing in the cabin: a single nightstand with a drawer, and a book inside. It was one of those journals where the guests write about their experiences for future visitors.
I let Michael continue unpacking — this was all his fault anyway. Meanwhile, I started reading the past entries in the journal.
When I came to one before the last, my blood instantly ran cold:
“We arrived to find that the bears had pushed their way in through the cabin door, and everything was torn up. Some idiot must have left food in here!”
Hold on, I thought. The bears can come inside the cabin? And they can smell the food?
I whirled back to the door. Sure enough, it had nothing in the way of a lock, not even anything to bar the door while you’re inside. Worse, the grizzly bears had already learned they could push their way in, and if they did, they’d find food!
For the first time, I was genuinely scared. The only reason I’d agreed to come here to this place, despite the eighty thousand nearby grizzly bears, was because I assumed we’d at least be safe inside the cabin.
But now we weren’t?
I turned back to that journal, and it felt like that scene in The Lord of the Rings when the Fellowship takes refuge in the Chamber of Mazarbul in the Mines of Moria. Remember how they find the Book of Mazarbul, which spells out exactly what happened to the doomed occupants who were previously trapped in that place?
“We have barred the gates,” Gandalf reads from the journal. “But cannot hold them for long. The ground shakes. We cannot get out. A shadow moves in the dark. Cannot get out. They are coming…”
Now Michael and I were in the exact same situation — except with grizzly bears rather than orcs and goblins
But at least Gandalf and the Fellowship could continue onward through the Mines of Moria. Michael and I were stuck. We sure couldn’t hike our way to back to civilization — it was eighty kilometers of trail-less backcountry populated by at least four hundred thousand grizzly bears!
No, we had no choice except to wait until the pilot returned in three days.
If the pilot returned! At that exact moment, he was probably back in Sitka, having his second double-cheeseburger and fries.
That night, when I woke up having to pee, I did not walk the twenty meters to the outhouse. No, I peed right from the damn cabin doorway.
And the next day, when Michael ventured out onto some of the trails along the lake, I stayed close to the cabin. If a sleuth of grizzlies appeared, I figured I could at least jump in the lake.
But as the hours passed along that shore, even I began to notice something.
This wilderness was frickin’ amazing.
I’d spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest, which was still fairly wild back then, and I grew up literally at the edge of a vast forest that extended, more or less, all the way to Mount Rainier.
I knew the forests of the Pacific Northwest, but those were nothing compared to what I was seeing all around me now.
There were animals literally everywhere I looked — trout constantly jumping in the lake, and eagles swooping down to snatch these fish from the water. At not just once an afternoon, if you’re lucky. They were doing it over and over again.
On the far side of the lake, I saw moose, and deer on the hillsides beyond that. The air literally hummed with insects — none of them the biting kind, fortunately. At one point, I heard the splash of water, and a saw massive bevy of otters — at least fifty, probably more — paddling toward me in a group across the lake.
But when I stood to get a better look, they caught sight of me and — wary of humans, apparently — they all simultaneously reversed direction.
And the salmon! They must have been running, because I could their sleek silvery bodies gliding past me through the murky depths, on their way to spawn up in the mountain streams.
I think all this nature was partly Alaska, which just explodes with wildlife. But honestly, I think most of it was simply that I’d spent my life living in the heavily-exploited “Lower 48” of the United States, and my baseline for “a normal amount of wildlife” had been thrown wildly out of whack.
It was somehow riotous and chaotic, and also incredibly peaceful, all at the same time. I’d never experienced anything like it.
Where did I fit into all this life?
When Michael finally returned from his hike, I still hadn’t figured it out. But I hadn’t thought about grizzly bears either. There was too much else to experience.
But I admit, that night, I still peed from the doorway of our cabin.
Then the next day, I woke up and walked out to take in the lake again.
There was someone standing waist-deep in the water right in front of me.
Or, rather, something. It was a grizzly bear, barely fifteen feet away — one of the some two million brown bears that populated this island in Alaska. But the way it was standing, it really did look like a very large person.
I tensed, all set to lunge back into our cabin — little good it would do me, of course. Maybe I could use that little nightstand to block the door?
But I didn’t run just yet.
The bear turned to look at me.
And I stared at it.
Then, completely uninterested, the bear resumed what it was doing, which was watching the water all around it.
The bear snatched at something.
Oh! This is what the pilot meant about our probably being safe in September! With the salmon running, the grizzlies would be stuffing themselves in anticipation of hibernating through the upcoming winter.
The bears wouldn’t have any interest in eating us.
And this one sure didn’t. Michael joined me, and we watched the bear fish for a while. At one point, we ducked into the cabin for our camera, and when we returned, the bear was gone.
That night, I still peed from the doorway of our cabin. But when the pilot returned the following day, I wasn’t ready to go.
I’ve now seen much more wilderness than I had on that trip back in the 90s, in mountains and forests all over the world. But I’ve still never seen anything as alive and wild as on Baranof Island, which really does have one of the planet’s densest populations of grizzly bears.
It’s home to just over a thousand of them
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out my new newsletter about my books and movies at www.BrentHartinger.com.