Alaskan Tales #2: Guns and Grizzlies

“Can you sing something?” My boyfriend asked.

I share a name with a famous singer, so this request is not uncommon. What is uncommon, is it coming from someone who’s actually heard me sing.* In this instance, however, we were hiking, and my boyfriend had decided that my singing was slightly less painful than being eaten by a bear.

I belted out the first line of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” before my boyfriend realised he’d made a terrible, terrible mistake and begged me to stop.

We were in Alaska, deep in grizzly country. Of course, pretty much all of Alaska is grizzly country, but where we were had around three hundred grizzlies. I wasn’t that worried though, we had bear-spray, a kind of hyper-concentrated pepper spray designed to stop a bear in its tracks.

Shortly afterwards, we found out that locals consider hiking with bear spray akin to hiking naked. And covered in honey. While waving around bacon strips, and yelling “come eat me, Mr Grizzly!”

As one Alaskan said to me: “Oh, sure, bear spray might work against your polite, maple-syrup drinking Canadian grizzlies, but it won’t do anything against a real Alaskan grizzly.”

Instead, Alaskans opt for the security of firearms over bear spray; in fact, most Alaskan’s won’t even leave home without a gun, a habit helped by some of the most permissible gun was an United States.

Carrying a weapon in the US falls into one of two categories: “concealed carry”, where the gun is hidden, and “open carry”, where the gun is visible. In most states, a permit is required for one or both of these. In Alaska, no permit is require for either. Anyone over the age of 21 can concealed carry, and anyone over the age of 14 can open carry. So, at an age when someone is considered too young to vote, drink, drive or serve in the armed forces, they’re good to carry a gun in public.

It is decidedly unnerving to see a 14 year old wandering around town with a gun.

Scratch any Alaskan, and you’ll find a gun. But while Alaskans may seem gun-mad, it’s not the 2nd Amendment, gun lobbyist kind of gun-mad that the US is infamous for. Here, guns aren’t about civil liberties, they are about state identity. And not having your face ripped off by a grizzly.

Alaska is the Last Wild Frontier; home to Jack London stories, hunters and trappers, and folk who come here to prove themselves against the wild. The people who could make it here were a special sort of tough, drawn by the challenge of pitting themselves against the harshest that nature can throw at them – nights that last a month, bitterly cold winters, and a brutal, unforgiving wilderness filled with things that want to eat you. Even today, over half the state is accessible only by plane, yet inhabited by folks who build their own cabins and hunt their own food.

So, guns were – and still are – a big thing, and not just for defence. With a 6 month winter, hunting became an essential way to survive until spring.

Of course, now it’s 2015, canned foods abound, and many parts of Alaska are downright civilised, but hunting is still a deeply seated part of the Alaskan identity.

Seriously some Game of Thrones -type shit.

An archway in Fairbanks made of dead animal skulls. Not creepy. Not creepy at all… 

But, back to the guns and grizzlies. Sure, hunting and guns are a way of life in Alaska, but is a gun really better than bear spray for defence against a bear?

Not really. Bear-spray is more effective, easier to use, and it’s non-lethal. You take a gun to a bear encounter and you’re guaranteeing that one of you is going to come out of it dead. And knowing my luck, chances are it’ll be me from accidentally shooting myself.

Every year, the National Parks and Wildlife puts out pamphlets imploring people to swap their guns for bear spray, they’re fighting an uphill battle. No real Alaskan would carry bear-spray when there’s a perfectly good gun (or three) to hand.

Where this becomes truly strange, however, is the Denali National Park. The park is home to a wide range of large game animals, including grizzlies, and was designated a no-hunting area back in 1917. So… I was a little confused when I saw people wandering around with guns. Not just one or two people who didn’t get the no-hunting memo, but pretty much everyone. Some even made a point of telling me how many guns they were carrying with them. I began to wonder if maybe “hunting” had a different meaning in Alaska.

I found a friendly Park Ranger and asked him what was going on.

“So… I thought you couldn’t hunt here?” I asked.

“You can’t,” he said. I looked over at a man nearby with a small canon holstered to his chest. The ranger shrugged. “They’re allowed to carry a gun here, they’re just not allowed to fire it.”

“I… what?” I trailed off, confused.

“Yeah, I know.” The ranger agreed.

Of course, there are exceptions. You are allowed to shoot a bear anywhere without a permit, as long as it’s in self defence. Unfortunately, once you do that, you then have to take the head and the skin to the nearest Ranger Station immediately. I really don’t want to ever have to skin and decapitate a bear. I just… nope. Nope. I never want do that.

Even signposts are fair game

Even signposts are fair game

So, between the likelihood of me accidentally shooting myself in the foot, and my disinterest in skinning a bear, I decided to stick with bear-spray. Besides, camping in bear country didn’t bother me too much; all our food was in the car, we were in a campsite surrounded by people, and the bears were mostly further into the park. Well, all except the bear that ran past the visitor centre the day we arrived. But most of the bears were further into the park.

But I still slept with the bear spray close to hand. Just in case.

How I like my grizzlies - through a 300mm lens.

How I like my grizzlies – far away, and through a 300mm lens.

Denali grizzly and cubs

Denali grizzly and cubs

Denali grizzly and cubs

Denali grizzly and cubs

*I sing in the style of “cats being drowned in a burlap sack,” as it’s kindly been called.

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2 comments so far

  1. Vicky D on

    Hey !! Love the pics. Good read. Keep posting !


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