Two Bears for Mark

I’m curled in my sleeping bag, the Alder trees at the back of my tent shelter me from the early morning sun. I’m somewhere in the world between dream and reality. So when I hear the sound of Mark’s boots making their way through the Reed grass, I’m not sure if it’s real or imagined until I hear his voice. His tone is calm and measured, but something in it makes my eyes snap open and heart rate quicken before he finishes his sentence.
“David? I hate to disturb you, but there appears to be two brown bears walking towards us along the beach.”

Hate to disturb me? I glance at my watch: 6:45 in the morning. Not that it matters. I want to be disturbed if there’s pair of brownies on the beach no matter the time of day. I unzip my tent and am greeted by my two hundred roommates. They’re small and elusive, rusty red and jet black. But the high pitched beat of their wings all sound the same in my ears. I’m inundated with the gnats immediately. But I brush them out of the way, pulling my bug net and can of bear spray along with me.

Mark is cool and collected as he points down the beach to the place where he last saw the bears. A lot calmer than I’d expect a guy from New York city to be during his first Brown bear meeting. Actually that’s not fair. It’s not like Mark Adams has never left the concrete behind. He’s hiked the mountains of Peru, gone where no white man has ever been in Madagascar. When you write like he does, people send you everywhere.

Which is why we’re here in the early morning light at the north end of Russell Island in Glacier Bay National Park. Mark’s writing a book about Harriman’s Alaskan expedition in 1899 and John Muir’s travels. When he needed a kayak guide, I was blessed with the opportunity to lead him into the wilderness. To travel as Muir did, one paddle stroke at a time. To explain and describe the land and creatures as they passed. And of course, to bring us back in one piece. The first part had been easy. The bears would make it tricky.

I walk down the rocks, trying to get a better angle of the beach. What a sight I must be. The weathered and experienced Alaskan guide, rubbing sleep from his eyes and pulling up his pajama pants that are a size too big. The pants are absurd. Navy blue with a pattern of wolves howling at the moon. The sort of thing you wear on rainy Saturday mornings while drinking coffee. Not fighting bears.

I step onto the tallest rock I can find and stare into the tall Rye grass at the back of the meadow. My body’s awake but not my eyes. I rub them again, trying to focus and keep my expression calm and collected. This happens all the time of course.

Two little brown ears pop up among the grasses. Little satellite dishes that recede the thin long face of a brown bear. Instinct kicks in. I clap my hands and call out good morning. I don’t shout, I want to save some volume, just in case. The bear looks at me, head tilted sideways, politely curious. As if he’s rising on an elevator another bear appears next to him. They’re skinny and young. Probably just got kicked out by Mom within the last month. Four year olds. Teenagers. Young, dumb, ready to take on the world. I can relate.

They saunter back into the woods as I call. Nonchalant and relaxed. I turn and beam at Mark. We’ve talked a lot about bears the last couple of days. I’m glad we saw one. He’s got his little waterproof notebook out, scribbling notes. A few minutes go by and there’s no sign of the bruins. I put on more respectable pants and pull out the Coleman stove, putting water on for coffee. I’m forgetting something… mugs!

Leaving Mark with the stove and food, I jog back up the beach and to the tent, digging for the thermoses. No sooner do I reach the tents and Mark’s voice floats up the beach.
“David? Your friends are back.” Uh-oh.

I come back down the beach, my pace a little quicker this time. I find a big rock and jump on top of it. I spread my legs and stand tall. Stretching my thin 6’4” frame as far as I can. I shout, I clap, I wave my arms. The bears spare me a half-second look and go crashing back into the Alder. From my vantage point I can see the trees shaking fifty yards back from the beach. They’ve cleared out.
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(The beach the night before the bears. The bears came out of the Alder near the blue/green tent)
I reach Mark and the stove, setting the thermoses down and pouring the boiling water into a Nalgene we’re using as a coffee maker. While the coffee steeps I run back up the beach for socks. The bugs are eating my Chaco attired feet alive. I reach into a dry bag and freeze. Something is snapping twigs in the Alder feet from me. Boots forgotten I step back, clapping and shouting. I’d started at a six, my volume’s at ten now. I reach into my pocket for the bear spray. It’s not there. It’s on the beach with Mark.
As calm as I can I shout down the beach, “Mark, can you bring the bear spray up with you please.”
I feel caught. Food and author on the beach, tents and kayak near the trees. In my head I can hear the voice of the park biologist Tonya Lewis. “Don’t let the bears get your food.” I run back down the beach, clapping and shouting the whole time. A plan forms in my mind. Grab the food cans and stove. Pile it at the waters edge, break down the tents. Get the hell out of here. If they want the beach this bad, it’s all there’s. I meet Mark halfway, his arms laden with bear cans, the stove, and water bladder. I grab a handful of gear, turn, and feel my heart drop. The bears are back. Feet from Mark’s tent. For the first time in my life, there’s a bear between me and my kayak.

