Tag Archives: bears

Telling Stories

He wore cowboy boots. Amazing how quickly one can come to a whole list of conclusions by a shoe type, an accent. In this case the accent matched the boots. A drawl that can come from only one place. A drawl that says, “I will not be amused when you remind me that Alaska is three times bigger than Texas.”

So I skip it, not that it was ever funny. I worked with this boat captain several years back. Before every trip he would make the guests go around and say where they were from. When someone announced they were from Texas we’d burst out with all the pent up enthusiasm we could muster, “welcome to America my friend!” They either loved it or hated it. I haven’t used that line in forever. I gloss over that one too.

They introduce themselves. Bruce and Gail. Even their names sound like Texas. But they’re friendly, oh so friendly. Bubbly, energetic, polite, talkative. In their mid-60s and on their third trip to Alaska. They love it here. They’ll remind me of that ten more times before the day is done and I’ll appreciate it every time. They’ll marvel at the beauty, coo at sea lions and otters, stare with hungry eyes at a breaching whale a quarter mile away. To hear them talk it may as well have shaken their hand.

Perhaps they sensed it like I did. That when it came to politics, to life, our ethics, we stood on opposite ends of the spectrum. But here is the beauty, the magic, the power of this Bay. It makes all that stuff irrelevant. Here is common ground. The otters are arbitrators. What would it be like if our Senate and House of Representatives met here, inches above the water. Would some of this melt away? Let’s make a Republican paddle with a Democrat and see what happens. Forget crossing the aisle, see if you can cross Bartlett Cove.

For seven hours the talk is easy. The conversations are light. They own a ranch, 2,000 acres of Texas desert beauty. Bruce grass feeds his herd. He brings inner city kids out every year, teaches them to hunt the deer that flood their property. He show them everything from pulling the trigger to cleaning, packing, and preparing. Reminding them  that food does not appear on the Wal-Mart shelves through some sort of Harry Potter spell.

“Get’em away from their phones.” Says Gail. “Too many kids spend their whole lives doing this.” She mimes tapping away on an iPhone, her head bent low, chin to her chest. “They never look up to see the world. They walk right past it.”

They’re involved in wildlife conservation. Fighting to keep the areas near their ranch wild. Teddy Roosevelt Republicans. How amazing, that the father of conservation was conservative, was buddies with John Muir. I mention the parallels and Bruce nods.

“Amazing man. Did you know that while he was president he explored the Amazon? While he was their he got so sick that he told the others in his party to leave him behind. That they couldn’t afford to carry him… the president! Tell me if that’d ever happen now?”

The trip ends. But they’re not sick of me yet and invite me up to the lodge to have a drink. For a moment I hesitate. But I’m intrigued, so intrigued by what is happening here. By the opportunity to have what Melanie Heacox would call, “the interpretive moment.” Sometimes a cold beer in the revelry of a magic day is that moment.

Halfway through the first beer the door cracks.

“Where’s one place that you really want to visit in Alaska?” Gail asks.

“There’s a place,” I begin, “in the northeast corner of the state, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” Only politicians use the acronym, slurring it into a gravelly, guttural grown, “Ahhnwarrrr.”

Gail’s face alights. “It looks beautiful.” She says. Like most people, she’s seen the pictures. They’ve been to Denali, the Alaskan Serengeti.

“This is supposed to be like Denali on steroids.” I say.

Bruce leans forward. He’s a talker, not one to sit back and listen. “What’s up there?” He asks.

“Everything and nothing.” The silence hangs for a moment and I step off the ledge. “In the refuge is the 1002 area. That’s where they want—”

“That’s where the oil fields are.” Bruce finishes. I nod but say nothing.

“That’s where it is?” Gail says with a gasp. “That’s where the oil is supposed to be?”

