"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Friday, March 12, 2010


Maybe if she’d been back home in Pennsylvania, she would have been safe. She would have known what to watch for, things slithering through the grass or whatever dangers lurk for roadside joggers in Slippery Rock. Tunes piped into her head, blocking out noises of a busy world, she would have been aware.

Maybe if she’d been in Anchorage on the Coastal Trail, or in Fairbanks jogging down College road, or in any number of cities, towns, and villages in Alaska, bundled up in fleece against the cold, she would have been safe, could have concentrated on her running and the music.

But she was jogging after work in a small village on the Alaska Peninsula, a mile out of the town of fewer than a hundred people. She’d been there before on her travels as a special ed teacher, but she’d just arrived this morning on this hitch. Here, she probably figured, frostbite was her worst enemy, so she stuck the ear buds in her ears and zoned out as she ran.

No need to worry about bears, even though bears are prevalent in this area. It’s winter. Too early for bears to be out of hibernation. And probably no one told her about the pack of animals venturing too close to the village, apparently unafraid. But even if she’d heard, things like that only happened in cheap novels, didn’t they?

We’ll never know what happened as she jogged along the snow-packed road. Did she know they were coming? Or did a hundred and fifty pounds of fury and sharp teeth crash into her back and knock her to the ground? Slam the breath right out of her? We know she realized what was happening because she fought back. But there were too many and they were too cunning and too strong. They were following instincts gone horribly awry. They dragged her off the road into some brush and did what hungry wild animals do.

The snowmachiners came by less than an hour later, saw blood on the snow, one person’s footprints, furrowed drag marks leading into the brush. They followed and found her.

This afternoon, the Alaska State Medical examiner told us what we all suspected. Wolves had attacked and killed someone in Alaska for the first time in known history. She was thirty-two years old, only four feet eleven inches tall, devoted to jogging, lifting weights, and boxing. She was training for a marathon.

Today, as State Troopers fly to Chignik Lake to hunt wolves, I mourn the death of a young woman who loved Alaska and adventure, and I recall how frightened and helpless I was when a massive wolf stood ten feet from my tied sled dogs. Lurking in the trees beyond the dog pen were more wolves, their eyes shining in porch light at 3 a.m. Only the six foot tall chain link fence in between them saved my dogs. Other pets in the neighborhood were not that fortunate.

Most of the time we live in relative harmony with the wild animals and consider ourselves lucky to see them in their natural habitats. But they are just what we call them—wild animals. Their ways are not ours, their ethos not ours, their instincts not ours. Sometimes, as in this case, when wild animals following their instincts cross paths with a human in the wrong place at the wrong time, horrible tragedies can occur.

Just minutes before I heard the definitive cause of her death on the radio, I had been reading sympathy cards in a grocery store in Seward. One in particular caught my attention, and I was thinking about the message as I pulled out of the parking lot and crossed the highway to head north.

The card, expressions from Hallmark, is a pale, pale green. On the front is a gray and white graphic of a pearl in a half shell. The message reads: Seashells remind us that every passing life leaves something beautiful behind.

(With condolences to the parents, family, friends, co-workers, and students of Candace Berner. I never knew her but I, along with all Alaska, mourn her death.)

1 comment:

  1. I feel like the breath got knocked out me, reading this.