I grab the bear spray from Mark and charge up the beach, calling at Mark to follow me. In my panic, a tapestry of expletives flow from my mouth like water down a mountain. “You… bear! Get the… away from my… kayak!”

One of these bears is brave. Too brave for my liking. While one slinks into the woods just out of view, the bolder one moves between the tents. Three more strides and he’s at the kayak. I grab a baseball sized rock and close the distance to forty feet, Mark at my heels. “Look as big as you can.” I tell him.

I shout more words you can’t say in church. I pull the safety off the bear spray. The rock cocked like I’m Nolan Ryan, the bear my Robin Ventura. I’ve never fired bear spray at a bear before. Had proudly told Mark 36 hours ago that bears were misunderstood, shy gentle creatures. Leave it to nature to make me look bad.

I’m ten yards away. First and 10. Russell Island Bears versus Gustavus Kayakers. It’d be a route if it comes to that. I finger the bear spray and shout again, I feel my throat getting raw. At last the bear turns.

I’ve looked into the eyes of many wild animals. Orcas, humpbacks, moose, sea lion, seal, deer. But only a bear’s gaze has the ability to make me feel like I’m two feet tall. Nothing is more untamed, more wild. Daring you, defying you, to tell it otherwise. “This is my house,” they say. “Do you want to see what happens in my house?”

I don’t, and I have a feeling neither does Mark. Although his guide getting ripped limb from limb would make a hell of a chapter. The bear turns and gives a little huff. My knees go weak. The bear spray rising above my hip. Dimly I register that there’s no wind. A clear shot if it comes to it. The bear turns and starts to walk away from the kayak. My heart’s in my throat. Keep walking, keep walking.

He slips into the Alder like a phantom. But for how long? I cover the last few feet to the tent. Mark has stood calmly by the whole time. No panic, no fear. What’s going on inside is a mystery, but he’s a heck of a lot calmer on the outside than I am.

We drag our tents through the meadow and over the rocks, our sleeping bags and clothes still inside. We’ll dismantle them near the water. Right now I want as much room between me and the Alder grove that I can.

Fifteen minutes later we float 100 yards offshore in our double kayak. I glance at my watch and laugh. I’d set a timer for the coffee. It’s been steeping for 52 minutes. I hand Mark a thermos, a Cliff bar, and an apple as he scribbles notes. “Got it get it down while it’s hot.” He says.

The bears are on the beach, right at the water’s edge, digging for tidepool Sculpin and munching on Blue Mussels. They’re a lot cuter with 150-feet of water between us. My heart rate slows. This is all they wanted. Two hungry bears, learning to survive without mom. Trying to find a route to the low tide and the protein. We were just in the way.

I rub the side of the kayak, relieved and relaxed. I didn’t want my career defined by one wrecked kayak. The morning is gorgeous. The water is turquoise, that electric color that only the glaciers can mix. As we float Mark pays me the highest compliment he can. “This may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been… nice choice.” As the bears work their way back into the woods I grin like a hyena and strike my paddle against the smooth surface.

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The Murres, the Blob, and Saving the World

I love Common Murres. Those plucky little diving birds sporting smart black and white tuxedos. The delightful little Alcids that help fill the same ecological niche penguins do in the southern hemisphere. You can have your puffins, the darlings of the Alaskan traveler. I’ll take the understated Murre. When you paddle near them you hear adorable little grunts and growls. A mob of muttering Murres is a delightful conversation to eavesdrop on. Like a group of well dressed attendants at a posh dinner party. Until they scream. An outrageous warbling, an exasperated yell completely out of character with their dignified attire and dialect. Last August hundreds of Murres filled Bartlett Cove. At times it seemed impossible to paddle through without disturbing them. I gave their presence little thought as I paddled past. Enjoying their quiet talks and unexpected yelps.

But this winter was not an easy one for them. As Brittney and I traveled south, a mass of warm water moved north into the Gulf of Alaska. Scientists watched it with skepticism and interest, unsure of what to call it or how to diagnose its presence. “The Blob,” everyone called it until an intrepid blogger coined the term “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (RRR).” While it still didn’t sound scientific, at least the word “blob” wasn’t in there anymore.

