“What you do not see,
do not hear,
do not experience,
you will never really know.”
Anders Apassingok (Yupik)
The thick neoprene waders, much too large for my height and weight, curled out of my boots and began chafing my ankle bone, rubbing it so raw that sockeye red-colored dots of blood formed. I was lumbering across the spongy tundra plants at Kukaklek Lake in Katmai National Park. I may have felt silly (“Do these waders make my butt look big?” I asked my coworkers, who did not deny that they did). I may have been clumsy and inexperienced. I did not care. The suit bulged out of the boots and the suspenders slipped again and again off my shoulders, but my mission was simple – follow the leader, in this case, my colleague Rand, and descend the bank of Moraine Creek and plant myself in knee-deep water. Our objective – to observe Katmai’s bears gorging themselves on sockeye salmon that were nearing the end of their life. The sockeye had a singular mission as well – to spawn, that is, to lay their eggs, then turn from glossy, glamorous lipstick red to splotchy blotches of pale pink and white before going belly up to serve their eyeballs up as tasty snacks, or more likely, to simply rot in the southwestern Alaskan sun.
I’m doing my best, I really am, to take you with me on this journey. I was standing in the river, the same river as the bears were fishing in, the stink of salmon flesh coursing through my nostrils! The bears could have cared less about my being there, so obsessed with the never-ending all-you-can-eat salmon service that makes a Las Vegas casino buffet seem stingy.
I thought a lot about the merit of writing this, and I considered not even trying. After all, words kept failing us. My fellow Californian Maira would look at me after seeing the tenth or eleventh bear and her mouth would fall open and her eyebrows would arch and we would just laugh. Isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it incredible? We repeated these questions to one another. Yes, yes it is, and I imagined, as we stood a football field and a half away from a sow and her two cubs, that I would fail at any attempt to write about this wildlife adventure. Because how could I really describe what I had seen? Photographs would help, as would my passion. But how to tell another soul that your heart opened so wide your brain reacted by creating new folds in which to store these memories which are too large to fit inside the brain with which I was born?
I turned to my mentors, two “M’s” of natural history writers, John Muir and John McPhee, to see how the heck they had used the millions of permutations of Roman alphabet letters to paint the volcanoes, the Native villages, the glaciers, the beluga whales, the puffins, the steller sea lions, the sea otters, the bald eagles, the moose, the caribou and the black-legged kittiwakes. How did they assemble paragraphs of fjords, spruce and douglas fir forests, lonely outposts of men in hairnets getting off work from seafood packing plants, cottonwood trees standing sentry on milky blue waters in lakes hidden from view (but lucky for us a DeHavilland Beaver seaplane broadened our possibilities, giving us more places to land then if a runway were built every other nautical mile below). “We hear about the Great Lakes region’s more than 10,000 lakes. That’s nothing,” Rand says. There might be more than two million lakes in Alaska, but who can count them all?
McPhee wrote in his 1970s-era New Yorker articles, which were later compiled into a compelling book Coming Into The Country, that Alaska’s total acreage of 375 million acres, combined with its small population, is difficult to fathom. The “civilized imagination” he wrote, “cannot cover such quantities of wild land.” John Muir, composing in the late 1880s when he was a sage celebrity in his seventh decade, wrote in Travels in Alaska that he and his companions who glided through the fjords of southeast Alaska aboard a steamer, seemed to “float in true fairyland, each succeeding view seeming more and more beautiful, the one we chanced to have before us the most surprisingly beautiful of all.” And this line made me feel an even deeper kinship with Muir – “ Never before this had I been embosomed in scenery so hopelessly beyond description.” He continues: “…in these coast landscapes there is such indefinite, on-leading expansiveness, such a multitude of features without apparent redundance, their lines graduating delicately into one another in endless succession, while the whole is so fine, so tender, so ethereal, that all penwork seems hopelessly unavailing . . . it seems as if surely we must at length reach the very paradise of the poets, the abode of the blessed.”
In thinking about the density of this state, you’re talking about 100,000 fewer people than the number of residents who live in the city of San Francisco. San Francisco is about seven miles wide. Alaska is about one-fifth the size of the entire United States. Still, facts and figures and all the tourist postcards with a silhouette of Alaska shoved into the lower-48’s outline do not convey why it all matters. Sure, it’s big. So what?
It is Alaska’s oil, gas, copper and gold that merit our dedicated, sustained attention. Add on to that the state’s position in the Arctic, where formerly frozen shipping lanes are opening up for the first time in human history, and you have the ingredients for a global case for adding Alaska to your “I care about that” list. Coal and oil development, as well as gold and copper mining aspirations, require more rail lines, more roads and more compromises. Pressures are mounting to build renewable sources of energy, including damming rivers that look like California’s used to look before we diverted and ruined them for all time.
A Blockbuster Video store near the apartment I rented while in Anchorage does brisk business. Alaska, it seems, is about a decade behind in the entertainment department. The state ought to be proud that it may also be behind when it comes to damming its rivers and bringing its salmon to the brink of extinction. But now is the time to pay attention, and never let your dedication waver – we cannot take for granted that a global mining company or a dam builder or an intergovernmental coalition of the willing will find a way to find more value in destroying Alaska’s wild places and wildlife than in leaving it be. One day it could be economically feasible, for example, to build the largest open-pit copper and gold mine on Earth – right in the center of the planet’s largest salmon runs, forests and rivers teeming with life (see this one hunter’s recent op-ed that illustrates how the mine’s future is still very much alive).
Before visiting Alaska, I thought I knew big, grand, tall and strange. After all, the Owens Valley’s Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States, as well as nearby Death Valley’s Badwater, located more than 200 feet below sea level, are just two features that make my childhood in Bishop seem larger than life. But I was unprepared for Alaska. No superlative seems distinct enough, special enough, descriptive enough, to convey what is going on there. “This place,” Rand had warned me, “will blow your mind.”
On my last morning I longed for just one more adventure. I drove up to Glen Alps and hiked the short but precipitous and steep Flattop Trail. Near the top I took in the international airport on my left, wavy patterns of water along the mud-flat zone on the coast, and to my right, another airport. I saw highways and housing developments, power lines and communication towers. I made out the wind turbines on Fire Island and beyond that, the string of mountains and volcanoes of the Alaska Range. Just two days previously I had been embosomed in rubber and neoprene, walking in the same water as the sockeye salmon and brown bears. Out there, beyond the horizon, I wanted to touch the glaciers and cirques, the rockfalls and hanging valleys, the crevasses and the waterfalls so spectacular and yet so hidden.
Out there, I thought, is wilderness, and yet, high above Anchorage, I realized that if any progress in the grand epoch of humankind is to be made, it is to realize that describing wild places as outside of oneself is to miss the point. We are the wilderness, we are the city’s lights, we are the oil, the gas, the gold and the salmon. We are responsible for all of it, even the parts that we may dislike, like the resource extraction companies and the governments that seem to be a villainous enemy with their industrial strength salmon, tuna and whaling operations.
In the end, words do matter. After all, some places have been protected without their primary sponsor ever seeing them (President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Act during the nadir of the Civil War, mere magazine accounts and oil paintings all he had as proof that it was right). Words are all we have. Adjectives may fall short, there may not be quite the right noun or adverb to show you what was shown to me. But I had to try.
When Maira and I returned from our flight to Katmai we lamely attempted to show our gratitude. It was, I said to my hosts, the best day of my life. Our seasoned pilot, who has more than 6,000 hours of flight time maneuvering Cessna Caravans and DeHavilland Beavers amid the grandiosity of Alaska, smiled. He replied it was the best day of his summer. Which for an Alaskan is really saying something.