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Backroads With Betsy: A Biker Chick and the Bears

Finding peace and solitude in Alaska

By Betsy Huelskamp
11/16/2010


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Editor’s Note: Betsy wrote this story in September 2009, but because of extenuating circumstances, we weren’t able to run it then. Betsy has been moving her life from one state to another in the last month and is unable to get us a new story, so now is a good time to run this one.

“What have been the five best days of your life?” That is one of my favorite questions to ask people. It is a great question to ask your elders. It’s a great question to ask new people in your life. It’s also a great question to ask yourself when you are writing next year's bucket list so you can include the experiences you haven’t lived yet. I recently experienced one of the most exhilarating days I’ll ever have, and as it usually happens in my life, I couldn’t have planned it if I had wanted to.

This story has nothing whatsoever to do with motorcycles. I just happen to be a middle-aged biker woman who goes out into the world looking for adventure and whatever comes my way. More often than not, it is on a motorcycle. This particular time, it’s about a biker chick and a grizzly-bear encounter of the close kind.    

Me and a grizzly bear in Alaska.
Me and a grizzly bear in Alaska.

Here's the story. I have just returned home from my monthlong summer and Sturgis travels, and even though it's technically a vacation, the trip takes a lot out of me. Just before leaving for my travels, my lifelong best friend and motorcycle companion, Edith Speed, had committed suicide. This is the woman who taught me to ride a motorcycle more than 20 years ago, and we shared an incredible lifelong bond of travel and adventure. Her choice to end her life this way deeply saddens and confuses me. Also, upon returning from my travels, I lose another faithful and constant companion, my 13-year-old white Siberian husky, Ute, who lived a full and happy life. He died of old age. Ute was the man in my life, and actually, he took care of me, not the other way around.

I love Ute!
I love Ute!

So when an opportunity presents itself to steal away to Kodiak, Alaska, to experience pure solitude on a 60-foot fishing yacht, I know it's something my heart needs. September, late in the season, provides brisk, cool and cloudy days in Alaska, but it will mirror the haze I feel in my heart. All I desire now is clean air, fresh seafood and some quiet time to allow my sadness to pass.    

The Nordic Mistress in Alaska.
The Nordic Mistress in Alaska.

The weather in Kodiak is more than crisp. It is wet, stormy and steel gray. Within 10 minutes of leaving Kodiak on our fishing yacht, the Nordic Mistress, we are in 12-foot swells, eliminating anyone subject to seasickness. Lucky for me, that motion of the ocean just puts me to sleep. We pass a few of those "Deadliest Catch" fishing vessels, and I know I am no longer in Kansas. I was the only woman on my plane from Anchorage to Kodiak and the only woman down around the docks, not that I am complaining!

On the dock in Kodiak.
On the dock in Kodiak.

I find the solitude I was looking for all right, and I'm suddenly overwhelmed at how lonely it feels out here in the middle of this cold, dark sea. And how small a 60-foot yacht feels in the middle of this vast void. I am riding shotgun next to fearless Captain Tom as our little boat bounces across the sea.    

Steel gray skies and ominous swells.
Steel gray skies and ominous swells.

Spouting whales dot the horizon as Jimmy Buffett sings “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Captain Tom asks me what kind of seafood I want for dinner, and I respond crab, although my stomach isn’t feeling capable of keeping anything down. “We’ll drop crab pots on the way out,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll have a few big ones waiting for us on our way back. In the meantime, I hope you like halibut!”

Whales spouting off in the distance.
Whales spouting off in the distance.

Then he asks me what I would most like to see on the journey. I say, “Grizzly bears, grizzly bears, or hopefully some grizzly bears.” I grew up with an outdoor-loving Minnesota family watching “Gentle Ben” and “Grizzly Adams.” In 2005, when the documentary film “Grizzly Man” came out, every member of my family watched it. Then we watched it again. Then I bought it, and we watched it several more times. And while I fully understand the attitude held by many that Timothy Treadwell was not altogether sane, I can say without hesitation that I fall on the side of sharing Timothy’s insanity instead of faulting it. And if you’ve never seen or heard of Timothy Treadwell or the documentary “Grizzly Man,” it is a tragic piece of history and cinema. It’s both visually and emotionally compelling. Above all, I am drawn to anything in life that inspires me to think, to feel, to dream and to love. Timothy Treadwell had a passion for life that even in his death leaves me in awe. There is purity in his childlike insanity.

