Outside of Haines and into the Yukon, we saw the biggest, hungriest grizzly today, and he stalked us.
But let me begin at the beginning.
The beaver is back near our campsite in Mendenhall Campground, crunching his water reeds, and he lets us get very close before he slaps his tail like a pistol shot and dives under water. It’s a very effective defensive tactic if I do say so. I was taking a movie of him and almost threw my cameraphone into the pond at the explosive crack of sound, missing the action.
We spend a snuggly night in the van, sleeping to the patter, alternating with roar, of rain on the roof. Which is fine, since we are leaving early (and by early I mean really early) for the ferry to Haines. Why are we going to Haines, again? That’s where the road through the mountains into British Columbia begins.
“Take the umbrella to the bathroom and by the time you get back, I’ll be packed up,” Mike says, when we wake up in the rainy gloom of an Alaska campground at 4:30 a.m. I’m profoundly unwilling to get out of the sleeping bag.
“You’re such a gentleman,” I say. “Which means, you want me out of the way while you pack the way you like things.”
“Exactly,” he says. “Here’s your umbrella.”
Works for me. I trek down to the bathrooms and sure enough, by the time I’m schlepping back through the puddles, he’s all packed and the van is on and it’s early for our departure, 5:00 a.m. We find coffee at a drive-through kiosk, a great invention if there ever was one, and begin the next leg of our journey. We got Juneau on one of the prettiest days of the year so far, and now we’re saying goodbye at the perfect time.
We get on a different ferry, the Columbia, for Haines. Getting on the ferry is so interesting. They have the cars get into lanes according to their destination several hours ahead of when the boat is scheduled, and then they move everyone on in the order they’re getting off, pointed outward so they can drive right out of the boat. Thus, we park for two hours and sip our coffee (him) and tea (me) and listen to several more chapters of Twisted Vine. Once again Mike and I are totally sucked into the story, and having been several books away from it, once again it’s like I can’t remember that I wrote them. I’m so intrigued with Sophie Ang, and I can’t wait to get her book out to people. It’s a weird thing hearing the audiobooks—Sometimes I get a glimmer—oh yeah, that’s ahead! But still it’s just a take-me-away kind of thing with Sara Malia’s rich dramatic reading, and perfect for away the whiling away the time waiting in the van.
Mike booked us a berth again, and the ride is about 6 hours, so we fall into our little bunk beds and nap to recover from our early departure, take showers, and then have an incredibly yummy buffet lunch in the nearly-deserted stern dining room. This ferry is definitely newer and nicer, and having a cafeteria and a dining room, both, is a great idea.
There’s nothing much worth seeing outside—it’s raining, and foggy. The dim shapes of yet more pine-covered land loom and disappear in the distance, indistinguishable, forbidding, dark cold masses. I don’t let myself think about the vastness but I feel it, outside the confines of the boat, pressing on the back of my eyeballs. We’re still going north, and we’re driving into the Yukon and some of the most remote parts of the whole country. We’re camping with possible bears for days to come, and no internet or phone service most likely. No, I’m staying in this present moment in time, practicing gratitude and positive self talk. This ferry is like a cruise ship, and right now, the spinach-and-almond soup of lunch warming my tummy, it’s all good.
The best way to get to know the “real” residents of any town is to go to the laundromat.
We find one at last, on the outskirts of Haines, which seems to be a rugged-but-cute outpost town full of older folks and arty stores alternating with sporting-goods, hardware, and greasy spoon cafes. At the laundromat (which also has showers, and many little chiding signs like, “Check your load is done!!” and, “Absolutely no shoes in the shower area!!!” I find the cutest little chicken outside on the sidewalk. It’s tiny, and curious, and comes up to me. I’m very fond of chickens. I take his picture and cluck at him.
A couple minutes later I hear a shout, and run outside. Mike’s eyes are huge and bright, and he’s struggling to get his camera on a bald eagle that’s flapping on the ground.
