Tag Archive | Fairbanks

The Grizzly Bear

Ursus arctos horribilis

March 8, 2022

Ursus arctos horribilis, also known as the Grizzly Bear, is one of the most feared animals in the world. When the first explorers and fur trappers began to explore what would become the great American West, tales of a huge, ferocious bear soon made their way back east.

A grizzly bear at Yellowstone in 2010 from https://thegirlygirlcooks.blogspot.com/2010/10/yellowstone-national-park.html

It was that intrepid pair, Lewis and Clark, who gave the bear its name. From the Infallible Wikipedia:

“Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first described it as grisley, which could be interpreted as either ‘grizzly’ (i.e., ‘grizzled’—that is, with grey-tipped or silver-tipped hair) or ‘grisly’ (‘fear-inspiring’, now usually ‘gruesome’). The modern spelling supposes the former meaning; even so, naturalist George Ord formally classified it in 1815 as U. horribilis for its character.”

There was, of course, good reason to think of the animal as fear-inspiring. An adult male weighs between 400 and 790 pounds! Females are smaller with a weight range of 250 to 400 pounds. At an average of 6 ½ feet in length and 3 ½ feet tall, it would sort of be like having a pro basketball player combined with a sumo wrestler; a truly intimidating beast. Oh, and did I mention that its front claws are between 2 and 4 inches in length?

With the expansion of human civilization there has been a marked decrease in the grizzly population over the last 500 years. In 1850, grizzly bears were found in all of the western half of the US from the Canadian border to Mexico. Population in what would become the lower 48 states is estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000 animals.

Their numbers have, however, decreased significantly. The Infallible Wikipedia shares:

“There are about 55,000 wild grizzly bears located throughout North America, 30,000 of which are found in Alaska. Only around 1,500 grizzlies remain in the lower 48 United States. Of these, around 1,000 are found in the Northern Continental Divide in northwestern Montana. About 600 more live in Wyoming, in the Yellowstone-Teton area. There are an estimated 70–100 grizzly bears living in northern and eastern Idaho. Its original range included much of the Great Plains and the southwestern states, but it has been extirpated in most of those areas. Combining Canada and the United States, grizzly bears inhabit approximately half the area of their historical range.”

In last week’s Tuesday Newsday, I shared information about the creation of Yellowstone National Park. In the 1950’s and 60’s, especially, Grizzly Bears and Yellowstone became synonymous. It was during this era, particularly, when the explosion of visitors, combined with an abundance of grizzly bears combing the park dumps and trash cans for a meal, collided.

What happened was an increase in bear and people encounters, similar to those often seen in movie footage of the time:

In the early 1970’s, policy changed with an all out effort to return bears to their natural ways.

Of course, I did not know all this when the hubby and I arrived at Yellowstone on September 1, 1980. As far as I knew bears roamed everywhere in the park and were around every turn. This is my mindset when, just after sunset – about 8:30 p.m. – the hubby has gone on foot to pay for our campsite.

There I sit, all by myself, the camp sites around us empty… when I hear it. The hum of an engine and the crackle of a loudspeaker, the words – at first – unintelligible.

I watch as a station wagon, bearing the National Park logo, rolls slowly into view, emerging from the dark forest. There are speakers mounted on the roof and someone from inside the safety of the car is, apparently, determined to scare any and all visitors half to death. The loud speaker cracks with sound and a solemnly intoned message blares into the quiet night to those foolish enough to camp there:

The author with a grizzly bear when visiting the University of Alaska Museum of the North at Fairbanks in March 2017

“This is bear country!” (static sounds follow) “Store all food securely in your vehicle” (more static)… “Fear… fear… fear…” (static). Okay, I made that last part up, but by now you have the picture. The message repeats as the car slowly disappears into the night. By now I am certain that grizzlies are going to emerge from the woods and make a meal of me, a certainty since all that would be between us and the 500 pound beast is a flimsy tent wall.

By the time the hubby arrives back in camp, I’m good and freaked out. Even so, we get a fire started, dinner fixed and eaten. And then I get really weird. I’m on my hands and knees, with flashlight, searching for that one kernel of corn I’m certain I dropped during the meal which, if smelled by a bear, will encourage them to rip into our tent and have us for a midnight snack.