I nod again and watch her face change but don’t say anything, waiting for her to come to her own conclusion. But Bruce continues, “You could put what, five drilling platforms up there? Two acres each. Ten acres total. Take what you needed and… the land land grows back. We see it in Texas all the time. Three years after you leave you can barely tell they were there at all.”

Our talks all day have been civil. And even now there’s no threat in his voice. Nothing that’s inviting confrontation. If only we could always talk like this. Maybe we’d get somewhere.

“If it’s done responsibly—”

“Not always as easy as you’d think.” I say. I could talk about Caribou, I could talk about carbon dioxide in parts per million, sea level rise, or erosion. But something whispers in the back of my head. “Tell stories.”

“Let me tell you about how north slope oil exterminated a pod of Orcas. In Prince William Sound is a unique population of Orca Whales. They’re called the AT1 pod. When the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, the AT1’s swam through the slick the next day.”

“Orca’s have no sense of smell,” I explain, “they had no idea what they were passing through… they haven’t reproduced since. There’s only a handful of them left. Three or four I think. Within a few years, they’ll be all gone. For me, I can’t put a price on that.”

It’s hard to tell what sort of impact the story has.

“One drunk boat captain.” Bruce says.

“All it takes is one.” I answer, “Prince William Sound will never be the same.”

I point out over Bartlett Cove, in the distance beyond the forests of Lester Island are the Fairweather Mountains. The view the three of us have been marveling at them all day. “There’s precious few places like this left on the planet. We need them. We can’t exist without them.” They agree, they understand better than most that nature equals life.

“Beneath the Brady Icefield,” I continue, which is just beneath the Fairweather’s, are mineral deposits. Possibly oil. This view we’ve been raving about all day, what if there was an oil well at its feet? What if a mine tailling dam burst? If we drill in the refuge, what’s to stop this place from being next?”

I’m not expecting a deathbed conversion. Not expecting them to change their voter registration to democrat. To start a non profit climate change research association. But I want to be heard. Just like they do. Like we all do.

“We’re coming,” I say, “from completely different ends of the spectrum. That’s ok.”

“We have no love for Trump.” Gail interjects.

“Bless you,” I smile. “But it’s important that we can sit and talk civilly about these things. That we do it respectfully. This is how change happens. This is how we keep amazing places like Glacier Bay, like the refuge whole.”

I doubt I’ll ever see Bruce or Gail again. And at the end of the day, doubt that anything in their minds has changed. Strip all this stuff away and we’d be friends, were friends for an afternoon. They’re sweet people, loving people, giving people. They work hard, play hard, the sort of people that would pick you up and set you back on your feet without a second thought.

But that look in Gail’s eyes when she realized that Ahnwarrr was the refuge. That that was the place under siege. Maybe something stuck there, in the back of her head. And maybe next time it comes up she won’t see oil rigs, drills, or platforms. Maybe she’ll see the Caribou running across the tundra, and a young kayak guide, his eyes full of meaning talking about how badly he wants to run with them.

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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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Rolling the Dice

Every guiding company has them. A page of carefully worded phrases meticulously written out by a lawyer in some office, far removed from the natural world. The infamous risk waiver. A bucket of ice water at the start of the trip. A necessary reminder that the world we are traveling to is unscripted. That it can be harsh, dangerous, and unforgiving. That even the best of us, the most prepared, the most cautious, are not immune.

For those of us that live it every day, we have our own, unwritten risk waiver. Every time we go out our doors and into the woods, up the mountain, or onto the water, we sign it. It’s our unspoken agreement with the world we love. An acceptance that it can betray us at any moment. For if it can happen to Forest Wagner, it can happen to anyone.

