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  • Writer's picturePaul O'Connor

Babysitting with Bears 1986

Updated: May 5, 2023

I was working for Moose Horn Lodge located 5 miles south of the Talachulitna along the foothill so Beluga Mountain. We were on 7-Mile lake which was a short hike from the lake to the river. The river flowed with kings, rainbows, and graylings at the time, in great numbers.

We would taxi the float plane up the slew and on the left was a small cabin owned by Ketchum Air Service. On the right side, there was a wall tent on a platform made of wood owned by Russ Air Service. I was camped on the slough, close to the river. My job was to help feed the clients and process their catch.

I often had bears in camp and would fire shots over their heads to scare them off. One particular night I was running low on ammo, I only had 4 shots left before the next airplane came in. I had asked the previous pilot for more bullets but he had forgotten and I didn't know how to fly.

I took some clients out fishing on a nice clear day. You could see all of the fish in the river. The water was crystal clear. We would drop a line with a fake egg and bounce it off the bottom of the river bed and we would hook a rainbow or a grayling every cast. It was a lot of fun fighting the fish. It was catch and release for kings (even back then) and you could only keep one rainbow over 20 inches since it was over a 1/2 mile from the confluence of the Yetna and Lake Creek, where Lake Creek Lodge is located.

I met two fishermen from Pennsylvania There were staying in the wall tend owned by Russ Air. I asked if they brought a gun because of all the bear activity and they said... no. They left the riverside and went to their tent and I crawled into bed but was awakened abruptly by a horrible smell. I was in my mummy bag (a thick and warm sleeping bag) with my shotgun laying next to me. Slowly, I opened my eyes to learn I was face to face with a LARGE BEAR. I struggled to get my gun, shaking in fear, so I did the next best thing I could think of... I screamed like a little girl!

The bear must have been in shock too because he forgot where the door to the tent was and thrashed through the wall to escape. This motion rolled me in my sleeping bag as I tried to undo my zipper, extremely horrified. I succeeded in finding my gun because of the bright summer nights in Alaska.

I decided to go to the Ketchum Air Service cabin to sleep on the log porch. I gathered some supplies and hiked over. On my journey, I could hear black bears running through the alders. I got to the cabin porch and shut the door so my back side was protected by the cabin logs and my front side was screened in with mosquito netting. Shortly after a bear came by and tipped over a nearby burn barrel. I yelled loudly to the bear "I would like to get some sleep now!" It was so loud, the fellers from Pennsylvania likely heard me and my frightened tone because they shouted back "Bear! Bring your gun!"

Two bullets left I declined to come to their rescue. Self-preservation was my first goal. I heard a deep roar and saw smoke rising down the trail. It wasn't until the next day that I saw them on the river and heard the rest of the story.

The bear that was pestering me ripped a hole next to one guy in his bunk. He reactively smacked the bear with his military-grade flashlight. This caused the bear to back off but he didn't leave. They decided to pour gasoline on the bear if it got close enough and when he did, they would put a match on him. Sure enough, a few minutes later the bear came up the three front porch steps and they quickly splashed him with fuel, covering the top of his head and neck. They tossed their match with trembling hands and the smoking bear took off running into the woods. A few days later I learned the owners at Lake Creek Lodge had shot a baldheaded bear that was breaking into their camp.

Lessons learned... cabins only... never again will I sleep in bear country in a tent.

~ OC

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