From Juneau I took a short flight to Gustavus (pop. 250), passing the time by reading a pamphlet I'd found in the seat pocket. It had been issued by the National Park Service. If I were attacked by a brown bear, the pamphlet advised, I should climb a tree. If no tree were handy, I should play dead. Under no circumstances should I struggle if a brown bear mauled and began to devour me. The theory, I assume, was that I would taste bad and the bear would leave me unfinished.
Black bears, however, were a different matter. A black bear could stomach anything. If I were attacked by one, I should not climb a tree, because black bears are practically born in trees. I was instructed to fight back vigorously—with fists, sticks, stones, whatever was at hand. But no guns. It is illegal to carry a gun in most parts of the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
So before I disembarked from the airplane, two independent sources had convinced me that for the next six nights and seven days I'd be 1) wet, 2) cold and 3) bear bait. No one even mentioned whales.
The outfit I would be kayaking with was called Alaska Discovery. The orientation meeting that first night provided little relief from my fears. "Everyone have rubber boots?" we were asked by our two guides, David Nitsch and Jonathon Orelove. They would be leading nine of us—five men and four women, ranging in age from late 20's to mid-50's. Some of us had kayaked before; some had not. Some had had a lot of camping experience; some were virtual novices. All appeared reasonably fit, if not budding triathletes.
"Everyone have garbage bags to keep clothes and sleeping bags dry?" the guides continued. Waterproof duffels? Wool? Polypropylene? Rubberized rain gear? No mention of swimsuits or suntan lotion, I noted. The forecast for southeast Alaska, they said, was for three more days of rain and then possible clearing. The usual forecast.
Just when I figured I couldn't possibly absorb any more good news, someone brought up the subject of bears. It seems that Alaska had already had two bear-related fatalities earlier in the summer—one person killed by a black bear, one by a brownie. The black bear had climbed onto the roof of a woman's house to catch her. Neither attack had occurred in the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, but that was small comfort. David and Jonathon told us we were almost certain to encounter bears. There had already been several instances of bears wandering into Alaska Discovery campsites that summer, beasts so ravenous that one had bitten a tube of suntan lotion in half. So each night we would be locking up our food and toiletries and storing them far from our tents. We were advised to sing or talk loudly whenever we were in the woods. And the two married couples—fortunately, long married—were discouraged from engaging in conjugal bliss.
Instead of guns, the guides would carry canisters of cayenne pepper as a last line of defense. It wasn't as silly as it sounded. Jonathon had already used his canister once during the summer. He'd been leading a group on a hike when a black bear appeared on the trail. The hikers panicked and ran—a boneheaded play because bears, like dogs, cannot resist a good chase. Jonathon held his ground, and as the black bear charged, he sprayed the pepper in its face. The bear turned and fled, sneezing and rubbing its eyes.
If something like that were to happen to us, the proper course of action, we were told, would be to huddle together, make loud noises and wave our arms, because you cannot outrun a bear. "You don't have to outrun the bear," pointed out photographer Mark Gamba. "You only have to outrun the slowest member of the group." Everyone laughed. Then each of us tried to assess who that member might be.
The next morning I borrowed a waterproof duffel and some garbage bags from Mark, repacked my belongings and prepared for the deluge. A float plane dropped us at the upper end of Glacier Bay and then flew out—or should I say rescued?—the group that had preceded us. It had rained six of the last seven days, three days nonstop. "Well, we survived," was a typical comment. A woman, sixtyish, gave me the most valuable bit of advice she could think of: the best way to relieve oneself in a rainstorm. The technique required a poncho, which was, regrettably, a piece of rain gear I hadn't brought.
But it wasn't raining at the moment, and our spirits were temporarily high. We would be traveling in six two-person kayaks: four fiberglass Easy Riders and two portable nylon-and-aluminum Feather-crafts, engineering marvels that nonetheless had taken us more than an hour to assemble. By then the drizzle had begun, soaking our lunch. "We paid $1,300 for this?" said my paddling partner, Patty Allen, a college lecturer in foreign languages from Ann Arbor, Mich.