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"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.”

“Daddy. No!”

“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.

“Run Lizzie!”

I close my eyes. But then I hear it. A motor. A truck. The only sign of human life we’ve seen since we took off from Nome hours ago.

It’s a red pickup, dented, rusty, in bad need of a painting job. It stops between us and the bear.

The door opens. “Get in. Quick!” the driver yells. We pile into the cab. It’s full of coke cans, paper, junk. And it’s too small for the two of us. So I jump into the bucket seat and pull Lizzie onto my lap. Her fingernails dig into my arm as she grips it.

“What in hell are you doing out here?” the driver yells. A man in his forties, he’s solidly built, his face burnt by the sun, his hair in his eyes, shaggy. His dark eyes flash as I explain what happened.

“Don’t you know this is grizzly country?” I look out the window. Our bear stands motionless, about 50 yards away, watching as our savior guns the motor, makes a sharp U-turn, and takes off in the direction of Nome.

He tells us he’s Inuit, living for the summer at his camp near Nome. He was on his way to check for young moose. “I’ll take you back to my place,” he says. “Give you some dinner and later we can rescue your jeep. How’d you get stuck? Surely you have four-wheel drive.”

“Of course,” I say. “It just didn’t help.”

We bounce along for what seems forever.

“How far are we from Nome?” I ask.

“Bout eight miles.”

“We’d walked only two miles?” Lizzie says.

I try not to think about the grizzly.

At last we arrive at a wooden bungalow stretched out along the bank of a creek. Much of it is open to the air, a summer place, like the guy said. A bunch of people come out to greet us, smiling, laughing. An older woman, a couple of kids, and some men. Brown faces, straight dark hair. Inuits. The only natives I’ve seen so far were old men drunk in the streets of Nome. These are different.

My host, whose name is Panuk, explains our dilemma to his family, who stare at us as if they can’t quite believe the story.

“I bet you’re hungry,” the older woman says. Maybe Panuk’s wife? “We have dinner ready. Join us.” The smell of roasting flesh fills the air. The peanut butter sandwich had done little to decrease my appetite and I am starving.

Lizzie smiles for the first time. “That would be so great,” she says. “Thank you.” She suddenly drops to her knees.

“Hello,” she calls out to the two small children who are holding onto the older woman and staring at us.

“I’m Lizzie. What are your names?”


“These are my girls,” Panuk says. “Akna, Anjij, talk to the lady.”

Silence. Staring.

Lizzie bungles an attempt to repeat the names and laughs. She pulls herself off the ground and we follow Panuk’s family into a room open to the air where there are metal card tables and chairs spread out.

“Special dinner today,” Panuk says. “You’re lucky.” He plunks a huge slice of dark red flesh on a plastic plate in front of me. It smells slightly sour. The only other food on the plate is a mass of berries.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“Moose liver,” Panuk says. “The very best. Comes from a young moose we killed yesterday. Best if you eat it right after the kill.”

Lizzie is watching me. She knows I can’t stand liver, the way it looks, the way it smells, the slimy way it feels in my mouth, the nasty taste.

“I can’t do it,” I say to Panuk. “I can’t eat liver.”

He raises his eyebrows and looks over at Lizzie who murmurs, “I’m sorry.”

He suddenly laughs. “Well, that’s it, that’s dinner. More for the rest of us.”

One of the men sitting with us stares at me in disbelief? In scorn? I can’t tell.

I sit there, slightly nauseated, as Lizzie digs into her liver, takes a small bite, chews. After the first swallow, she smiles wanly at Panuk’s wife and says, “Delicious.”

“Dad, try it,” she says, her eyes boring into mine. “It’s really good.”

I know better. I don’t even try the berries for fear the nasty liver juice has corrupted them. There is some loaf bread, thank goodness. And beer, of course, so I down a couple of bottles, but that’s it. No one seems offended by my refusal to eat the liver; they just plow into their special meal, chewing and grinning and talking among themselves. Nice people. As we sit there, the little girls keep their eyes on Lizzie. She frequently motions for them to come closer, smiling, taking a welcome break from the liver, which I know she doesn’t like.

“Go on over to the girl’s table,” the mother tells Akna and Anjij. “She wants to make friends.” And by the time the meal is over, the girls have joined Lizzie at our table, still silent, as she chats away, telling them about the grizzly we’d seen and how our jeep is stuck in a ditch. Their eyes are wide open, taking it all in. Nice little kids.

“Okay, let’s go.” Panuk swallows a last gulp of beer. “To the rescue.”

