12/18/2014

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Seattle woman retraces Arctic journey after grizzly kills her parents

Seattle woman retraces Arctic journey after grizzly kills her parents

SEATTLE -- For the first time, a Seattle woman is telling the story of her parents deadly encounter with a grizzly bear and her journey to retrace their fatal river rafting trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It's a journey that took Shannon Huffman Polson from Seattle to Alaska, and from grief to hope.

Anchorage's Richard and Kathy Huffman were on the adventure of a lifetime: A 10-day trip of river rafting and camping through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They wanted the adventure, and they could think of no better way to celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary.

The back-country vets craved the wild -- its beauty and solitude -- in such a remote corner of the country.
 
"They found incredible peace in that," Huffman Polson said.

The last time Huffman Polson spoke to her parents they were partially through their rafting trip down the Hulahula River. It was Father's Day.

"They had seen all this amazing wildlife and they just had joy in their voices," she said, recalling the satellite phone conversation she made to wish her father a Happy Father's Day. "They were so thrilled and pleased."

The couple's  journal documented each day: Landing on the tundra, hiking to the coastal plain and rafting to their planned destinations. Kathy wrote about the beauty, how much she loved Richard and how she valued being in the Refuge because it gave them time to talk.

"The last journal entry was June 23, the last pictures were June 23," Huffman Polson said.

It's still painful, even eight years after what the Alaska Department of Fish and Game described as a "rare grizzly attack."

A sheriff's deputy told a baffled Shannon, who spent time growing up in Alaska, that just as there are rogue people, there are rogue bears.

Huffman Polson remembers the 911 text she received from Alaska.

"My initial thought when he said a bear came into their campsite, I thought, 'I'll have to help get them to a hospital or coordinate with doctors,'" she said.
 
A 300-pound grizzly, healthy and likely 5- to 7-years old, decimated their campsite. 

"It appears they were in their tent when it happened," Huffman Polson said as she remembered what investigators told her. Her parents were attacked in their sleeping bags.

"For awhile there was just a lot of shock, I don't think I cried until the burial which was that Friday," she said.
 
The lever action on Richard's rifle had been released, but investigators concluded there was no time to get off a shot. The grizzly likely stalked the couple, making them the first people to be killed by a grizzly in the refuge.

"What is most difficult is you lose them and you lose them suddenly," Huffman Polson said.

The couple had been in the Artic Refuge the summer before without incident. They were pros in the back country. The Huffmans typically ate in one spot and floated to a separate area to set up camp, their food always kept in a bear-proof container.

When the shock eased off, Huffman Polson suddenly faced finding her new normal. She headed North. On the one-year anniversary of her parents' death, she touched down on the Alaskan tundra and began to retrace their kayaking trip. 

"I just want to be able to talk to them, hear their voices and get their advice," she said. 

She thought it would be cathartic. A grizzly attack was always top of mind, but a river guide, a portable electrical fence and a shotgun were always with her. She knew it had to be done. She hustled, and managed to shave two days off what would have taken most folks 10 days to complete.

"You know there is danger involved and there are thing you have to pay attention to all the time," she said.

Fear took a back seat to a desire to finish what her parents started. She also craved closure -- a way to end this painful chapter. But, like other things she tried that she thought would be cathartic, like singing in Mozart's Requiem in Seattle, the pain didn't stop.

"I thought that this river trip was going to be cathartic and it wasn't either," she said.
 
The sojourn to retrace her parents Artic journey turned out to give her something unexpected: A life lesson that took her physically from Seattle to Alaska,but emotionally from grief to hope.

She learned you never get over losing a loved one -- you just learn to cope.

"It's a process," she said. 'It's a journey, and it's not a journey that finishes after doing something or after a year, or five years, it's an ongoing journey."
 
Footnote:  An investigation revealed nothing unusual about the grizzly and called the attack "rare,"  adding that Shannon's parents, a longtime lawyer and teacher, "did everything right."

Shannon Huffman Polson writes about the 2005 incident in a
new memoir. Her book was released this year it's called "North of Hope"
 

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