Alaskan commercial fishing boats.
Alaskan commercial fishing boats.

The documentary was made from more than 100 hours that Timothy shot of himself living among the grizzly bears over 13 consecutive summers. His best friend became a fox he named Spirit. He was there to study the bears and wanted to protect the endangered animals from poachers. He shared his photos and films with school children across the country and made several TV appearances. In one appearance on David Letterman, David asked, “We’re not going to see that bear eat you one day, are we?” Timothy answered no, but he knew the incredible risks involved in what he was doing and talked about it often. He recorded himself saying over and over that he would die for these animals. He also said he did not want to be eaten by a bear. But he often told his family and friends that if he did not come back one day, it was what he would have wanted.     

In the end, Timothy Treadwell is horrifically killed and partially eaten by a bear. And even more tragic, over the last two summers that Timothy lived among the bears, he brought along his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. And although Timothy had successfully lived more than 35,000 hours with these noble creatures, that history had a cruel end. This was the first incident of a person being killed by a bear in the 85-year history of Katmai National Park. It is speculated that Timothy and his girlfriend were attacked while they were asleep in their tent. Although the lens cap was covering his video camera, the camera was on and recording sound. As a result, there is audio of Timothy being killed and screaming for Amie to run for her life. She instead stays and fights for his life, and ultimately ends up losing her own.   

As I ride shotgun on the Nordic Mistress in the copilot chair, I tell Captain Tom of my fascination with the “Grizzly Man” and his 13 years spent living out there with the grizzly bears. He tells me that he thinks Timothy Treadwell was insane, and that he got what he deserved. Many native Alaskans share his point of view. Captain Tom says he would never walk in those areas. If he did, he’d carry a shotgun. He thinks the only way to view grizzly bears should be from a boat. But he offers to take me to the area where Timothy lived and was killed, hoping we will see a bear or two along the shore.

It is a long way out, and we don’t see another sign of life for days. As we enter the bay where Timothy lived, we see something move on a small rock island. Captain Tom hands me the binoculars and asks me to investigate. As we motor closer in the freezing waters, we see it is two guys fishing with their kayaks nearby. He tells me to let him investigate, because you never know what sort of demented individual might be out there in the middle of nowhere.

No bears here, but there is sign of life.
No bears here, but there is sign of life.

Tom offers the two guys some beer, which they gladly accept. And then he offers some bottles of wine, then loads them up with meat as they tell us they have been out here for several months and have eaten nothing but fish.

Loading the boys up with food and drink.
Loading the boys up with food and drink.

Just then, a small plane flies overhead. It looks just like the aircraft I had watched take Timothy Treadwell to this place. “Is that guy dropping you food and supplies?” I ask. “Yes,” they answer. Then I ask if they have seen any bears, to which they reply with a huge grin, “Umm … yes.” They continue to explain who they are and exactly what they are doing there.

A plane making a supply drop for the guys.
A plane making a supply drop for the guys.

David Bittner is a Swiss biologist, who in a way has picked up where the “Grizzly Man” left off. A scientist with much more education and knowledge than Timothy Treadwell possessed, David shares the same passion. David has lived with the bears in Katmai National Park for the past three summers. Richard Terry is a documentary filmmaker who previously shot “A Stranger Among Bears” for Animal Planet, and is now filming David’s mission for a British production company called Firecracker Films. The two are near the end of their three-month stay and say they haven’t seen another human being for a long time.

Richard (in back) and David telling us their story.
Richard (in back) and David telling us their story.

