This photo was taken in Alaska in 2016 on my phone.

This whole story-telling email list idea was inspired by adventure photographer Corey Rich’s book, Stories Behind the Images. And it’s funny. The idea was to focus on the images and tell the story behind them, but as I’ve written these stories, week after week, I’ve quickly noticed that it’s much more about the stories than the images themselves. Many stories worth telling happened before I became well-versed with a camera, so I’m left sharing a photo that only partially relates to the story.

The Grizzly Bear Story happened days before this photo was taken, also in Alaska, and it happens to be on my “Top 3 Coolest Things I’ve Ever Seen” list, nestled up there with the time I jumped out of a plane and the first time I witnessed the Northern Lights in Norway.

I met Andy Auble through a mutual friend in college. One of the first times we hung out, he mentioned that he was planning a 3-month trip to Alaska the following summer. His plan was to buy a one-way ticket, buy a truck, live out of it for about 3 months, then sell the truck and continue on to Europe. It was his college graduation adventure. A fitting welcome to reality.

We talked only briefly about the trip, and Andy left me with an open invitation to join him at any point on his journey. I probably gave him a half-hearted “I just might,” not realizing what that seed of an idea would eventually grow into.

I thought the whole thing was so cool. Living out of a truck, roughing it all the way up in the last frontier, far, far away from everything I’d ever known. I had always wanted to see Alaska but never had a compelling enough reason to actually book the trip. Now I did.

About 9 months later, Andy found himself pulling up to the Anchorage airport to pick up his new friend. And I found myself waiting for some guy I barely knew to pick me up at the Anchorage airport so I could spend 10 days living in his truck. Elated to take part in my small slice of Andy’s epic summer adventure, we picked up some supplies and headed into the wild.

Alaska is pretty badass. When I got there, Andy told me, “everything up here is just a little bigger and a little badder.” He was right. Driving through that desolate, raw wilderness, I watched wildlife weave in and out of the giant flora with the same natural comfort you see humans wear in their suburban domain. I was left with this specific feeling – the feeling of being “out there.”

It was right around the summer solstice when the days are at their longest. In Alaska, that means the sun is still shining past midnight. We made use of the late daylight by crushing a few beers and celebrating with the local bar-goers as Lebron James brought the Cavs their first ever championship. The game ended around 7 pm, giving us plenty of time and daylight to embark on the first real part of our adventure: an 11-mile hike-in cabin where we would stay for a few nights.

Before we left, I had at least 3 conversations with locals talking about our plans to hike out to the cabin that night. Every single one said something along the lines of, “Do not go out there without bear spray,” all in the same grave tone. I could sense that the locals did not take bear danger lightly. The light-hearted nature of Alaskans apparently stops when you bring up bears. Perhaps they’ve all seen too many mistakes of inexperienced tourists to have any tolerance for unpreparedness. Luckily I had a can of bear spray and Andy (in his style) had a shotgun with plenty of slugs. The locals signed off on our protection and sent us away with their blessings.

We made it to the cabin in good time. Remember how everything in Alaska is bigger and badder? The mosquitos are no exception. I remember them being absolutely relentless and annoying. Other than that, the hike was extremely refreshing. The wilderness in Alaska is wilder than anything I’ve experienced, and you can smell it with every breath.

I didn’t get much sleep because the sun was out pretty much all night, but also because I didn’t have a sleeping pad and plywood isn’t that comfortable. When morning came, I was ready to get started on the day. After chopping some wood and posing for this picture with Andy’s GoPro, we got our gear ready and started back on the trail. Our plan was to hike 3 more miles down the trail to a second cabin near a lake and try to catch some fish.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day. The sky was deep blue, interspersed with fluffy white clouds. The bright green foliage glimmered and danced in the warm sunlight. It was one of those days that makes you just want to sit outside with your eyes closed and feel the warm sun on your skin. I enjoyed every moment of the hike. We had some conversations along the way, we talked about life, travel, girls, adventure, and what we might do if we saw a bear, but we also shared plenty of silence.

The trail veered left, then curled around to the right as we approached a vast field on our right. The grass lined the trail, reaching up to my chest, and it swayed peacefully with the wind along with the leaves on those massive trees. I don’t exactly remember how I saw it, but one moment it was just there. A big grizzly bear in the field, about 50 yards away, to our right. The same grass that swayed along me at chest height barely reached the bear’s thighs. She was standing tall. She was alert. Her ears were perked up and she was absolutely still, facing directly at us.

“Bear,” was all I could muster. The next sound I heard was the click of a racked. Apparently Andy’s instincts kicked in. I reached for my bear spray and removed the safety, holding it in my hands ready to spray. As reality set in, we managed to exchange a few words and get on the same page. The key is to keep walking. Don’t speed up, don’t stop. Just keep walking. The unspoken exchange between us and the bear goes something like, “We know you’re here, and you know we’re here. We’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing if you just keep doing what you’re doing.”

It seemed to work as planned. After about a minute she was no longer in sight, and we were around the bend. My heart was still thumping in my ears.

The image of that bear is etched into my mind, mostly defined by the colors and smells of the that moment. Her long, fluffy hair danced in the soft breeze and glimmered in the warm sunlight as if she was one with the green grass and leaves around her. Her stark brown color seemed to fit perfectly against that deep blue sky. In fact, everything about her fit perfectly in that setting. This was her domain. We were visitors, just passing by her front porch. The whole image seemed just right. Everything belonged, and I took a moment to appreciate a scene that I never would have experienced if I didn’t venture into this unknown wilderness with my new friend.

Needless to say, I didn’t have the time nor the balls to snap a picture of that moment. But the mental image is more vivid anyway. I hope this story paints a picture in your imagination, too, more vivid than a photo could be.

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