Head down, feet a shuffle, I carefully follow Aki onto a slime-slick boardwalk. For the first time on this hike through a riverine wood, I act on concern, even fear; not of animals but of falling hard on the boardwalk. I can almost hear the snap of bone, feel the pain of a break. Just minutes ago we passed without much thought through an area heavily used by bears. Remains of their salmon dinners rotted on the trail near great piles of disorganized bear scat and trails from the river recently pounded flat by their large flat paws. Then I only worried that Aki, overcome by attraction, would roll in something foul. When did fear of my own frailty supplant that of the wild?
We successfully negotiate the board walk onto a large muskeg meadow, a swamp really, where ravens are holding a noisy confab. I’ve heard the big black birds make the strangest sounds, mimick the music of power line transformers or water dropping into a pond, imitate a crying cat or the song of another bird. I’ve never before heard them make these sounds. One dive bombs Aki when she wanders onto the meadow. Heads down we move under an angry raven’s escort to the road. He and a couple of companions watch until we almost reach the river. In the distance I hear a higher pitch raven cry and wonder if they were having a naming ceremony. Much I do not know about ravens.
Thinking we have have enough drama for the day I walk to river, now swollen by a big high tide and watch spawned out chum salmon swim aimlessly along the beach. Toward the mountains a moving line of smoke-like fog traces the river course. Turning upriver we a find a young adult bear fishing for salmon on a tributary. Standing among at least 20 carcasses, he harvests the richest bits from one–stomach, eggs, brains—then ambles over to the stream to pluck out a fresh victim.
Thinking all other bears will be targeting this food rich stream, I take Aki off her lead and head toward the car. When we reach a spot where the trail comes very close to the river, another adult bear, river water pouring off thick black fur, pulls itself onto the trail, spots me, and bolts at full speed away. I am inclined to treat this as ratification of my realignment of fear when Aki take off after the bear.
According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (first respectable source I could find on the internet), a black bear can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour. Aki is faster than this bear and gains on him as I call out for her return. Bear corners well enough to make a tight turn on a steep trail leading into a small copse of riverside trees. Aki overshoots the trail then makes her own way into the wood. In the silence that follows I move slowly toward the ittle patch of trees listening for the patter of Aki’s paws on gravel or, the worst, her death cry. Eventually she trots up as if nothing had happened. The bear must have returned to the river before she found him.
(While writing about bears and dive bombing ravens, I received an automated phone call from the University of Alaska informing me and other students of a non-fatal shooting on the Anchorage on campus and that the shooter was still at large.)