“The eagle dove on that chicken!” Mike exclaims. “He missed it on the dive, but he chased it along the ground, flapping and jumping, and the chicken was dodging like crazy, and it barely got away under the house!”
The eagle, looking disgruntled, has flapped onto the top of a nearby sign and is rearranging its feathers grumpily. I realize part of why that chicken looked so cute is that it’s the very first one I’ve seen in this part of the world. Now I know why.
The road out of Haines to Whitehorse in the Yukon, 400 km or so, is known as one of the most beautiful in the world. Mike told me this at some point, but as with many of the points of the trip, I hadn’t absorbed it.
We were at the wrong time of year for the spawning beds of the Chilkat River and the mass invasion of bald eagles fishing there that’s so famous, but on the plus side, there was no one else there. I counted about six cars that we saw all day as we cruised along the wide, well maintained highway bordered in spired purple flowers, lupines, daises and asters, the aspens shimmering. We braked for a pair of wild swans in a still area of the river, feeding among the reeds, unlikely in their snowy splendor as a pair of unicorns.
We left Alaska and were greeted by the nicest Canadian border guard. He asked us where we were from and when we said Hawaii, he grinned and gave us a map and said, “You’re in for a treat, but get gas whenever you can and slow down when you see orange flags on the side of the highway. That means there’s a bad patch and it’ll levitate you right off the road.”
We rose from the border crossing into the majesty of the hills, green velvet shoulders studded with yellow button flowers. As we got higher, the trees disappeared and the mountains thrust high jagged dark peaks veined with snow and trimmed in feather boas of trailing cloud. We began to see prairie dogs, standing perfectly still on the side of the road, but whenever we slowed to take their photo they’d pop into their burrows.
Streams threaded the alpine meadows, trimmed in purple, yellow and white explosions of flower color, and coming around a bend in one of these meadows was a bear.
Not just any bear. A grizzly as big as a white rhino, and just as dangerous, pawing at the ground near one of the streams. We pulled over, of course, and Mike went into a frenzy, getting out and trying to get a good shot as the bear sat up, lifted his snout and sniffed the air. He was a long way off, so I was fine with this: seated in safety in the van, Mike could get his bear pictures and we could be safe.
The bear, who had an oddly graceful panther-like movement when he was really moving, began angling in our direction. His hair was golden and shaggy on his head and back, and he had the crested hump on his shoulders characteristic of a grizzly. I kept trying to think of good similes for his size—a sofa? A refrigerator? A small Jeep?
Mike’s excitement increased and he got out the Rhino Chaser, trying to stabilize the giant lens without the monopod as the bear sat, scratched himself. Took a poop (they squat, in case you are interested) and got up and ambled closer. And closer, never appearing to hurry or be aware of us, but occasionally lifting his nose and scenting the air.
We were on the edge of the road which was elevated about ten feet, giving a great vantage point for the photography, and directly below the road was a belt of bushes and tall vegetation. I began to get agitated and make jokes, which is what I do when I’m nervous.
“He smells our saltwater taffy,” I said, and indeed he seemed to, lifting his head ever so casually, ambling closer, pawing the ground here and there, but coming steadily. We also had apples, and cheese, and a box of fudge. I’d come our way too.
“Here’s how you hunt humans,” I monologue. “You pretend you don’t know they’re fascinated with you, standing beside their metal picnic basket on wheels, full of goodies. You sidle along, stop and scratch as they go crazy with their little clicking thing, and you get closer and closer…”
Meanwhile Mike needed to get something out of the camera case, and had gone around to the other side from the bear. “We need to go,” I said loudly, because the bear had reached the bushy scree beside the highway, and disappeared. “We need to go now.”
“Just one more shot,” Mike said, coming around the side and looking. “Where’d he go?”
“He’s directly below us, hiding in the bushes, and he’s coming this way!” I about shrieked. “Get in the car!” and finally, finally Mike did, and we pulled away. I was shaky by then and Mike was grumbling. It was the closest we’ve come to a fight on the trip.
But he got the shot. And we escaped in our picnic basket on wheels.