While in Kodiak, I also buy a box of cracker slugs. These are shotgun shells that when fired will explode downrange and frighten an animal without hurting him. The brown bears at the north end of the island have reportedly been aggressive all summer. Two bears have been shot and killed. At Wildwood I see brown bears regularly. I met a mother and cubs one day on our trail and I stood tall and spoke aloud to them, moving my arms through the air. The mother bear rose on her hind legs and scrutinized me, and unimpressed, she lowered her bulk to the earth and went on munching her salmonberries. I retreated.
The bears will always have the right of way at Wildwood. These ancient trails were their trails first. It doesn’t slight my pride to let a bear go ahead of me, and it’s prudent, too. The mounds of bear scat are everywhere. There’s a feverish dynamic in the air, a hot-blooded electricity. The cow parsnip lies crushed, the tall grass is tunneled, the berry thickets are broken as if barrels were dragged through them. My four-wheeler stalls one day in the trail and I work to restart it, hemmed in by the dense greenery of alder and elder and devil’s club. Fox sparrows chuck softly and nibble the fungus in the alder branches. As I work, the air becomes warm and humid, almost rancid to my senses, and I notice, on raising my head, that the fox sparrows have vanished. The hair bristles on the back of my neck, my nostrils flare, and my body knows in its animal way that a bear is near. On a separate occasion I hear a loud repeated thrashing, something similar to a humpback whale’s smashing the water with its tail, but what I find is a commotion in the cottonwood trees, a fierce huffing of breath, and a bear cub caught halfway up in a tree while a bigger bear tries to dislodge it by violently shaking the branches.
My census of the local brown bears is as follows: an adolescent; a pair of orphaned or independent cubs, quite large; a sow and two grown cubs; a sow and two yearling cubs; a sow and three spring cubs; and the big boar. This massive male bear tramps out of the silvery willows at the back of the homestead one evening and heads west down the old survey line, his steps driven by a peculiar urgency, not of fear — he’s indifferent to me — but of appetite. Clearly he has some quarry in mind, something carnal. That a mature boar is ranging through Wildwood in the middle of so many sows and cubs makes for an explosive situation and the bears themselves are on edge.
One day the two orphan cubs approach too near to my worktable, which is simply a sheet of plywood resting on paint-stained sawhorses on the south side of the cabin. When it comes to wild bears, forty feet is close enough, thank you. I love for the bears to be here, and I think I know what the Biblical shepherds must have felt whenever a supernatural being graced the emptiness of nature by visiting them in some lost pasture. Being a man, though, I am a great betrayer, and it does the bears no good to come to trust me. They mill nearby, indifferent to my words, and when even my yelling has proved unpersuasive, I fire one of the cracker slugs over their heads, and the noisemaker does its job: the second bear literally bumps into the rear end of the first as they flee.
One of my projects at Wildwood has been to blaze a trail along our eastern boundary and to link it to the old survey line on the south and to the trail I’ve already cut on the west — a sort of circumnavigation of the homestead. I want to know the extent of my little world, and with this goal in mind I lay out a route, remove the obstacles, and build sturdy log bridges over the creeks. They aren’t the Golden Gate or the Pont du Gard, my little spans, but they are sound enough. There’s a ravine at the back of the homestead with a few inches of water running in it, and here I dismount the four-wheeler and look across to the opposite bank. The ravine is unbridgeable, too deep and its banks too irregular for my bridge-making abilities, but I am confident, surveying it, that I can cross it on the four-wheeler. Yes, I can do this, I know I can.
Tanyo Ravicz grew up in California. He attended Harvard University and settled for many years in Alaska, mainly in Fairbanks and Kodiak. His novel-in-progress, Wildwood, draws on his experience of homesteading with his family on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. His books include A Man of His Village, relating the odyssey of a migrant farm worker from Mexico to Alaska, and Alaskans, a selection of his short fiction. He has a certain number of iTunes promo codes to distribute for free copies of his ebooks for publicity and reviews. Interested readers please contact him at tanyo (at) tanyo.net
In Wildwood, the novel-in-progress from which this excerpt comes, Jason and Brenda Everblue, a couple since their student days, grapple with their troubled marriage by moving with their two young children into the wilderness of Alaska’s Kodiak Island. At Wildwood, violent weather, wild bears, illness, isolation, and the intrusion of poachers are among the challenges they face, but they will learn much about love and courage and the bonds of family. To read more of the excerpt, download a free copy of the Alaska Sampler 2014.
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