My enthusiasm for what they are doing is impossible to contain! David takes a long silence, then looks at me and asks, “Would you like me to take you to see the bears?” It takes me a swift two minutes to throw on warm clothes and jump into Richard’s kayak. Captain Tom doesn’t have any interest in joining in and highly suggests that I not go, and if I do go, to carry a shotgun. It never occurs to me to not go, or to carry a gun. I take only a camera and wave goodbye.

Jumping in Richard’s kayak to go see the bears.
Jumping in Richard’s kayak to go see the bears.

We kayak to shore, and Richard and David show me the humble tents and campground they call home, which are surrounded by a small electric wire. The wire looks unable to detour a bunny rabbit, but perhaps it might have saved the lives of Amie and Timothy.

Richard and David’s humble camp.
Richard and David’s humble camp.

Just a couple of minutes pass before David says, “We have visitors!” We watch as two adolescent bears make their way to our camp. David explains that he knows this pair, and they are very curious. They sniff around the kayaks, and David has to stop them from using the ores as chew toys. As we hike to the other side of the island carrying the kayaks, the young bears walk ahead of us, seemingly showing us the way.

David greets the bears.
David greets the bears.

Bear cubs stick with their mother up until about the age of two. Then when they separate, the cubs stay together for at least another year before becoming lone creatures. These two bears are probably around three years old and in healthy condition. A sick, old or hungry bear is more dangerous than one who is readily capable of finding food.

As the bears approach us, David advises me to be quiet and calm and stay facing the bears. I of course do whatever he tells me, with the exception of a constant whispering of, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh!” Not in fear, but in sheer exhilaration! David says, “You are doing great. You don’t seem to be afraid at all." I wasn’t feeling fear; I was feeling alive! I completely trust these two men. But then, I suppose Amie trusted Timothy Treadwell. I suppose I would have trusted Timothy Treadwell too.

Hiking with the boys, the bears and the kayaks.
Hiking with the boys, the bears and the kayaks.

Richard already enjoying his beer.
Richard already enjoying his beer.

We hop back in the kayaks and paddle across a lake to the mouth of a stream where the bears gather to fish for salmon. The two curious cubs are not far behind us, swimming to the same place. At least a dozen other bears come and go as we walk along the edge of the water. One mother and her young cubs seem nervous about some of the male bears making their way toward us, and she stays close to us to keep her babies on the far side of those larger bears. As she moves closer to us, it becomes apparent that she had been injured in a fight, which left a deep scar over her eye and maybe even damaged her vision. David speculates that this adds to her timid behavior.

The mama bear with the scar over her eye.
The mama bear with the scar over her eye.

As I walk out onto the rocks in the middle of the stream, this mama bear comes over to take a sniff. She walks so close to me that I can reach out to touch her nose. I become very aware of the obvious lopsided weight of the situation. If she wants me instead of salmon for lunch, there is nothing preventing her. I didn’t know it then, but legally we are required to maintain at least 50 feet from grizzly bears. We are closer than 50 inches, as they are busily looking for salmon, and they only take slight notice of us as they continue with their hunt. It is apparent to me that these enormous creatures can eat just about anything they desire. Luckily, they seem to prefer fish! For as fierce as they are known to be, they move very gently through their environment.

The two adolescent bears that followed us over came out of the bushes just feet away from us, and merely passed us by.
The two adolescent bears that followed us over came out of the bushes just feet away from us, and merely passed us by.

David keeps watch over the kayaks while the bears poke around.
David keeps watch over the kayaks while the bears poke around.

Now that it's late in the season, the salmon are no longer running, so these gentle giants leave no stone unturned. They methodically walk through the stream, turning over every loose rock in hopes that a salmon has been pinned underneath. They are able to find a fair amount of food this way. As the mother closest to us turns over each rock, her cubs wait with anticipation for her to pull up one fish, and then all three of them wrestle and rip it apart.

The mother and her cubs turning over every stone.
The mother and her cubs turning over every stone.

Mama Bear looking under rocks as her kids watch on in hopes of lunch.
Mama Bear looking under rocks as her kids watch on in hopes of lunch.

Fighting over one salmon with the kids.
Fighting over one salmon with the kids.