So once again we squeeze into the cab of his truck and off we bounce back through the creeks and rocks and ruts toward the abandoned jeep. No grizzlies.

Until we finally reach the site. And there they are. Two of them, nosing and sniffing the jeep, reaching into it, rocking it.

“You didn’t leave food in there, did you?” Panuk asks, but from the tone of his voice he knows we did. He reaches under the driver’s seat for a rifle which he lays across his lap, barrel pointed toward the door.

“I don’t remember,” I say.

“A jar of peanut butter and some bread,” Lizzie says. She is sitting in my lap, her breath coming in quick jerks. “Let’s just leave,” she cries. “I don’t . . . ”

Panuk interrupts. “Can you drive my truck?”

“Sure,” I say.

“Good. This will take some time.”

“No,” Lizzie begs. “I want to go home.” She’s crying.

Panuk pats her shoulder. “They won’t bother us in here.” We watch as one of the bears looks over at us. Panuk immediately starts to back the truck away. The bear starts walking toward the truck, but stops and returns to the jeep. We had luckily left the plastic windows unzipped so that the bears can reach in without tearing fabric with their sharp claws. But I dread to think what they were doing to the plastic covers on the seats inside. Panuk continues to back his truck as far away from the bears as he can get and still be able to watch through binoculars. It doesn’t take them long to find the food. They sit down next to the jeep, one with the bread spread before him. The other smashes the jar on a rock, sticks his claws into the peanut butter and licks them clean.

“They eat peanut butter?” I ask.

Panuk doesn’t bother to answer.

Lizzie sits perfectly still in my lap, muttering something like, Please God, please God, under her breath. I hug her. Poor baby.

We wait and wait and wait. It doesn’t get dark until around midnight and we have hours to go. It’s feeling like the longest day of my life.

At last, the bears finish the food and make another search of the jeep. Then they start off in our direction. I can feel Lizzie’s body shaking against me. She’s quietly sobbing. Panuk rolls down his window, sticks his rifle out and fires several shots in the direction of the bears. They stop walking. Everything freezes. Then Panuk fires again. Nothing happens.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “We’re safe. They’ve eaten and they’re afraid of guns.”

We sit frozen in time. Waiting. Praying.

And then the bears slowly turn around and walk away from the jeep, away from our truck, back into the tundra.

“Give me your keys,” Panuk demands.

When the bears have been reduced to mere brown specks in our binoculars, Panuk opens the truck door, his rifle resting on his arm, ready to shoot, and slowly walks to the jeep. He tries to start it, but it is still firmly stuck in the mud. We watch as he gets out of the jeep, his head moving back and forth searching the horizon, and peers at the back wheel. He fools around with something on the wheel, inspects the rocks under the wheels, gets back into the driver’s seat, and starts the motor. No rocking, no stalling, Panuk drives the jeep straight out of the creek and pulls it up beside the truck.

“How’d you do that?” I ask.

“I got it into four-wheel drive,” he says.

“But it already . . .” I stop. I look at Panuk’s face, which is expressionless.

Lizzie’s body slumps against me. No words.

“I better drive this sucker back,” he says. “It smells of bear and could be a problem. You take the truck.”

I slide over to the driver’s seat and off we go, back through the creeks and rocks, up and down, but so much easier in a truck. Lizzie looks out her window and says nothing.

“What are you thinking, Honey?” I ask.

No answer.

At the summer camp, we thank everyone for feeding and rescuing us. No one asks questions, and Panuk never mentions the four-wheel drive. Then back to Nome. The plastic seats in the jeep are pretty torn up, but otherwise, the car is drivable and not too badly damaged.

“Dad,” Lizzie begins.

I’m waiting for it.

“I thought you said . . .”

I shrug. “I did what that idiot at the rental car place told me to do to get it into four-wheel drive. It’s an old jeep and there’s a lever on the wheel that’s not marked but makes the change into four-wheel. I guess I got it wrong.”

“I guess you did,” she says. Is that sarcasm?

“Hey!” I say. “We had an adventure. Think about it. Grizzlies and Eskimos and wading through rivers. Lot of stories. I can’t wait to tell Steve.”

“Are you going to tell him what would have happened to us if Panuk hadn’t shown up?”

“But he showed up,” I say. “He saved us.”

She gives me a look. One I’ve never seen on her before.


“You couldn’t even try the moose liver.”

Nancy Bourne's "Spotswood, Virginia," is scheduled for publication by SFA Press in Summer 2021. Bourne's stories have appeared in Upstreet, Carolina Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, Blue Lake and numerous other publications.

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