My pack, heavy with rocks, dug into my back as I hiked across the uneven ground twenty miles from
the Arctic Circle. There was no trail here -- no roads, no buildings, and no people for miles. The rocks here had all been
mapped. That was my job. I was a geologist on foot, and that's why I found myself in this northern wilderness with nothing
but scrub brush, shivering pine, and the rocks -- always the rocks.
I had been hiking for hours,
checking every outcrop, measuring angles, and breaking off chunks of stone with my hammer.
sun was high in the summer sky. Instead of setting that night, the sun would blanket the land in a cool orange glow. At noon,
though, the sun was bright and strong.
I was hot. Too hot. I had been slogging across the tundra
for six hours, and my forehead was drenched with sweat.
My skull felt like hell-fire. I knew
this was a warning. As one of few women in a field dominated by men, I didn't tell anyone about my tendency to pass out from
heat stroke. I was dangerously close to having one now. I needed to cool down.
I didn't have
time to rest. I had too many miles to go to make my target. As a girl not long out of my teens, I didn't have the upper-body
strength or speed of the men on the crew, so I had to work harder to do the same job. I wasn't going to allow anything to
stop me from covering as much ground as anyone else.
I studied the contour map. If I veered
to the right, I should run into a creek about a half-mile ahead. I figured I could get there before I passed out.
The creek was where I thought it would be. It wasn't anything to brag about, just a trickle of water, but its
edges were lined with a snow-frosted crust. Perfect.
I took off my hat, a cotton baseball cap,
and packed it with snow. When I put it back on, the crown of my head was encased in a bowl of ice. The relief was immediate.
I could go for another hour at least. By the time the snow had melted and run down my shirt, the sun would be lower and cooler.
Heat stroke averted, I set off again.
Suddenly, I heard something in the trees behind me crashing
and thrashing. It sounded big, but when I looked back, I didn't see anything. It was probably a moose. I kept going.
Then I heard it again. It was following me. Moose didn't behave that way. It was less than a hundred feet away
when it emerged from behind a tree -- a black bear lumbering towards me.
The bear's head looked
small. This wasn't good. In the tundra, it is hard to judge size from a distance. With a bear, the rule of thumb is small
head means big body. This bear had a pinhead, telling me that its body had to be huge -- a fully grown adult. I
couldn't out-run it, couldn't out-climb it. I was no match at all.
Without stopping, I pulled
out my radio, a black state-of-the-art walkie-talkie the size of a quart bottle of milk and just as heavy. It was the best
equipment there was, able to transmit several miles in a straight line. Unfortunately, out here in the mountains and gullies,
not much was straight.
"This is Mary," I spoke into the walkie-talkie. "Mike,
are you there?"
"Chopper Mike," as we called our helicopter pilot, would be parked
in these hills somewhere. Calm and steady, he listened to his radio for any signs of trouble. But with five of us out in the
field, working as far as ten miles apart, Mike could be fifty miles away.
No reply. Chopper
Mike was out of range.
"Can anyone hear me?" I said, hoping to relay the message.
Still no answer.
"This is Mary," I said. "If anyone gets this, tell
Mike I need a pickup. Now!"
I shoved the radio into my pack and went on, moving as fast
as I dared, willing myself not to sweat. I had heard that bears can smell fear, and had spent enough time with animals on
the farm to believe it was most likely true. If I could convince this bear that I wasn't a threat, maybe it would wander off.
No such luck. It kept coming, closer every moment.
This was a black bear, smaller
than a grizzly, but capable of tearing a person apart. I could see this one was looking for trouble. I would have to face
Not long before, another field geologist had come across a black bear like this. She was
unarmed because her boss didn't believe in guns. So when the bear came at her, she had no defense. She decided to play dead,
having heard that if you played dead, the bear might lose interest. This probably saved her life. Still, before he lost interest,
the bear tossed her around like a rag doll, ripping her arms out of their sockets.
going to happen to me. I pulled out the new blue-steel .44 Magnum pistol I had gotten for my birthday -- not a gift I would
have been given if I had stayed in New York state to teach science in a comfortable high school. I had abandoned that goal
long ago, although it looked mighty attractive right now. How had I ended up here staring down a stubby four-inch barrel at
an oncoming bear?
My Magnum was the biggest pistol made. Still, it was just a handgun, reminding
me of the endless debates I had heard in the bars back in Fairbanks. Would a pistol, any pistol, have sufficient firepower
to drop a charging bear?
As I steadied my aim, it looked as if I was about to find out.