Road Trippin’ 2015: Hunting High and Low

Our last full day in Alaska might be characterized best as a hunting expedition following a search “party,” followed by a wild goose chase. Or some other phrase that sounds mildly interesting and somewhat challenging but not entirely fruitful.

It hadn’t started out that way. In fact, we had a pretty quiet and relaxing day planned—which is surprising since we had planned to spend it with LaVon. But this time, the excitement didn’t involve the federal police, motorized vehicles, or high speeds. Instead, it involved federal land, unmanned aircraft, and high altitudes.

The Jarhead and I had gotten up later than usual and then had to catch up to our host, who had already been up and around for several hours by the time we wandered out of our room and into the kitchen. Having made plans to go bear watching later that day, we grabbed a couple cups of coffees and a few bites to eat, then raced through our showers, into our clothes, and out the door so as not to hold up the train.

LaVon had an appointment to visit her adopted Grandma that afternoon, so we had agreed to accompany her to Grandma’s apartment, say hello, and then do some souvenir shopping while she and two other friends visited with Grandma. After arriving at Grandma’s apartment and knocking on the door, however, we discovered that Grandma was not where Grandmas was supposed to be.

As Grandma is known for her love of routine and devotion to punctuality, LaVon was reasonably concerned. Realizing it was a bit early to be worried, however, she decided to wait a little while and knock again just in case Grandma was in fact home but indisposed. When sufficient time had passed as to render that possibility unlikely, she surmised that Grandma was running late getting back from a previous appointment and suggested we head to the lobby to make a few calls and await her return.

Several minutes later, with no sign of Grandma in the lobby and stull unable to get an answer at the door or on the phone, LaVon decided it was time to worry. Especially after having checked with the folks whom Grandma had seen earlier that day and consulting with two other people who had also tried and failed to reach her, she began to wonder what else could be done to find her. My mind, meanwhile, was going all kinds of places, and I had begun to wonder if it was time to involve law enforcement. I was just on the brink of suggesting we take the somewhat more conservative step of contacting the building manager to let us in to check the apartment Grandma finally answered her phone.

“Where is everybody?” she asked LaVon, since she and the two other friends who were waiting with us in the lobby were now all late for their visit to her apartment. “I came up the back way,” she explained upon hearing everyone was looking for her and how concerned they all were. “Typical Grandma,” LaVon declared. “What a little dickens.”

With all that confusion and the late hour, the Jarhead and I said decided to take our leave and head down town to knock out our souvenir shopping. It was no less difficult to find real Alaska-made souvenirs in Anchorage, by the way, than it had been to find them near Denali or anywhere else in the state. The items we found may have featured moose, bears, salmon, and other Alaskan themes, but nearly all of it seemed to have been made in China. Our efforts eventually paid off, however, and two hours, one Ulu knife, and several lowered standards later, we were headed back to Grandma’s building.

Our next stop—after picking up LaVon and grabbing a quick but delicious Thai food  lunch—was at the top of a hill that overlooked the city, from which bears could be seen some afternoons feeding on berries and trying to fatten themselves up for winter. Although the view of Anchorage from the hill was great, all we got to see there were a bunch of other people looking for bears feeding on berries.

Having struck out there, we headed over to Elmendorf Air Force Base. Apparently bears were known to congregate in the bushes at the edge of the golf course in the late afternoon, and on the hillsides up above the installation, which were covered with acres and acres of blueberries. Although the view of the countryside was awesome, all we found on that hill were acres and acres of people picking blueberries.

After hanging out for a while and talking to a few of the berry-pickers, we decided to take our search for bears to a local park. The sockeyes were spawning in the creek that flows through the area, and there was a good chance that bears might be wading through the water feeding on them.  The hike from the visitors’ center down to the handful of boardwalks that cross the creek at various points was long but lovely, with lots of native trees and other plants to please the eye, and lots of other hopeful bear watchers holding cameras and vying for a space along the railing.

As luck would have it, a bear had come to do some fishing at the second boardwalk we approached. To our chagrin, we had missed him by about ten minutes. This information came to us by way of another tourist, who had the pleasure of watching the bear approaching the creek from a neighboring marsh, only to see him frightened away by some jerk flying a drone. Apparently the dude was flying the damn thing—which he cleverly had fitted with a camera—up and down the water looking for bears and, in the process was rudely scaring them all away.

We hung around the park for a while, moving from boardwalk to boardwalk—and learning more than I’d ever aspired to know about the mating habits of sockeye salmon—until it began to get dark. With a mile or so of trail to cover before night fell, we headed back to the car. I felt bad that, once again, the Jarhead had spent a week on vacation and not seen a single bear.

“There’s always tomorrow,” LaVon offered as we climbed into the rental. “Your flight doesn’t leave until after dinner.”

She was right, of course. And no doubt we would keep our eyes open as we made our way to the airport the next day. But given our luck—and given how things ended on our trip to Yellowstone in 2011—the only bear we’d run across on our way home from Anchorage would be a Smokey from the Alaska state police.