Wednesday, July 14, 1999

Tok, Alaska


There’s a black bear in the road up ahead.

This being Alaska, I shouldn’t be all that surprised. But it’s his sartorial choice that’s thrown me. Firmly perched over his head sits an antique ten pound tin of Folger’s coffee, raided from some old trapper’s cabin.

Any points the bear gets for style and originality come at the expense of maneuverability. The can sits tightly over his neck with an ear poking out of one hole, and he’s blundering blindly across the highway, into a tree, then plowing into a parked RV full of plaid-wearing, camcorder-wielding geriatric tourists before wandering back into the woods.

You could follow his unsteady progress through forest by the faint sound of “bonk...bonk...bonk” as he tacked through the woods.

I drove up the road to make a quick call to Fish and Game, and by the time I got back the bear was surrounded by would-be helpers. A Michigan pensioner climbs down from his RV to kick the can off the poor bear’s head. I know he’s trying to help, but I wouldn’t want to be there if he succeeds. In about two days you’d be finding bits of hearing aid and orthopedic shoes in piles of bear shit.

A Texas air force major grabs his lasso to try and rope the can, succeeding only in adding a slipknot around the unfortunate bear’s head.

The bear, dazed from lack of fresh air and no small measure of uninvited attention, charged into the woods and scrambled up a tree. Two hours later, after the crowd has scattered to review their videos but with no ranger in sight, I hear the bear tumble out of the tree and land with a thud.

Mustering my meager courage and a swiss army knife, I walk 30 yards into the woods and find the bear collapsed in a heap, panting into the can and fading fast.

I looked at my knife, looked at the dying bear and can only marvel at the folly of human endeavor. I didn’t pay much attention during my checkered career in the Boy Scouts, so I don’t remember anything about bear rescue merit badges. I’m feeling ill-equipped for what must be done.

I open the can opener blade and reach warily over to punch a series of breathing holes. I actually get about half the lid before the bear even stirs. I grab a carabiner and some rope, punch another hole to run the clip. I wrap the rope around a tree and reach over to hook it all together when the bear wakes right the hell up.

He’s not at all pleased. Snout and teeth poking out of the ragged, rusty tin can, he seems in no mood for gentle, can’t-we-all-just-get-along persuasion. I retreat at a brisk pace, and the bear wanders off into the woods looking none too amused.

If you happen to come across a black bear wearing a half-opened coffee can, lasso, purple webbing and pink carabiner shuffling through the woods, could you tell him that I meant well?

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