I work as a bear naturalist guide in rural Alaska. Most people I take out into the woods have never seen a bear in the wild. When we enter the forest, most people are anxious. Some are terrified. All are excited. Hundreds of tours and thousands of people have showed me that the gap between modern America and the natural world is growing bigger everyday.
1. “Where’s the nearest Wal-Mart?”
Someone always asks this, perhaps as a way of asking how far out there they really are. Wal-Mart, for many, defines civilization. “But what do you do out here?” is usually asked, always implied. I have learned to say, in the most polite way possible, that for some, Wal-Mart is not the quintessence of life. This leaves most people thinking us guides are nuts, risking a life islands or mountains away from America’s greatest consumer experience.
2. “When are we going to see bears?”
I’d like to tell you that people take these moments to appreciate and learn about their environment, but the truth is, many just don’t get it. People get bored when they have to wait; bored in the presence of a top predator sometimes a mere few feet away. Patience plays a big part in this line of work, and not just patience in waiting for wildlife to show themselves.
3. “Do you put all the animals in cages at night?”
What time do you feed the bears? Where do the bears live? Yes sir, these are totally wild animals you’re seeing. No fences or glass walls to protect you here. No, we don’t put those salmon there. No, you can’t pet that one. Please don’t call it over here. Sorry you dropped your camera lens, but there are seven bears within eyesight, I am not getting that for you. What’s that, you’re going to write a bad review about me? Go for it.
4. “We’re on an island?”
I am astounded at how many heads tilt when I mention we’re on an island. The majority of people that come here have no idea where they are. Not only is it news to them that they’re on an island, but they’re not sure how large it is, if they’re looking at black or polar bears, or if Juneau is north or south of them. Maybe I’m judging a bit harshly on this one, with my affinity for maps, but…shouldn’t you know when you’re on an island? Or at least how far away you stand from the North Pole so you don’t ask when you’ll see Polar bears, or worse, penguins, today? You can’t make this up. Too many of us act as sheep in the herd and unquestionably follow the crowd. Do your research. Look around you. Ask questions. Just don’t ask me if that mountain range across the channel is Russia.
5. “You folks have electricity and running water ‘round here?”
“Where are the igloos?
Are you Native?
Is he an Eskimo?
How many guns you got on you?
You know Sarah Palin?”
Alaskan reality TV shows have ruined everything.
6. “Well if we see one, you just have to run faster than the next guy!”
No. This one is not funny. Never run when you see a bear.
7. “Well I guess it’s true what they say, a bear does shit in the woods!”
I hope their laughter at their unoriginal joke covers the sound of my eyes rolling at this one.
8. “Have you ever had…’an incident’ out here?”
Most people don’t think twice when they hop into a car, or string up Christmas lights, but they do think twice when they enter bear country. Bears are largely misrepresented animals, and naturally, people want to know if they’re signing their life away when they go on a bear expedition. I think it’s important to leave room for the unexpected. It forces people to rely on their intuition and senses. Besides, you’re more likely to die by a bee sting, faulty Christmas lights, being struck by lightning and, as of this year, selfies. You’re safer out here in these woods, with these predators, than you are on any freeway.