Just when we thought we were on the homestretch, we encountered record rainfall and a stalking bear. Leaving Anaktuvuk Pass, before the rains began in earnest, we found ourselves hiking through mud and tussocks boats on our backs, the water too low for paddling. Ten miles downriver we were able to put in and bounced along the boulders of the John River. The river rose overnight under a deluge and we shivered our way through an otherwise fun day of rapids and swift water. At the confluence with Wolverine Creek we began hiking upstream, searching for the game trails that would ease our passage through the brush and spruce forest. On this road-less and mostly trail-less journey, hoof prints and claw marks are our road signs, leading us to the best terrain and fastest travel. We had heard glowing reports of the smooth walking up Wolverine Creek, but the steady rain led to high water and game trails ended abruptly at the creek’s swollen edges. We crossed the frigid thigh to waist deep water more than thirty times in eight hours before reaching a smaller tributary (for anyone interested in repeating this section, if there’s high water lower your expectations) and the rain continued.
We’ve long since adjusted to wet shoes and socks as part of the morning routine but soggy shirts, pants, sleeping bags and tent are harder to embrace. Using our paddle blades and inflation bags we cajoled smoky fires out of wet willows. Along the creek we saw many bears including a grizzly sow with three yearling cubs and the first black bear since the Peel River. From here we worked our way over low misty passes to Nahtuk River. Tired of walking in water, we floated the upper section of this rocky creek before hiking to the dense drainage of the Pingaluk. Here we met our second black bear whose acquaintance we could have done without. Crashing through the last of the willows towards the main river, I heard a rustling in the bushes behind me. I turned to see a pointed nose and cinnamon coat barreling down and had only enough time to raise my arm and shout, the other hand reaching for my pepper spray. The sudden motion gave the bear a moment’s pause and it stopped six feet from me, turned sideways, and took a few steps back. Hearts racing, we pointed our canisters and yelled. With its advance from behind, clearly it had been stalking us but we didn’t know for how long. Unconvinced by its reluctant retreat, we watched as it circled around and began to return, heading slowly and deliberately our way. This time it didn’t stop until Pat sprayed and it ducked away, catching only the edge of the pepper cloud. This encounter turned into a protracted standoff lasting nearly half an hour – the bear advancing, us yelling, throwing poles, moving towards it. Somehow we had to change its perception of who was the aggressor. Eventually, it decided that this meal wasn’t worth the trouble and slowly began to move away. We hated to leave without a definitive end – we didn’t get close enough to spray again and its predatory behavior will likely continue, a threat to other backcountry travelers in the area. We crossed the river as soon as possible, looking warily over our shoulders as we moved through the forest. Among the dozens of bears of we’ve encountered in the backcountry and on this trip alone, this one was an anomaly. Perhaps it hadn’t seen people before, perhaps it thought we were something else. But it looked healthy and fat, not desperate or starving, and its behavior was terrifying. When a human is perceived as prey a large black bear can be a very dangerous adversary.
As we got further downstream and eventually began to paddle we breathed a bit easier. When we finally reached the broad Alatna River, under rainy skies of course, the anxiety had melted away, followed by a deep weariness. But when we arrived at the serenity of Takahula Lake late in the evening, we couldn’t have met a more wonderful surprise. Francesco, whose cabin we used as a resupply point, met us with open arms showing us incredible hospitality and kindness. We have enjoyed a day here to dry out, regroup and find enthusiasm for the next leg through the Arrigetch to the Noatak River. By chance, we happened on two other travelers turned fast friends and we offered a bit of help hauling gear in exchange for the generous use of their boat. Sometimes things have an uncanny way of working themselves out.