Forest lives in the woods. There isn’t a mountain he can’t climb, a fjord he cannot paddle, a situation he can’t handle. Two weeks ago he was attacked by a bear while leading a group of students near Haines in southeast Alaska. He wasn’t been foolish or careless, disrespectful or arrogant. You roll the dice enough with Alaska, and sometimes it comes up snake eyes. What are the odds that there’s a mama bear with spring cubs over that blind ridge? 1 in 100? 1 in 1,000? How many blind ridges do you hike over before the odds catch up?
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Forest’s influence and inspiration stretches across the state, across the globe. He’s taught thousands how to survive in the back country, inspired many to follow their passions as mountaineers, kayakers, river rafters, and skiers. From all accounts, even after he’d been attacked and bitten along his side and leg and fallen off a cliff face, it was he who spoke to the medivac on the cell phone. Calm, clear, and collected, he talked his students through the whole process. His own Wilderness First Responder.

“I can climb down if you need me to.” He told the medivac. As if he’d done nothing more than sprain his ankle on a morning run through the suburbs.

Why him and not me? Two days ago I hiked the mountain ridge behind my parent’s house. Bear and moose sign coated the game trail. Again and again I rounded blind corners. Bear bells jingling and bear spray bumping against my leg offered little comfort. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about Forest around every corner. Wrong place, wrong time. Our unspoken agreement, our signed risk waiver with the natural world.
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I wouldn’t have it any other way. Beneath the sugary, frosted coating that reality TV has given Alaska, nothing has really changed. To truly experience this land, to know it with genuine intimacy means to throw ourselves at its mercy, and accept that we may not receive any. Forest knows this, I know this, Brittney knows this, and so does any other guide or outdoor enthusiast that climbs her mountains and paddles her shores. For if the wilderness was always safe it would not be wilderness. With risk comes appreciation and respect. How charismatic would the bears and wolves be if they were harmless? Would we love them, photograph them, even their tracks worthy of our marvel and imagination? Would glaciers be sublime if they didn’t send blocks of ice as big as buildings into the water to crush and reshape everything in their path?
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So this summer I’ll strap on my boots and push my kayak into the water. I’ll grab my fishing pole and walk the salmon stream, knowing that I share the land with bears, moose, and whales. I’ll grab my dice, take the odds, and see what happens. The alternative is a life that is fraught with other dangers. Forest wouldn’t have it any other way.

He’ll be back, it’ll take more than a bear to pry him away from his natural habitat. I have no doubt he’ll summit Denali again, climb the alpine, and return stronger and more confident than ever. The wilderness needs ambassadors like Forest and the mountains of Alaska just wouldn’t be the same without him.

With All Five Senses

We are visual animals. What we see is what we get. Our sense of smell, taste, hearing, and touch takes a backseat to what hits the retina, is fragmented and sent to our brains. And yet the world is so much more than what we see. Or why would we ever get off the couch, board the plane and travel? We don’t want to just see it for ourselves, on a deeper level we want to taste, hear, touch, and smell. And yet… when we arrive our supporting senses again fall away.

For nearly half a decade I’ve watched the behemoth vessels of Princess, Holland America, Norwegian and (gulp) Disney, trace the inside passage. From ten stories up the panoramic view must be breath taking. Never ending acreages of trees, oceans, whales, birds, and bears drifting below the eyes of those that have never seen the natural world in its element. Before their eyes is what brought them here. Is that enough to make one appreciate the land? To change lives? To understand what all can be lost if we don’t change and change fast?

Do we need more? Trees and mountains may inspire as they roll by. But they are visual descriptions, easy to imagine, see, digest, and forget. From atop the ship or within the walls of the lodge, so much is lost. Layers upon layers of the natural world lay hidden just beneath the surface, invisible.

They require us to step off the gangway, out the door, and into the woods and fjords. When we do we find what was hidden was the smell of the ocean, masked by exhaust. The sound of the gulls covered by engine noise. The bite of glacially fed canals, the taste of salt drifting seductively below. We must leave behind 4G and wi-fi and sit in our ancestral home while we still can

I can’t pretend like I’ve always known this.

