The big family party of summer was over, the children and the grandchildren gone home to civilization, when former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski looked over the shoulder of his wife, Nancy, where she sat across from him in their hot tub along the shores of remote Healy Lake, and saw the Bush visitor from hell.
No, not the Mama Grizzly who ran Murkowski out of office.
The young and foolish, post-adolescent male grizzly bear. The unpredictable and thus dangerous bear.
This bear was standing with its big, blocky head mere feet from the noggin of Alaska’s former First Lady. It was a Timmy Treadwell moment. Californian bear-lover Treadwell loved to get up close and personal with Alaska bears until one killed and ate him along with the girlfriend he’d invited north to join him in getting friendly with the bears.
Both 77-year-old Frank Murkowski and his wife, having spent much of their lives in Alaska, knew better than to try to get friendly with the bears. Bears, especially grizzlies — mama or otherwise, are animals best viewed from a distance.
“‘Shoo, shoo,'” Nancy said. Or so Frank remembers. “I told her that wasn’t going to work.”
It wasn’t going to work, because the bear wasn’t listening. It had come to the Murkowski cabin, Frank believes, because of the tasty smells in the air, and now it was looking for something more than smell.
“He knew that there had been a Fourth of July pig roast,” the former governor said.
About all that was left of the roast were two elderly white folk in a hot tub. The bear just looked at them.
“He was about three feet from Nancy’s shoulder,” Frank said. “He had his foot on the base of the hot tub. Just Nancy and I were there.”
When Frank says “just Nancy and I were there,” he means he and Nancy were the only ones for a long, long way around. The nearest neighbor was across the five-mile-long lake in the wilderness about 30 miles east of Delta Junction, which is a place small enough most people could have trouble finding it on the map.
As a geographic locator, Fairbanks might be better. It was about 150 miles to the northwest. The Murkowskis, suffice to say, were essentially alone in the wilderness. So the former governor and one-time U.S. Senator had to figure his own way out of the predicament.
“I backhanded some water into the bear’s face,” Frank said.
Once, twice, three times.
“He shook his head a couple times,” the Frank added.
Were the Murkowskis scared?
“We didn’t have time to get scared,” Frank said.
And luckily, the water worked, at least temporarily. Either that or the bear decided the couple didn’t look that tasty. Whatever the case, it backed away from Nancy, wandered over to the steps of the family cabin, and bit into a container of Palmolive soap, which it didn’t much seem to like.
Still this was enough of a distraction to give Frank a chance to go all carpe diem.
“I jumped out of the tub and grabbed a broken canoe paddle,” he said.
It wasn’t much, but it was the only weapon handy. The guns were in the main cabin, and the bear was between it and the hot tub. The broken canoe paddle was all Frank could find to defend his bride of 55 years.
Fortunately, the bear didn’t make the ex-gov use it. The bear went from the cabin steps to a nearby fire pit, sniffed around it, and then bounded back up the steps to the cabin deck where it ripped into coolers containing eggs and beverages. The Murkowskis took that as their cue to run like hell.
Running from bears is not usually advised, but when the bear is preoccupied with a cooler, and there is another cabin nearby, running is a great idea. Frank and Nancy ran to the nearby cabin. From there they called a neighbor who did have access to a gun.
“She said she’d come over if she could get her outboard started,” Frank said.
Not quite good enough given the situation. So he put in another call to Healy Lake Village down the lake. Armed vigilantes were soon on their way to the Murkowski compound.
“One of the kids came over and took care of the bear,” Frank said.
Repeated efforts to reach the Healy Lake crowd on Friday to find out who deserved credit for saving the ex-governor and his wife proved unsuccessful. Frank did not get the young man’s name, but said he is very grateful to everyone who came to help. Nancy, he said, “was pretty spooked.
“(And) I was very surprised. It’s a little different than most of life’s experiences when you see danger coming.”
This time, he said, he and his wife went almost instantly from talking about how pleasant it was to have all the family gone so they could enjoy the beauty of the wilderness to wondering if the wilderness was going to kill them.
In retrospect, the story would be almost funny in if not for the sad legacy of the late Darcy Staver.
The woman from Fort Lewis, Wash., was vacationing with her husband in a cabin near Glennallen in 1992 when a black bear broke in.
The Stavers retreated onto the roof of the cabin to get away from the bear. It remained pacing below for a time, but eventually wandered away. Stavers’ husband — having never heard of a bear climbing up onto a roof to kill someone — decided at that point to leave his wife in a place of apparent safety while he went to get help from someone with a gun.
The decision turned out to be a bad one.
While he was gone, the bear got up on the roof and knocked Darcy off.
When her husband returned with a neighbor, all the man could do was shoot the bear feeding on Darcy’s body.
Nancy Murkowksi had reason to be spooked, even if Frank does somewhat sympathize with the deadly problem the bear made for itself.
“The bear was just curious,” he said, and it’s curiosity got it killed.