The Murres didn’t care what it was called. Murres are divers. Able to swim hundreds of feet below the surface to feed on herring, capelin, and juvenile pollock. The warm waters of the RRR sent their food sources deep beneath the waves, seeking the colder water. But as the fish dove, they left the Murres behind, devoid of their winter food source. Murres spend most of the winter offshore, so when they appeared by the thousands in Icy Strait and Glacier Bay, everyone noticed.

Murres lack storage space. They don’t put on layers of fat to help sustain them for the lean times. They need to eat, and just a few days of fasting can rob them of their strength. Last winter, there was no food to be had. And Murres showed up in the most bizarre places. They were sighted in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from the nearest coast, blown north and inland in their weakened condition. Thousands of them landed on frozen Lake Illiamna in western Alaska.

Throughout southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, and the Aleutian chain, dead Murres washed ashore by the thousands. Malnourished and lost, betrayed by a belt of warm water that had no business being there. With thousands of miles of unmonitored coastline, it’s impossible to know how many of these darling birds perished this winter. Estimates are in the hundreds of thousands.

“Are you worried?”

I take my time before answering. Measuring what sort of response I may get. I try really hard not to assume people’s political or environmental views based on where they’re from. I hesitate and admonish myself. Who cares where they’re from? They’re here, in Glacier Bay. They’re kayaking, they clearly care enough to hear what I really think.
The question was not about Murres, but climate change and if I was concerned. But my tuxedo clad friends swim in my mind as I answer.

“Yes,” I respond. And I’m off. Talking about J.B. McKibbon’s sliding scale. How one generation perceives nature as “normal,” slides the scale some, and the next generation perceives this new environment as the new normal. It’s a slippery slope that we’re on.

What if in a hundred years Miami has more canals than Venice and we just consider that normal? What about a world without whales or Murres or wolves or national parks? We scoff but brown bears in California used to be normal. Wolves in Arizona was a given. So many cod off Cape Cod we thought the harvest would never end. This is nothing new. Homo sapiens have been shaping the world around them since forever. Does that justify what we’re doing today?

“It’s not just climate change.” I say, “that gets most of the attention, but it’s so much more. It’s ocean acidity, mercury in the fish. The deck is stacked.”

Hell, we can’t stop killing each other. How can we be expected to care about the rest of the world when we treat our fellow man the way we do? If we’re going to fight, let’s fight for the protection of what the earth still has, not who knows where we go when we die.

The two of them look at me with concern. Nothing like a light conversation about the end of the natural world on a gorgeous day in Glacier Bay. I think about the Murres again. How hard it was to watch, learn, and read about their struggles all winter. How I could have just closed my computer, looked away, pretended like it wasn’t happening. As if that would change anything.

If we can’t talk about it, how will we ever begin to repair the damage?

“I think the natural world will survive,” I continue. “Maybe not the way we see it now, but it’ll recover one way or the other. But that could be hundreds of years from now. It’s not the end of the world, but it could be the end of what makes this a world we love.” I don’t want to live in a world without whales, Murres, wolves, or national parks.

“What do we do?” Their faces are anxious, and I wish I had the magic words. The snappy one liner of the salesmen and TV commercial. The thirty minute sitcom, everything tied together and back to normal before the evening news.

What do I say?

I remember Kim Heacox’s answer to a lady last summer. A mama grizzly, a mighty matriarch, asking what they were supposed to do. Daring him to answer, to tell her she was living wrong.

“Change everything.” He answered simply.
“So do we stop flying? Driving?”
“Maybe.”

I parrot his line, with a small modification. “Change everything you can.” I answer. “Make sacrifices. They should hurt, they should be hard. Or they wouldn’t be sacrifices. Walk to work, eat meat once every other day instead of with every meal. Vote in politicians that put the environment at the top of their to do list.”

70% of Americans say they support more conservation policies. Yet we’ve elected a congress that hasn’t passed such a bill in years. That’s on us. We want to save the world as long as it’s convenient. As long as it comes with a tax break. As long as it doesn’t tread on us.

“Thank you for asking about this.” I tell them. “It’s hard to hear, and difficult to discuss and think about. But it’s the only way that we can change and put the pieces back together.”

A bird comes to the surface. I’d know that silhouette anywhere. Know that dark bill, that white underbelly. I break into a smile. It’s so good to see them. A reminder that many of them made it. They’re not called Common Murres for nothing. There’s boatloads of them. May there always be. In its bill is a little wriggling fish. Probably herring. It’s impossible to tell from here. The Murre gulps it down in two swallows, floats at the surface half a second more, and dives back beneath the waves. Looking for more. Happy hunting little friend.

Cover Photo Credit: wsl.ch