NORTH TO ALASKA

So a bear walks into a gift shop…

Posted Aug. 05, 2011, at 3:50 p.m.

When you walk into the cafe, off to the right is the gift shop, with hundreds of T-shirts, jackets and hats, and it was these clothing items that a grizzly used to make his winter home six years ago, early in 2005.

The summer of 2004 was a bad one for wildfires and many swept through the region, devastating much of the berry harvest, a main staple of bears, which resulted in many bears not being able to put on enough fat for the winter.

The Yukon River Camp closes in October when tourism dies down, but the whole building smells like food, so it’s really no surprise that a hungry bear might think it could find something to eat inside. At first, they believe, it was a mother and her cub sleeping indoors, because they got into the laundry and left some footprints of varying sizes. But no one saw them, and these bears soon would be chased out by a much larger, more fearsome male.

In January, a security guard from the pipeline was driving on the Dalton Highway and saw a huge grizzly climb out of the office window. He watched for a while and saw the bear re-enter the building, so he called up the owner and explained that there might be a bear living in the restaurant and that maybe something should be done before someone walks in on it.

So here’s the scene: minus 40 F, dark and there’s a grizzly living in your establishment. The owner couldn’t find any local hunter or trapper interested in going into an enclosed, dark, building after it, so he got a few employees to go with him — only one of whom had ever shot a gun before.

They parked on the road and snowshoed in with a flashlight and a few guns. The gift shop was in tatters, the office had been destroyed and the kitchen — the kitchen was a disaster area. The bear had torn the door right off the freezer, toppled shelves and overturned just about everything in sight, but found no food. And the hunters found no bear, so they knew they had to go down the long, dark, narrow hallway and look for it in each room.

Halfway down the hall, a pair of eyes were reflected in the flashlight beam as the creature stood to meet the intruders on his winter bed of sweatshirts and fleeces. As they’d been instructed to do, they shot him and turned him over to authorities.

Later they found out that the bear was about 27 years old. Most grizzlies typically live to be only 20-25, so this was probably going to be his last winter anyway, and it’s nice to think he spent it inside, out of the elements on a nice, comfy bed.

That comfy bed, however, was made up of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise for the entire coming summer and, as luck would have it, the insurance did not cover bear break-ins. Realizing this, the owner tried to salvage the clothes, but most of them were stained or torn and unsellable — or so he thought. The break-in made the paper in Fairbanks, and that summer, people came up to the bridge and asked about the grizzly, so the owner showed them the pictures and the window that had been boarded up with a bear painted on it: his rear end on the outside and his face on the inside. Eventually, he had an idea and got out all the ripped shirts, made up a sign that read “bearly worn” — and sold them all.

Mosquito update: As of 4 p.m. July 30 I have killed 1,426 mosquitoes.

Catie Zielinski graduated from Bangor High School in 2007 and is a recent graduate of Cornell University. She is working this summer 120 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, at the Yukon River Camp.

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