Monday, August 1, 2011

Into The Wild

I now know that there is a qualitative difference in reading about teenage boys being mauled by a bear in Alaska when you yourself actually have a teenage boy in Alaska. Even though I learned about this horrific incident after I had spoken to the teenager from Anchorage Airport while he waited for his plane to board, I spent the whole day troubled and distracted, a sinking feeling inside that I just couldn’t shake, as if he were still in some kind of imminent danger.

Thirty days ago, I said to him, “Don’t get killed by a bear,” and he smirked and said, “I won’t,” and then he walked down the Alaska Air jet way and I watched his lanky 16-year-old self until I couldn’t see him anymore. And then I drove home hoping what he told me was true.

Months ago, there was a little joke that emerged when I was making his flight arrangements, between me and the airline representative. I was asking her how close the gates would be on his connecting flight and she said there was no way of knowing and, yes, he might have to ride the tram. I remember saying glibly, “Well, if he can’t figure out how to get from one plane to another, he probably has no business going on a wilderness trip in the first place.” We both laughed, maybe a little harder than we needed to, because we both knew that it’s so much easier to worry about things like trams and gate proximity than it is to worry about placing your beloved little speck of humanity into the unpredictable wiles of nature.

“What about bears?” I had asked the trip organizers a week before his departure.

“We have bear safety sessions,” the woman assured me. The kids go through a whole day of training on how to handle (and avoid) bear encounters. “What about earthquakes?” I’d asked her. “Lightening storms? Tsunamis?” I could feel my anxieties tumbling out of me like a water main break, but I really had no control of myself. The woman was able to address every one of my concerns and was actually doing a fairly good job of calming me down until I asked her about radioactivity from the nuclear disaster in Japan. “Should I be worrying about that?” I asked.

“No,” she said, and I could tell by the tone of her voice that it was time for me to stop.

The first report I read about the bear attack was early on Monday morning. Seven boys on a wilderness trip were backpacking without instructors as part of their leadership training. They were walking across a river when the bear attacked. The first two boys in line were mauled and, according to The Guardian, suffered “life-threatening injuries.” Two more boys were injured badly and everyone ended up in the hospital.

After I read the news, I went to meet some friends for tennis. (I try to stay occupied on the days the teenager is flying.) “Should I tell the teenager about the bear attack?” I asked one of the women. I always regard her as a mommy mentor.

“He’ll know about it,” she said. “He’ll hear about it in the news.”

“He may not, he’ll have been on a plane all day,” I said.

Her advice was to wait until he brought it up himself. “Then you can reassure him,” she said.

Reassure him?

She said I should tell him how sad I am about what happened to the boys but how I know nothing like that will ever happen to him. The other women nodded in agreement. I was completely dumbfounded. “I shouldn’t tell him how freaked out I am?” I said.

“No! You should absorb that fear yourself. Don’t share it. You don’t want him to be scared, do you?”

Well, yes. That’s exactly what I want. I want him to think: Wow, bears are out there ready to rip people to shreds, maybe a nice hotel vacation with black mold and bed bugs would be a more prudent journey next year.

I remember once being rational like my tennis friend, but that seems like another lifetime ago.

I’m not sure who brought up the subject, him or me, but the bear was discussed long before my son and I arrived home from the airport. “Those kids were attacked just a few miles from where we camped,” my son told me.

“How many miles?” I said.


Maybe because Alaska is so vast and such a paean to wildlife, four miles from a bear seems like nothing. It seems like having a bear in your bathroom. Having him in the shower with you. I tried to wrap my mind around what my son was telling me, which was basically, that my month-long mantra, “he won’t be attacked by a bear,” was successful merely because of dumb luck.

I expected to hear some horror in his voice, but the teenager spoke about the incident with uncharacteristic admiration. “Those kids were highly trained to deal with bears,” he said.

“Maybe not so much,” I said.

“Mom, they fought off a bear. The five other kids got the bear to leave. That’s amazing. If it was our group, we would have died. I promise.”

The words tumbled from him as casually as if he were reading a grocery list. Then in the next breath he began to tell me about the wilderness trip he wants to take next year.

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