My first memory is knives. Millions of them, cutting through my body through every angle. My body sinking and air replaced by water before my life jacket pulls me back to the surface. The current carries me and I glance back toward the canoe, a snapshot burned into my memory. The leaves contrasted with the dark gray of the rocks and river, the mountains with their yearly dusting of termination dust. And the canoe, millions of miles away, my mother clutching the side, her eyes wide with a fear I should feel but don’t. All I feel is a numb detachment, as if I’m watching my body get swept down the Eagle River, my spirit already hovering above, ready to depart.
A splash interrupts my serene drift downstream, the sound comes closer and closer intermixed with the rush of the river and the gurgle of my breath as water and air combine in my mouth and lungs. Seconds later Dad has me in a vice like grip, holding me as high above the water as he can calling for mom and the canoe. Unceremoniously I am dumped, shivering and shaking into the boat, Dad gasping for breath and Mom paddling for the shore as hard as she can.
Years later, my first memory is still the closest I’ve been to my last. Perhaps my free fall down the mountain could qualify, though it likely would have resulted in just shattered limbs and intensive physical therapy. Now, decades removed, I still remember the knives, the frigid water immobilizing my arms and legs, and my mothers face, the look of terror and loss as I drifted away, and Dad’s courageous breaststroke, holding me above the water while he sank deeper.
All that has changed is my own fear and terror. The memory forms a pit in my stomach, my legs weak and mouth dry and drowning has become my greatest fear. Because at some point your body gives in, you stop fighting the current, you stop treading water. Your fatigue becomes greater than your desire to live, and you give in to the unrelenting attack of the ocean. Sinking below the surface your lungs begin to burn, millennia of evolution, screaming at you to open your mouth, to inhale, and eventually, you succumb. But there is no salvation, no relief, just gallons of water rushing in, pulling you deeper and deeper into the dark.
And yet I love the water, live on it, and follow at a fanatical level, the animals that have mastered the medium. I am an oxymoron, drawn to what I fear. As if I believe if I spend my life on it, in it, beneath it, that I will somehow master my fear. But perhaps it’s best if I never do, if I, for the rest of my life, had something holding me back just a little bit. That sensation of terror, for fear often fosters with it, a respect for that which also terrifies us. Reminds us to never underestimate it, take it for granted, or abuse it.
And yet I have seen mans fear of the of the world turned, not into respect, but into anger and violence. Fear the bear? Kill it, for you cannot fear what is exterminated. But with no bears a walk in the woods is no different than a walk down the street. Yet another disconnect from a past that we have already forgotten. Do not fear the wild, or what you don’t understand. Instead see it as an opportunity to grow, expand, change. Shooting a bear with a camera is infinitely more rewarding than with a gun. Killing one from 300 yards and putting it on your wall doesn’t make you a man, an Alaskan, or a bad ass. At least, it shouldn’t.
If we have nothing to fear we have nothing to respect, and if we have nothing to respect we have nothing to hold in awe. And if we have nothing to hold in awe, than what the hell are we doing out here anyway? We may as well move to the city, get real jobs, and refer to the local park as the great outdoors. Yet where is the excitement? The adrenaline? Our connection with the world that had been essential to our survival until just a couple brief centuries ago. It has been replaced by the 800 channel television, 3G networks, and quarter pounders with cheese.
Yet what is more dangerous, the brown bear in the forest or the type two diabetes, high blood pressure, and inevitable heart attack that awaits our constantly growing species. No one is picketing or protesting the quarter pounders or corn syrup laden drinks, calling them murders or killing machines. Perhaps we should implement fast food control much the way we have predator control. Helicopters circling over the golden arches, rifles poised, shooting carryout bags out of the hands of customers. Or for those that insist on fair chase methods, we can just run up behind them and grab the bags from their hands, throwing them to the ground.