For three years I worked as a whale and bear guide in Juneau, side by side with the great white boats. While every day brought transcendent moments of beauty, a part of me felt empty. With the rumble of boat engines we felt compelled to add our own commentary and exclamations to the scene. It’s understandable as excitement bubbles over. But the anthropogenic noises of the boat, our feet, and the babble from other boats added layer upon layer to the acoustic scene until the sound of the whales was nearly extinguished. The click of the camera the running questions, the chirp of the iPhone removed the intimacy.

I didn’t think I could be a kayak guide. Didn’t think I’d be able to handle watching whales vanish over the horizon while I paddle slower than I walk. I went into the summer unsure of how I’d adapt. Many days I came home without seeing a plume of whale exhaust, or the shadow of a bear. But when I did, an extraordinary thing happened.

Without the white noise of man’s busy hands, we fell silent. No horsepower no clicking cameras, no thundering feet on metal, no screams and shouts. We were muted by the silence of the natural world. A world so still that from 50 yards you can hear a bear’s claws on the rocks as it turns over boulders. A moment so powerful you don’t as much hear the whale breath but feel it as it explodes from the deep end of the kelp bed yards from your bow.

Sometimes we’d just bob meditatively on the tide. Glacier Bay holding us in a trance, hearing the voices we needed to hear; Murrelet, sea lion, harbor porpoise. It would be rude to interrupt.

I began to understand.

It’s not the pictures of the whale that I need. It’s the sound of their breath, audible from miles away. The slimy comfort of the kelp fronds wrapped around my kayak. The smell of salmon so strong that it permeates the ocean’s surface as they pulse beneath the surface. It’s blueberries on my tongue, Common Murres in my ears, whale breath in my nose.

It took slowing down, not speeding up. Paddle strokes over four strokes. Smaller boats, smaller town, smaller mindset.

One of the first questions of the day is invariably, “what will we see today?”

“Nature is unscripted,” I explain, “I can only tell you what we may see.”

“But,” I go on, “I promise you’ll feel the tide, hear more than you ever imagined, and won’t get the smell of salt out of your nose for days. Believe me, in the end, that’s what you really want.”

