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Andrew and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder in some sort of relieved shock as we watched two brown bears bound effortlessly up the side of a neighboring mountain. Minutes ago they had been less than 20 feet away from us, wrapped around each other in what seemed like a playful wrestling match.
It was near the end of a long, drizzly June Sunday in the Chugach mountains, with around 3 miles left in a 20-mile day. A low fog hung over the valley, occasionally obstructing the trail and its surroundings. We’d summited three peaks — East and West Tanaina and Koktoya — and we were tired and wet.
Andrew, my boyfriend and climbing partner, is often ahead of me on return trips, and this day was no different, as his long legs made quick work of the Long Lake Trail. As we got closer to the car, the trail grew brushier and the moisture from trailside vegetation soaked our pants. He rounded a corner, past a small stand of trees, and I followed. I looked ahead and saw Andrew. To the side, two brown bears stood fighting in a clearing.
“Woah!” I said.
I didn’t really shout at this point, as I felt more surprised than scared – had Andrew passed these huge, fighting animals without noticing them? At that moment, Andrew and the two bears looked up at me and everyone acknowledged each other.
Confused, but calm, Andrew and I grouped together and just after I shouted firmly but politely at the animals, they complied with my request for them to leave. They stumbled off into the woods, still fighting.
I pushed the orange safety off the top of my bear spray and thought about complacency as we took turns shouting “Hey, bear!” for the rest of the hike out.
We were the kind of tired by then where you can’t really think about anything other than putting your head down and walking as fast as you can in order to reach post-hike pizza as quickly as possible. We’d been talking off and on, but mostly just walking, not purposefully making noise to make our presence in bear country known.
Andrew and I spend a lot of time in the Chugach Mountains. Last summer, we probably spent more weekend nights in our tent in the mountains than we did in a bed. In the last year, we’ve summited more than 50 peaks in the park. We rarely see bears, and when we do, they’re usually small specks on some distant mountainside that we excitedly try to capture with our cameras.
We’re smart, and I like to think I know a decent amount about bear behavior and best practices for traveling in bear country. I once sprayed a bear that refused to move off of an Anchorage city trail while on an afternoon run. I always carry bear spray, and we’re careful about food when we camp, but we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the animals.
That afternoon we overlooked bear scat and moved quietly through brushy terrain. We carried one bear spray between the two of us, and I secured it to my pack in a way that made it difficult to access without unbuckling or getting help from Andrew. That’s all despite the fact that, in the last year, I’ve known three people who were injured in really horrible, scary bear encounters. Complacency, fueled by exhaustion and hunger, still won.
We were lucky that these bears were too wrapped up in a quarrel to be startled by us. I was lucky that I didn’t need my inaccessible bear spray. I’m not sure why, but luck ruled that day, and hopefully helped create smarter hikers in the future.
Abbey Collins is the former morning news host at Alaska Public Media.