My travel log entry reads as follows:

“I became almost fanatical in seeing that everything was securely locked away and bear proof. No bears tried to eat me during the night.”

My entry says ‘almost’ – there was no ‘almost’ about it. I was fanatical.

During two subsequent trips to Yellowstone, in 1982 and 1989, we became obsessed with trying to find a bear. It was during the latter trip that we did, finally, see one. It was about a half a mile away, across a valley, and it took a pair of binoculars to confirm. That was it. The only grizzly we ever saw in the wild.

Even so, bells tied to shoe laces do offer that extra bit of noise which is a good idea since you never, ever want to surprise a bear. Although we’ve seen grizzly in captivity a couple of times over the years, I think I’d rather not encounter one in the wild. A very horribilis idea.

As always, a link or two for those who want to know more:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grizzly_bear

A pretty good documentary if you have 45 minutes:

Nat Geo Bears of Yellowstone:

Iditarod Race, Alaska

Just Short of Magic

March 6, 2018

iditarodIt’s one of the most grueling races in the world and participants encounter blizzards, white out conditions and temperatures, with wind chills as low as -131 degrees.

Held in early March each year the Iditarod has come to symbolize the heartiness and determination of Alaskans.

A few race details from the infallible Wikipedia:

“The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual long-distance sled dog race run in early March from Willow to Nome, entirely within the US state of Alaska. Mushers and a team of 16 dogs, of which at least 5 must be on the towline at the finish line, cover the distance in 8–15 days or more. The Iditarod began in 1973 as an event to test the best sled dog mushers and teams but evolved into today’s highly competitive race. Then a record, the second fastest winning time was recorded in 2016 by Dallas Seavey with a time of 8 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes, and 16 seconds.”

In 2017 the race began on March 6th. A few weeks later I experienced a tiny sliver of what that adventure is like when I got to ride on a dog sled just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.

view of the back end of the dogs just short of magicWhat I determined in the five days I spent there with my two best friends from high school, Cindy and Daphne, were the following:

  1. It takes a very sturdy person to live in the Alaskan interior. I would not do well there.
  2. Minus 26 degrees is really, really cold.
  3. Riding on a dog sled is a rush of an experience

Just short of magicI am forever grateful to my two friends for the once in a lifetime event. It was, as the name of the business stated, Just Short of Magic. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the temperature was 10 degrees.

In addition to the ride, we were instructed on how to harness the dogs to the sled and each got a turn driving the sled. As Daphne pointed out “it’s a good core workout!”

I also learned that the dogs are not all Siberian Huskies. In fact, most of their dogs were not Huskies. The dogs, however, must possess certain traits as follows:

  1. Thick paw pads
  2. Hearty appetite
  3. Want to pull 85 percent of the time
  4. Dense fur

If a dog does not have these four traits then Alaskans have a name for those dogs: pets.

Snide and Daphne Just short of magicAlthough the adventure was only a couple of hours it was, as their business name proclaimed, just short of magic. I relished the rush of cold air, the way the sled flew over the snow, the cacophony of the barking dogs, and the sparkle of the white snow.

And if you happen to find yourself in Alaska when the snow is still on the ground and the temperature is below freezing, this is my number one recommended thing to do!

For more information about the Iditarod, Wikipedia tells all: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iditarod_Trail_Sled_Dog_Race

And to book a dog sled experience: https://justshortofmagic.com/dog-sled-tours/

Just short of magic me and Daphne

Update: People have been curious as to the origins of the Iditarod. Also from the infallible Wikipedia:

“The most famous event in the history of Alaskan mushing is the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the “Great Race of Mercy.” It occurred when a large diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome. Because Nome’s supply of antitoxin had expired, Dr. Curtis Welch refused to use it and instead sent out telegrams seeking a fresh supply of antitoxin. The nearest antitoxin was found to be in Anchorage, nearly one thousand miles away. The only way to get the antitoxin to Nome was by sled dog as planes could not be used and ships would be too slow. Governor Scott Bone approved a safe route and the 20-pound (9.1 kg) cylinder of serum was sent by train 298 miles (480 km) from the southern port of Seward to Nenana, where it was passed just before midnight on January 27 to the first of twenty mushers and more than 100 dogs who relayed the package 674 miles (1,085 km) from Nenana to Nome. The dogs ran in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles (160 km).”