Lessons of the Beardslees

Paddling in a double kayak is about rhythm, matching your stroke to your partners. The rise and fall in perfect synchrony: dip, push, pull, lift, switch. After a while it becomes meditative, the landscape and hours slipping by, the sun slowly pivoting across the blue sky. Feet in front of me Brittney sets a steady pace, the kayak’s bow cutting silently through the Beardslee Islands, briefly disturbing the calm surface of the ocean before the ripples dissipate, covering our tracks.
Eight inches below the water is glass. It’s surface reflecting the islands, the mountains, our very being back at us with the distortion of refraction. Twisting our reality ever so slightly but no less authentic. We cut across the mouth of Secret Bay and jut briefly north along the Young Island Peninsula. Strawberry Island stands at the mouth of the Beardslee Entrance. The gateway to a maze of homogenous islands. The birds eye view of our maps reveal their distinctive points, coves, and bays.
But when you paddle within them, their uniqueness vanishes, replaced by gradual rocky beaches leading up to forests of spruce, hemlock, alder, and cottonwood. Weaving through, it’s easy to imagine getting lost in a land of identical land masses that punctuate the water ways. Easy to get confused in a sea of conformity as you try to match the point on the map with the four similar ones you just paddled past.
But by the time we reach the entrance it all becomes clear. The lower bay leaps out from behind the islands and my eyes follow contours of the land north where the glaciers lay, advancing and retreating, never sleeping. You could spend years studying the geography of the bay and never know all of it. The price you pay for living in a land that is constantly changing. From the other boat Leah points toward a small cove that overlooks the entrance, the sun warming the rocks. I push down with my left foot and the boat concedes to my request, the stern swinging right.
A few hours ago we’d slipped through the cut on an uninspiring 10-foot high tide using the back door to slip into the Beardslee’s. In places the keel of our kayak whispered as it kissed the blue mussels and barnacles barely submerged at the high tide. A few years ago our boat would have safely passed through on a ten foot high, but with the land rising at three quarters of an inch per year, nothing can be taken for granted here. Maps routinely became obsolete within years, riverlets between islands viewed within varying degrees of suspicion, nothing was real until you’d paddled it, seen for yourself how much the bay had truly changed.
Our boat kisses off the rocks on the ebbing tide as we stretch stiff legs and backs like an old man rising from his favorite chair. A curtain of reed grass four feet high stands like a fence at the top of the beach. We stop and scan for a moment to see if our landing has stirred up a pair of black ears attached to a tan muzzle, but all is quiet save for the chorus of the birds, and the steady drone of a boat as it chugs north through Sitakaday Narrows, sharing the sound with the lower bay.
Names rattle off my tongue like long lost friends; Tlingit Point, Drake Island, Geikie Inlet, Marble Mountain. Somewhere above them are the glaciers of the west arm where undoubtedly, a pair of cruise ships throws wakes onto the beaches as they churn through Tarr Inlet.
“All that time on the water,” wrote Kim Heacox, “and never close to it.”
It made me sad to think about. How much of this place can’t be experienced from ten stories above. Isolated, withdrawn, with controlled heating, air conditioning, buffets, casinos and gift shops. But how many really did want to take a big drink of the land? Run their hands over the rocks, feel the laughter of the waves as they played with your boat, hear the Sea Lion roar, the Oystercatcher giggle? Unless things had changed drastically in the past few years, not many.
So we talk about what we can control, the people that do want to take a drink, see their reflection refracted back on the mirror of the ocean. Leah talks about finding common ground, guiding is more listening than speaking some times.
“No one ends up in Gustavus by accident,” I offer. “It’s deliberate.”
Leah nods, “a lot of the time we’re preaching to the choir. The people that want to go paddling care deeply about places like this, enough that they really want experience it. It’s up to us to inspire them to take what they see here and go home and in turn, inspire those that otherwise wouldn’t.”
It’s true, the climate change pharisee, the six figure oil employee isn’t the padding type. If they were they probably wouldn’t be what they are.
From the mouth of the west arm comes a great white monster, a cruise ship materializing, even dozens of miles away it plows south like a great floating skyscraper.
In the fall Leah travels to Canada and leads polar bear viewing trips. It is here, that she must fight to find common ground, to listen instead of speak.
“There are some that want to see the bears, but if they had to chose between their SUVs and oil development or polar bears, they’re taking the car. You have to find something in that moment they they’ll connect with, because for a lot of them, they’re not worried about what will happen to these places in the future.”
I feel cynicism and frustration rise in my chest. 70% of Americans claim to support environmental policies. But we’ve elected a congress that hasn’t passed a conservation policy in years.
Save the world. As long as it’s convenient.
I look back into the Beardslee’s the route we’d taken hidden and concealed by the optical illusions of dozens of points, coves, and forests. Every island looking the same, but in actuality so different.
The cruise ship grows larger, on board are thousands of people that look just like us, perched on the rocks. Perhaps that was the challenge, the goal of the naturalist and conservationist. To stop looking from above at these people where every difference was so obvious. To stop looking at the map of the Beardslee’s as it were, and to actually paddle it. So that we could both see that, we weren’t all that different.
“We have to find common ground,” Leah repeats, “even if it’s just for a moment.”

