"Grizzly Country" by Nancy Bourne
Three roads lead out of Nome, Alaska. We’ve tried all three, dead-ending in Eskimo villages and endless miles of tundra. So what now? We’re here for a week, visiting my son Steve who’s a pilot for the little airline that flies the natives back and forth from their villages to Nome. Not much to do in town. Two restaurants. Lousy food.
“There are other roads, Dad,” Steve says. “Dirt roads. I haven’t tried them, but you might.” He shows me a map with several dotted lines leading out of Nome. “You need four- wheel drive,” he says. “And of course, you need to look out for grizzlies.”
I’m game, as is Lizzie, my twelve-year-old daughter, who’s with me for the whole summer, part of the amical divorce agreement with my ex. Lizzie’s having the time of her life watching the Iditarod dogs racing the hills near here, dragging dune buggies behind them, yapping madly, training for the next race. All kinds of dogs, not just huskies. I want this summer with her Dad to be special, something she’ll always remember.
I flip the switch to four-wheel drive on our rented jeep and head off on one of the dirt roads, bouncing over rocks, driving through creeks, eyes strained for reindeer and musk oxen. Living the wild life! The road is a series of hills and valleys; we chug up the hills and plunge into deep ditches, most often filled with water. We roll up the windows and splash ahead. Full on adventure.
It looks like quarter past five in the afternoon. In fact, in summer, Nome always looks like it’s a quarter past five in the afternoon. Even though the sun never sets this far north, it also doesn’t shine overhead. It’s there all day long and most of the night, low in the sky, masked by clouds. Which means it isn’t hot or sticky. Perfect for an adventure. Today is no different as we freewheel our way out of Nome.
Until we come to a dead stop. We’re at the bottom of a ditch, not one full of water, but deep. I push the accelerator, the wheels spin, the tires dig in.
“Not a problem,” I tell Lizzie. “I’ve gotten into worse fixes.” Well, that’s not exactly true, but I have seen a video. “It’s just a matter of digging a shallow hole under the back wheels,” I tell her, “and filling the hole with stones.” Lizzie looks for flat stones while I dig the holes with a stick I find along the road. No shovel in the jeep, naturally. Next I put the jeep in reverse, and rock it back and forth to get leverage. The wheels spin deeper into the soft earth.
“Are we okay, Daddy?”
“Of course,” I say. “We just need more stones. Smaller stones this time for friction.”
“I’m on it.” Such a terrific kid. Skinny as a rail, long freckled legs, big brown eyes. The baby we thought might save the marriage. And didn’t.
Once again, we rock the jeep back and forth. Once again, the wheels dig deeper into the ruts they’ve made. I can’t believe this isn’t working. But after an hour of spinning wheels, I give up, “Might as well start walking. We’ll get the rental place to come get the jeep.”
“How far?” Lizzie asks.
I look at the odometer. “Ten miles,” I say. “We’ve driven ten miles.”
“Come on, Lizzie. You’ve hiked ten miles in the Sierras plenty times. This is an adventure.”
We struggle into our backpacks and head off into the vast Alaska wilderness.
“It’s beautiful,” I say, opening my arms to the grass and tundra spread before us. Miles and miles of tundra, brownish-green with bushes springing up in all directions. It looks inviting, like you could hike in it for miles. But Steve tells me deep holes of water are hidden everywhere. Stay off the tundra, he’s warned.
Lizzie puts her head down, forges ahead, says nothing.
She stops short at the first water-filled ditch. It was exhilarating splashing through it in a jeep. But on foot, it’s daunting. A creek, more like a river. I wade in up to my waist and turn back. The current is swift, noisy.
Lizzie is staring at me, her mouth open. “I’m scared, Daddy.”
Don’t blame her. But nothing to do but forge ahead. Plus I’ve got to keep her spirits up.
“Come on,” I say. “The water might cover your shoulders, but you’ll be fine.”
She shakes her head.
“Okay. I’ll ride you piggyback.”
Her arms around my neck nearly choke me; her long legs drag in the water. The current almost knocks us over. But we make it across the river.
I hadn’t realized how many of these creeks and rivers we’d splashed through in the jeep. Up and down, up and down. Wringing wet. Plus, I’m starving.
“Where are the peanut butter sandwiches, Liz?”
“What about the grizzlies?”
“What about them?”
“They’ll smell the food and come after us.”
I point out that we haven’t seen a bear our entire time in Nome. I get out my binoculars and scan the horizon on all sides. No animals of any kind in sight. I find a sandwich in my backpack and pull it out.
“Daddy! Put it away!”
I eat it.
On we trudge.
“How much longer?”
I have no way to judge. Left my watch at the motel, no service on my cell. We’ve been walking for what feels like hours, no sign of civilization.
And then I see it, way off in the distance. A brown spot. Up with the binoculars. The brown spot is growing. I’m guessing Lizzie hasn’t seen it. It’s moving in our direction. A reindeer? Please be a reindeer. But the legs are wrong. How far away is it?
“Daddy,” Lizzie whispers. Her face pale as the sky. “What are we going to do?”
“Keep walking,” I say. “He probably doesn’t see us.” God, please don’t let him see us.
“He smells us,” she says. She’s trying not to cry.
“Just keep walking. He won’t bother us.”
Another creek to cross. Maybe he can’t smell us in the water. But he keeps moving toward us. Through my binoculars I can see his head now, swinging in front of him.
“It’s going to be okay,” I tell Lizzie.
She lowers her head and keeps walking.
I can see him clearly now, lumbering toward us, his brown fur shaggy, his legs thick. I wave my arms in his direction and shout, “Stop, stop.” He doesn’t stop. He’s coming closer. Moving faster. He’s maybe a hundred yards away. I have to do something! I imagine throwing myself in front of him, sacrificing myself to save my girl. He keeps coming.