Every single moment is captivating to the point of not wanting to blink! We sit on the edge of the stream surrounded by grizzly bears, and talk and watch until daylight runs out. The entire time, I snap photos excitedly. I think I could pee my pants. I don’t want the day to end. We kayak back to the yacht, where Captain Tom has made us a huge halibut dinner. Our new friends don’t mind eating and drinking on the yacht well into the night. They tell us many funny bear stories and keep us laughing long after we sail away. I still can’t quite believe how cool the whole experience was! I thank Captain Tom for bringing me to this place, and David and Richard for inviting me to share the most awesome day of adventure! It was a moment in time I will never forget!

Kayaking back to the yacht.
Kayaking back to the yacht.

David telling us stories.
David telling us stories.

Richard the wine connoisseur enjoying a taste of the grape.
Richard the wine connoisseur enjoying a taste of the grape.

The adrenaline from the day is hard to get out of my system. A huge storm moves in, so we face even rougher seas ahead. We still have to retrieve our crab pots and are now having problems with a wrench sprocket that lacks teeth. Captain Tom has to yank the huge cages on board by hand. He actually sounds like a grizzly bear himself, out in the gnarly wind and rain, growling at an ocean that seems to be fighting back. My job is to keep the nose of the boat heading into the swells, so I am too busy and nervous to be sick!

I can’t take photos, as just staying upright is job enough. Anything that is not anchored falls down to the slippery wet decks. Every cabinet that isn’t quite tight loses its contents. Opening the refrigerator later is a disaster! It is a severe environment on that sea, and watching Captain Tom navigating through those waters is intense. It is truly a place where survival is the name of the game. And even in the thick of it, Captain Tom reels in a fresh halibut for dinner, cooking it up to perfection.

Captain Tom catches a halibut dinner.
Captain Tom catches a halibut dinner.

Calm seas back at the docks.
Calm seas back at the docks.

The minute I step back onto dry land and have cell phone reception, I call my little sister in Minnesota to tell her of my wild adventure. Before I can even finish, she says, “Shut up! Are you about to tell me you met that Richard guy with the long hair from Animal Planet? Why are you always so lucky? He is a babe!” I tell her I was so excited about the bears that I hardly noticed the men in Alaska. OK, I might have noticed a little. The ratio of men to women is even better in Alaska than it is in Sturgis! 

David, the deck hand, whom I hardly notice.
David, the deck hand, whom I hardly notice.

Coming home to my quiet house saddens me. My faithful companion isn’t waiting for me. But Alaska reminds me that there are many sweet adventures still out there, just waiting to be lived!

Thanks to fearless Captain Tom for keeping us safe.
Thanks to fearless Captain Tom for keeping us safe.

To learn more about Timothy Treadwell, the documentary movie “Grizzly Man” is available on DVD.

To learn more about Richard Terry, visit RichardTerry.eu.

To learn more about David Bittner, visit Kodiak.ch.

Captain Tom and the Nordic Mistress are available for summer excursions. To book a trip, visit NordicMistress.com.

And me, I’m BetsyHuelskamp.com.


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Reader Comments


Oh Betsy, I don't know if you'll read this but you moved me to tears with this story. Things of wonder and beauty woven throughout a great adventure. You made me believe I was there too. A dream, come to life...

Belinda Busby
Santa Barbara, CA
Wednesday, June 08, 2011
Thank you, Betsy, for sharing your amazing story! I grew up watching the same grizzly bear shows and was in awe when I read "She walks so close to me I could reach out to touch her nose." You captured your adventure beautifully with your words, photos, passion and heart. I look forward to reading more along your journey of life. Maybe some day our two-wheeled paths will cross. Until then, ride safe ... ride free.

I am so sorry for your loss of two very close souls.

Debi Holmes
Westminster, CO
Saturday, March 05, 2011
Beautiful pictures. Wonderful story! What an adventure!

Amelia
Chicago, IL
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Thank you for sharing this wonderful encounter. Your incredible story is compelling and engaging, to say the least. Hope to meet along the way some day!

Anne
Elyria, OH
Friday, January 21, 2011
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