Woman killed by wolves left behind vivid blog of Alaska life

Anchorage Daily NewsMarch 15, 2010 

ANCHORAGE — Above the Alaska Peninsula last August, a 30-something teacher from Pennsylvania snapped a photo out the window of a plane. The frame captured the underside of the wing, a distant snowy mountain and a muddy creek snaking through a green valley far below. A few days later, Candice Berner posted her snapshot in the first entry of a blog about teaching in rural Alaska. She titled the post, "The Journey begins ..."

For the next five months, Berner, who was killed Monday in what Alaska State Troopers say was a rare wolf attack, kept a detailed travelogue of her time as a traveling teacher based out of the coastal village of Perryville. She averaged two or three posts a month.

Berner's blog introduced me to a woman who is committed, curious, observant and cautious about the Alaska outdoors. Reading it makes her death, a random mauling while running on a remote road a mile outside the village of Chignik Lake, seem all the more strange and sad.

The blog begins in Anchorage, packing with a group of rural teachers. She flies west from the city, catching smaller and smaller planes. Below her, rivers thread through the land. Then her window fills with ocean spotted with islands. Finally, Perryville.

Her early entries from the village show craggy rocks and sunny, black-sand beaches. Her first adventure is a fishing trip, a five-mile hike from the village. She posts a picture of a wide bear track pressed into the soft sand. She says she takes bear spray on her morning runs.

"It's so important to be alert and aware of your surroundings, because we're not in PA anymore and everything is bigger and more fierce in Alaska," she writes.

School starts. She posts a picture of herself on a four-wheeler behind a student on a day trip to Humpback Bay.

"About half of the school went and we got to meet a lot of the parents. The kids loved teaching us all about the wilderness and fishing. It was great for them to see me struggle and make mistakes, and it be ok," she writes.

With students and their parents, she reels in crab pots, hooks silvers, enjoys a feast.

"One of the traditions is spreading seal grease on the salmon and then sprinkling with salt and pepper," she writes. "It's actually very tasty."

In another post, she describes her commute by small plane between Perryville and Chignik Lake.

"I didn't think I would have a hard time with flying, but it's much more intense than I anticipated. ... The air strip is nothing more than a piece of dirt and to me it always looks like we're going to land in the ocean or on top of houses."

She signs off with a self-portrait, half-smiling from her airplane seat.

Soon the colors on the hillsides in her photos deepen. Rain comes. She learns about trapping and tanning hides. She befriends a couple of village dogs that meet her at her house before morning runs and follow her. Dogs drive bears away, she writes.

"In return (the dogs) get milk bones, which are a luxury in the village," she says.

Always, it seems, she's thinking about of how the wild land outside the village can be dangerous. Mostly she worries about bears. On a hike with a friend, they run across a massive brown bear.

"Since he appeared to be taking our path, we decided to change course to avoid a confrontation. Andrew carries a 44 magnum, so I felt pretty safe. However, a bear is still dangerous after it has been shot, so the hike back to the village was a little nerve wrecking, but exciting."

In mid-October, she posts a short video, panning the beach in Perryville on a bright day with lapping waves. The weather is becoming more variable, complicating her commute. She posts a photo of someone pulling a skiff out of Chignik Lake in the rain and wind. The next picture stops me. A stuffed wolf in a glass case.

"Chignik Lake's mascot is a wolf and it sits in the lobby of the school," she writes. "It's a great reminder of what lurks outside in the wilderness and to be on the alert at all times."

Soon it's Halloween. Children carve pumpkins. She posts a photo of costumed kids -- a princess, a robot, a goblin, and a jellyfish -- standing in the classroom. Berner captures herself on a trapping trip, a newly-acquired ATV in the background, her sweatshirt hood cinched light around her face.

Snow creeps down the mountains in the photos in December. She walks on the beach, where sea lions lumber into the icy waves, and fantasizes about surfing. She hikes on the weekends.

"Even though it wasn't a race," she writes of a sunny hike with a group of guy friends, "I felt victorious making it to the top first."

In one of the last pictures of herself on the blog, near Thanksgiving, she stands in the snow, holding a red fox by its feet.

"The fox I'm holding up was an exciting catch, because for days he successfully avoided our snare sets, even relieving himself on a few of them ... but we figured him out and now he'll be part of warm hat. Animal furs are truly the only way to avoid frostbite during Alaska winters," she writes. "Next week we're hoping for a wolf."

She writes about scooping meat from bidarki shells and baking sea urchins in a campfire until their spines crack. She posts pictures of her guardian dogs in Perryville, Duke and Midnight. Their yellow eyes catch the camera light in the morning dark. It seems safer in the winter, she says.

"I took advantage of the bears being in hibernation to go for a few long runs," she writes.

Christmas comes. Weather keeps her from going back East.

"It was hard to be away from family, but not having to go into a Walmart, Giant Eagle or deal with the hustle and bustle of Christmas came close to making up for it," she writes.

Santa Claus visits the school gym. She lists the potluck delicacies: smoked salmon, candle fish, grilled halibut, halibut balls, fresh grilled shrimp topped with seal oil, crab legs, pie. Then the blog ends, dropping out of her vivid story the same, sudden way she dropped into Perryville that day back in August, her camera pressed against the window.

"The kids put on a Christmas play," her last entry reads, "and had a great time."

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