A Deathbed Lesson in Living

For my entire life I’ve been blessed to live in a place that other people visit. Not the Bahamas, or southern California, or Europe; Alaska. The Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun and whatever other catchy tagline we’re using these days (Palin’s Pasture?).
For three summers I had a front row seat to those retracing the routes of John Muir, the gold rush and sled dogs. I worked in Alaska’s capital, Juneau as a whale watch guide, deckhand and bear guide (bear viewing that is, not hunting).
I was fresh out of college, and had just had the rug pulled out from underneath me. I had lined up an entry level position with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) only to have the federal budget frozen and my position unceremoniously tossed out four weeks before I was supposed to begin.
I didn’t know the first thing about guiding. But I knew whales, the ocean and my Dad had once been charged by a Grizzly so I felt qualified. Virtually the entire tourism industry in southeast Alaska centers around the cruise ship. The 2,000 passenger floating hotels that market themselves as holding everything you could ever want.     Upwards of 15,000 people can flood Juneau off the boats in the summer; a town with a population of about 33,000.
I fidget on the dock. Bright orange polo tucked into Carharts, black and orange ball cap jammed on top of curling blond hair. I feel like a 6’4” carrot. Slowly couples begin to gather around me; from Germany, Texas, Boston, and Australia. I hand out the weight sheets to ensure the planes are balanced for the flight portion of the tour and try to make conversation. A beer or two would’ve helped.
My last couple staggers slowly down the gangplank towards me. It’s immediately clear that all is not well. The husband’s steps are uneven, his breath ragged, he looks exhausted and beaten. Cancer will do that.
As we board the bus bound for the airport his wife pulls me aside. Yes, her husband was terminally ill, his life expectancy could be measured in months. But if I could, please, try to treat them as normally as possible.
I climb the steps behind her and collapse into my seat mind whirling. I was supposed to be in a lab, or a research boat measuring the bioenergetics of forage fish. Fish that couldn’t tell me their physical condition. That there last wish was to see the glaciers of Alaska.
What the hell had I gotten myself into? What did this man care how big a humpback whale was? How long a brown bear slept or how much fish they could devour in a day?
The trip slides by as the plane sends us over the glaciers and over to an island called Chichagof which has one of the largest concentrations of brown bears in the world. Naturally we see none. Nature doesn’t understand the concept of the storybook ending.
In the small native town of Hoonah, a boat collects us and we begin the three hour trip back to Juneau eyes scanning for whales. Slowly I begin to pluck up the courage to talk to him. His name is Dan, he’d lived his whole life in Houston, Texas and had just been diagnosed a couple of weeks ago.
He’d rejected chemotherapy and other treatments, emptied their bank account, and was seeing as many of the places he’d dreamed of experiencing before the sickness shackled him to a bed. Alaska had been his number one pick.
Juneau had been their boats first stop. “No pressure,” I told myself. I apologized that the bears hadn’t shown, that the glaciers had been partially obstructed by clouds.     He shrugs, “it’s just enough to know that I’m here.” he answers.
Twenty minutes later a humpback blasts out of the water like a rocket, sending a crescendo of foam across the surface and we cheer like our team just won the Super Bowl. There’s a spark in Dan’s eyes, a glint of joy and life that I can still see four years later. For a few seconds he looks reborn until another coughing fit sends him back into the boat’s cabin.
An hour later we’re within sight of Auke Bay, Juneau’s largest harbor. From the water, the Mendenhall Glacier looms over the boats bobbing along the dock. Even from two miles away it dominants the skyline like a giant frozen sky scraper. The boat captain screams the boat to a halt and ushers me onto the deck with Dan and his wife.
“Get their picture with the glacier,” he whispers.
They lean against the boat’s railing, the ice framed perfectly above them. I swallow a lump in my throat and blink away tears. For the second time Dan looks half his age as he dots a kiss on his wife’s cheek and wraps an arm around her as I click off a shot. The moment passes, the boat revs, and they slowly move back inside, wrapping their down jackets tightly against the wind.
Minutes later we’re on the bus, headed for the cruise ships 15 minutes away. I search for something comforting or inspiring to say. Some magic words that could somehow make their plight better. Instead I just listen as they talk about their kids, their work, their life. My ears doing more than my tongue ever could.
Feet from the dock Dan looks out the window and sighs, “it’s a magnificent place you have here, David.”
“Thanks, but it’s not mine, it’s all of ours. It grabs hold of something deep inside of us, resonates, makes us whole.”
He nods, “I wish I would have seen it sooner so I could climb the mountains. Maybe go fishing, you hunt?”
I confess that I’ve never killed anything bigger than a salmon.
“Well don’t wait,” he said, “live out your dreams while your young, don’t wait for your come to Jesus moment.” His wife sniffs and he gives her a little squeeze.
The bus stops, I shake Dan’s hand and hug his wife. Slowly they walk away, inching up the gangway, his last words echoing between my ears.
Don’t wait, live now. See what needs to be seen. Breath the air, walk the trails, climb the mountains, swim the rivers. Don’t let life get in the way of living.
Four years later I sit in a cabin perched on the shores of British Columbia, living. NOAA never called back, hallelujah. Maybe I’ll get a real job some day but I doubt it. Not after seeing that look in Dan’s eye as the humpback broke the surface, telling me everything I’d ever need to know.

