Though she’s denied it ever happened, Ashley spent several weeks talking about her concerns about Alaskan bears during our upcoming hike with the kids into Eagle Glacier Cabin north of Juneau. Enough so that I was starting to get paranoid too. It was similar to the time when my mother sent me a book about bear attacks when I was living in a tent in northern B.C. for a few summer seasons back in the late 80’s. I spent the next month jumping at every snapped twig. Ashley’s fears were not allayed when she found out that most of the bears around Juneau are the smaller black bear, or when a friend brought a rifle along on a day hike into the muskeg around Bessie Lake a couple of days before our cabin hike. Nor was she comforted much by the statistic that bears typically don’t bother groups of four or more, and we were going to be nine people and two dogs (one a talkative beagle). We borrowed bear spray from the B&B.
The hike into the cabin is relatively flat, rising in elevation only a couple hundred feet over 5.5 miles, but it takes some concentration avoiding tripping over the shallow tree roots of the Sitka spruce and western hemlock. The landscape is patchy as we hike along the Eagle River, alternating between forest, wetland, and river flood plain. The mosquitoes aren’t bad if you keep moving. The kids are always between adults and there’s always conversation and singing, and of course the barking beagle. I’m pretty sure there are no more bears in the whole valley.
The girls start showing signs of getting tired around 4.5 miles. There is no time pressure because the sun hardly goes down at this latitude at the end of June. And then, without warning, we round a bend and there’s Eagle Lake at the base of Eagle Glacier, and only a couple hundred yards to the cabin along the shore. It’s not raining but the low clouds obscure the tops of the neighboring peaks, behind which is the Juneau Ice Field. Outside of the glacier there are still patches of snow up there. “I could ski that” I keep thinking to myself.
After exploring the cabin and picking out their sleeping spots in the loft, the girls disappear into the woods to find firewood. Their last week at wilderness camp at the base of the Mendenhall Glacier is already paying off. It isn’t long before the adults finish off the small bottles of whisky and Jaigermeister hidden in our packs, and there are bottles of wine and porter for dinner, which is mac&cheese with a side of spam and Vienna sausage (both nastier than I remember).
The wind comes up and we all put on more layers. The beagle heads back to town, making us only seven for the night. Movement at the other end of the lake stirs some excitement when someone says they look like wolves, but on closer examination with binos they are identified as Canada geese. Not as exotic for us, but less ominous.
Lucky for me the kids don’t want to sleep too close to the ladder hole in the loft, opening up the sleeping space at the window overlooking the lake and glacier. I can wake up anytime to see if it gets dark or the glacier moves. Morning porridge fuels the hike out, followed by celebratory milkshakes in town. The girls are excited about their accomplishment! The bears can now have their valley back.