Since 2017, I’ve spent my summers in Alaska, living and working at a remote hotel. Alaska! People are immediately intrigued when I mention our 49th state, and rightly so — it is a unique and beautiful place.
People also hear “Alaska” and assume I am an adventurous person. The truth is that I work indoors, spending 40 hours a week at a reception desk where I use a computer, take phone calls, do paperwork and answer guest questions:
“Where’s the ice machine?” (Upstairs.) “Are the rooms air-conditioned?” (No.) “Do I need bug spray?” (Always.) “Is this place open year-round?” (No, just for the busy tourist season of mid-May to mid-September.)
“Should I be scared of bears?”
I answer this question with a concise “wildlife safety” speech: Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t hike alone. When you hike, make noise to alert any nearby animals of your presence — the volume of normal human conversation is sufficient. If you do spot an animal, keep your distance! Moose and bears avoid human contact and will become aggressive only if they feel threatened.
Alaska is home to many bears: more than 100,000 black, 30,000 brown (or grizzly), and 4,700 polar. Living or recreating in a bear-populated area requires vigilance. The chances you’ll be killed by one, however, are slim: Deadly bear attacks occur in Alaska at the rate of one per year. Between 2005 and 2012, there were none whatsoever.
Bear precaution is part of daily life for Alaskans. Extensive study of human-bear encounters and ursine behavior inform a standard set of safety measures and essential backcountry tools like bear-resistant food containers and bear repellent spray (which is essentially a turbo-powered type of pepper spray).
Transitioning from rural Alaska back to the “real world” of gridlock traffic and the whirlwind news cycle each autumn can be a shock. As if national news weren’t enough, there are frightening headlines from The Frederick News-Post to take in.
“Action taken after Ballenger Creek Park sees uptick in dog bites,” declares an Oct. 10 News-Post article, citing four incidents in the previous month. In a gruesome Sept. 17 episode, a bichon frise named Daisy was attacked and bitten more than 20 times by two larger dogs. Her owner, Mike Pagliaro, also suffered bites and had to receive a series of painful, expensive post-rabies-exposure shots as a safeguard. Daisy’s wounds required extensive treatment.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.7 million Americans suffer dog bites each year, with 800,000 of those bites requiring medical treatment. It’s savvy of Frederick County Parks and Rec to begin stationing a ranger at Ballenger Creek Park on weekends to referee any altercations and offer tips on dog socialization. There’s always the potential for conflict in the animal kingdom. Education on how to de-escalate or prevent that conflict is a necessity.
Still, I think I’ll avoid what sounds like the Wild West of dog parks. I don’t own a dog or live in Ballenger Creek, so this shouldn’t be difficult.
What I can’t avoid are the unleashed dogs I periodically encounter on hiking trails in the Frederick area. “He’s friendly!” the owner inevitably shouts as Fido charges in my direction. “Yeah, but 1 in 69 Americans is bitten by a dog every year!” I want to respond. Instead I just stand silently, nervously,
until the pair passes.
Certainly most dogs are docile and have responsible owners. But domesticated animals are animals nonetheless, beings worthy of respect and caution. What if Fido judges me to be a threat? A dog’s loyalty is to his owner, not some stranger hiking in the woods.
For my own safety, I think I’ll opt for the boreal forest over the dog park.
Alexandra DeArmon grew up in Frederick. In the summer, she works in Alaska. In the winter ,she works wherever is hiring. Reach her at xandra. firstname.lastname@example.org.