My Declaration

I sit in paradise. The only sign of human life out the window is the lighthouse on Parson Rock two miles away. The storm rages, the wind blows, shaking the windows. The land is untamed, dangerous, and beautiful. Humpbacks stubbornly push through the waves to breath and feed. The gulls hover as if suspended like marionettes, riding the gusts above a churning ocean. Cougars prowl on Swanson and Cracroft Island, some have never laid eyes on a human being. It is the land that I’ve been drawn to my whole life. The freedom and the salt spray, the forest so full of life you can feel the energy of millions of lives all around you though they’ll never speak a word.

But how long will it stay like this if we elect people who don’t care? At what point does the environment become something that we’ll stand for. As a new wave of climate change deniers take center stage, America continues to fall further and further behind the rest of the world. We have spoken. Money, oil, and development mean more than quiet places and open spaces. A full wallet speaks louder than a full soul. I would say that we’ve lost our way. But it’s hard to find a time where we knew where we were going. It creates quotes such as this from James Inhofe: “The Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.’ My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

The bible is not a shield Mr. Inhofe. Nor is it justification for development and pipe lines. We are charged as care takers of this world God created. That does not mean that it is our to be pillaged.

What would they think if they just visited some of these places. Not just saw them but experienced them. If they got down on their hands and knees and felt the rocks beneath their palms. Smelled the sea and the forest. Inhaled the oxygen straight from the trees. Took the time to sleep on the ground, watching the stars blossom into view, with no streetlights or car horns to invade the senses. Perhaps sleep with a root buried in the lower back. If they could be paralyzed by the perfect beauty of the sunrise climbing the peaks of the mountains, spilling out over the beach, intertwined with the crashing of the waves. Would they care than? Would they see that material riches are not enough to satisfy the human soul and spirit. That nature and wilderness is not a luxury. That it’s a necessity whether we realize it or not and all that experience it is never the same.

I am not Republican, I am not Democrat. This isn’t about us versus them, at least, it shouldn’t be. We all share this planet, we’re all on the same side whether we realize it or not. I am of the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. Creators of National Parks and the Endangered Species Act. The party of John Muir and Rachel Carson, Kim Heacox and Lynn Schooler, writers who dare to speak for a world that cannot speak for itself. Because tragically the mountains cannot stand before congress, nor can the bears and whales. But we can, I will. And as I read the statements of those that now represent these places it has become clear what I will spend my life fighting for.

I could spend my whole life here, sitting suspended above the rocks, watching the sea crash against them. Or sitting in the old growth forest that has been growing and falling for millennia. But how selfish would that be of me. To live and enjoy while its future hangs in the balance. I want this place, these lands to change someones life the way that it has changed mine. I want someone to paddle in Glacier Bay, 100 years from now while humpbacks lunge feed around them and sea lions flash beneath their kayak. I pray to the same God as Mr. Inhofe for that, because in the end, we’re all on the same side.