Type “Alaska” and “survival” in our library catalog search box and you’ll get hundreds of results, some of them pretty blunt. Survival was the concept that kept hammering into my mind while my wife and I toured south-central Alaska this summer. I was thinking mainly of the long haul in a land where trees 10 inches across are venerable and caribou graze alone in Denali’s vastness and the only human lifeline in the ceaseless dead of winter may be a small airplane hundreds of miles away.
But even when the word is used in the title of a tourism book, it has more grit than the usual advice about surviving your summer vacation. One of our hosts said that a few days before we arrived a bicycling traveler was pursued by a wolf for several terrifying minutes and was rescued just in the nick of time. Only the day after we arrived, nine tourists from South Carolina and their pilot died in a crash taking off for an excursion much like one we were scheduled to take. Guide books warned us that the beautiful mountain-ringed inlet south of Anchorage is a death trap. It is tempting to walk offshore when the great tides are out, but the ground will suck you down and hold you until the next tide comes in.
And, that’s not even talking about the bears, which everyone does. In truth, bears rarely attack people, but one of our hostesses said a house a few miles away had just been trashed by a wandering grizzly, which was enough to deter a couple of timid Hoosiers from a walk in the nearby woods. Oh, and don’t forget the moose, which are everywhere, including downtown Anchorage. Hitting one of those big things with a vehicle, which many people do in the endless nights, has to be way worse than hitting a white-tailed deer.
A more upbeat writer could, of course, take a different spin on things, but there is so much poignancy in this photo that underscores my theme. The mother brown bear (same species as a grizzly) came walking by a few feet below us, three cubs tagging and tugging after her. She plopped down, probably with a sigh, and let them nurse. Beautiful and life-affirming, right? Yes and no. The ranger told me the same bear had three cubs last year but at least two were killed by male bears and the third disappeared. And here she was again only yards from where the big males were fishing. Maybe the males aren’t an immediate threat when they are focused on salmon, but she needed salmon, too. Life is just touch and go in Alaska, even at the top of the food chain.