Moraine Creek, Katmai National Preserve
Really, you walked into the river, you approached the bear, you borrowed its fishing site? You clambered up a bluff, only to see a sow and her cubs doing the same thing some yards away? How could a vegetarian like you catch a fish, I mean, don’t you hate the idea of any animal suffering with a hook in its mouth? Honestly, how did you miss the Volkswagen Beetle-sized bear passing behind you, your focus on your new fly fishing skills so all-consuming? How could you abandon that orphaned baby duck? Was the guide right, that only its mother could save it? Why weren’t you mauled, slashed by the dagger claws of bears? Why did they not so much as roar at you?
In this land, the bears and the people pass on the salmon highways like daily commuters on their way to work. None of it looked right. Even as a former employee at a zoological society, I had scarcely been so close to such a dangerous, hulking mammal without the benefit of steel bars and safety latches. I obsessed over all of it and as a result failed to sleep. Instead, I observed my dreams without end, curious about the essential question, “Why was I not more afraid?”
Kvichak River, Bristol Bay, Alaska
In a room between the Alaska and the Aleutian Ranges, with their thousands of ponds, lakes, creeks, rivers, hills and mountains buffering me against the chaos of vehicle traffic, crowded rapid transit cars and the press of people in my normal life in the San Francisco Bay Area, my brain did not accept that any of this was real. The endless light honeyed the conversations among new acquaintances, coating us in its amber embrace. Soon those acquaintances seemed like family. The sneaking silhouettes of DeHavilland Beaver single engine floatplanes waited like uncles at the docks, eager to reveal more of southwestern Alaska each morning. No, none of it felt real. Instead, I felt like a character in a fairy tale, a woman who met the eagle, the salmon and the bear, and never was the same.
Crosswind, Inbound for Pothole, Katmai National Preserve
Outside the lodge a mere 20-minute flight away, the kame and kettle topography of Katmai National Preserve undulates and expands across the horizon, mounds of earth alternating with water-filled depressions. It’s as though a heated discussion between the retreating sheets of ice and the dirt below it was settled through compromise – the glaciers depart, but they leave proof they were here. We land in a pothole, which in any other state would be called a lake, or at the least, a big pond.
The Forty-Ninth State
For all the breathless sensation, I know Alaska is not innocent, nor am I. I use oil, gasoline, minerals and forest products from Alaska. American government built the Alaska pipeline and most of the roads. With the temperature increasing, glaciers are melting. Alaska, then, is a platform for understanding, for researching the Arctic, whose melting ice will open shipping lanes for increased use of more natural resources. Polar bears are pouring into Arctic villages like Kaktovik in unprecedented numbers, looking for food because the ice is melting their hunting stations too fast and at too rapid a rate.
But it’s not all doom and darkness. We don’t always mess things up.
Nushagak and Kvichak Watersheds, 150 Nautical Miles Southwest of Anchorage
The most important environmental catastrophe those of us in the lower-48 have never heard about is the Pebble Mine. Why? Because it has not yet happened. One of the world’s largest copper, gold and molybdenum mineral deposits lies here in Bristol Bay, home of the largest remaining wild salmon runs on Earth. Had development moved ahead, a visitor would see the largest open pit mine in North America, covering some seven square miles and burrowing down to a depth nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon. But people got together, learned together, and crafted goals together. Coalitions of nonprofit groups, Native communities, as well as state and federal government agencies, conducted scientific analyses and drew up economic plans that included preserving traditional ways of life as well as the wildlife upon which they depend. One nonprofit leader told me that in the beginning, some of Bristol Bay’s residents were not as concerned about the future. A mine, after all, offered the promise of jobs. But after a trip to see a similar operation in British Columbia, their tune changed. I don’t want to see my lands and people ruined like that, the Native elder reportedly said.
Anchorage International Airport, Gate B8
My colleague Brian and I stood on the jet bridge preparing to board our return flight from Anchorage through Seattle and back to San Francisco. We told each other story after story of our bear encounters. An elderly couple wearing tourist shirts from Seward leaned in and said, “Sounds like you had quite the adventure, we didn’t see any bears at all!” We must have sounded like public television nature show narrators. How lucky I felt at that moment. We had seen so many bears we lost count, we had been so close as to touch them in some cases, we had felt adrenaline and exhilaration in our veins and been high and floating on the heightened awareness of our bodies in proximity to such powerful animals. Perhaps this was addiction.
Walnut Creek, California
I have returned to the lower-48, where my regular circadian California sunlight and night skies have eliminated my sleep deprivation but not my obsessive ursine dreams. It seems I have settled back into previous, predictable patterns, but it is clear that my heart has not. It seeks and hunts and is filled with a sonorous sorrow and regret, but regret for what? All I know is that I am changed, I am new, I am free in a way that my photos and words fail to describe. I am by turns bitter and serene, with so many memories lying on my tongue, an exquisite sugar. What now? What am I supposed to do with my new person? I self-diagnose my condition, noting that my mind lingers in another state, far from California. I relive every counterfactual – each bear attack that never happened. I imagine the bear ripping out my intestines, as opposed to extracting the ruby-jeweled salmon eggs of the sockeye in the river.
I am the opposite of traumatized. I am ecstatic. I am yearning and believing. I turn to a little book a dear friend gave to me in which Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, writes that understanding leads to love leads to change.
This pilgrim to the north will attend to her post-ecstatic bear disorder, but knows there is no cure. Not that she wants one.