The old Alaska hand was deep in conversation with an eager young backpacker. The old man was clad in canvas, and wore battered-but-serviceable boots. He was lean, hadn’t shaved in a few days, and looked a bit weary, but his eyes were alert. He fairly reeked of genuine backwoods experience.
The young man was clean-cut, almost shiny. He was clad largely in brand-new GoreTex, wore a pair of $600 hiking boots, and had lots of other high-tech gear stuffed inside his carbon-fiber-framed backpack.
The two of them were standing at the rail of one of the vessels of the Alaska Marine Highway. These are basically long-distance ferry boats, that range from Bellingham all the way out to Dutch Harbor. That’s about 3,500 miles worth of overwhelming vistas, dotted by towns, many of which are only reachable by sea or air. If you want to get from Hoonah to Tatitlek, and you don’t happen to have the money to hire a seaplane, you will likely be riding the Highway.
If you are picturing a trip on a cruise liner, you are sadly mistaken. The ships have cabins, but many passengers camp on deck, literally pitching their tents there, using duct tape instead of tent pegs to keep the tents from blowing away. There is a restaurant, but the campers are more likely to be found in the big cafeteria. And there are tourists, but a lot of the passengers are like the old man, just local folks making their way from one town to another, on Alaska’s forbidding coast.
The old man and the young hiker had at at first talked about the mountains and the glaciers they could see from the ship, then about some of the most interesting places to explore on foot, and then on to the fine points of pitching camp, cooking, and staying warm and dry. The old man was a font of sage, practical advice, seasoned with understated adventure stories. As he spoke, other passengers sidled in closer and closer, to catch his words of wisdom.
Eventually he said to the young man, “You’ll be in bear country. What’ll you do if you meet a Grizzly?”
This was not a casual question. Alaska is one of the few remaining places where you can have any expectation of encountering the magnificent Arctos Horribilis. People travel long distances for the chance, and there is a very-well-thought-out infrastructure designed to keep people safe. Attacks are extremely rare, but hikers who are off by themselves are at an elevated risk of getting into trouble.
“Oh, got that covered,” said the backpacker, “I brought a .357 Magnum.”
“I see. Good pistol that. Powerful. But you’re going to want
to file that front sight down flush with the barrel.”
“File it down?”
“Yup, just file it down right flush and smooth.”
“Well that way it won’t hurt so much when the Grizzly Bear rams it up your ass.”
I have never been aboard those boats, but heard this story from the inimitable Guy Stevens, who witnessed the exchange. You can read another of his stories, about a problematic adventure in maintenance, in my audiobook/ebook Falling, available from Amazon and Apple Books. For those of you who prefer an actual printed copy, complete with signature, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also read lots of other tales, about lots of other people, for free in the archives of my blog, at briontoss.com.
Done properly, a trip to bear country can be an exhilerating and survivable experience. If you are interested in going there, you might want to visit
(You’ll find links to related articles there, too. ). The photograph at the head of this post appears courtesy of the National Parks Service.
The Highway is in danger of losing much of its funding at the moment, due to dwindling oil revenues, but you can still book a trip: Alaska Marine Highway