Post-Ecstatic Bear Disorder: Alaska Insomniac Dispatches

2016-07-20 09.02.17

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.2016-07-19 22.33.52.jpg

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.2016-07-19 09.12.55-1.jpg


A Q&A With Fearless Hiking Momma Carol Underhill

Carol Underhill and her son explore our nation's natural treasures nearly every week!

Carol Underhill and her son explore our nation’s natural treasures nearly every week!

Tell me about growing up in Bishop. What has stayed with you? In Bishop we roamed free around our neighborhood, rode bikes and horses, played in creeks, flew kites, and went camping in our backyards. I also remember kayaking with Dad, looking for old bottles and other treasures in the desert with Mom, and doing a lot of “fishing”- which for me was wandering around with a fishing pole but not wanting to actually catch – and thus have to touch – a fish. What has stayed with me? All of it.

Where do you live now? What do you love about it? What would you change? We live in Victorville, California. I love the location – we are in the high desert with its marvelous mild climate and are in close proximity to the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains (where I work for the United States Forest Service). And if that isn’t enough, the beach is 1.5 hours away. And of course I’m within a couple of hours of Bishop and the glorious Eastern Sierra. But unlike Bishop, we have all the amenities like shopping, restaurants, international airports. But, still, most of our county is glorious wide open space. It’s the best of all worlds. I would change how others think about the desert. To most people it is a place through which to drive, it’s a chore, it’s a blank spot on the map between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. But if you take the time to get off Interstate 15 and explore the desert’s dirt roads and trails, it’s really quite beautiful. Check out my website for more desert beauty here.

You are raising a young son. What’s your parenting philosophy? What do you most want him to know? To experience? To appreciate?

Well, you learn pretty quickly that any philosophy you thought you had will certainly be tested and may just get thrown out the window when your 2-year-old is having a tantrum in the check-out line at the grocery store. I swore that my kid would never do such a thing, I would raise them to mind me. Well, guess what, kids just do things like that. The only thing I’ve found that helped was either getting a baby sitter and going to the store alone, or Cheetos. When in doubt, give your kid a Cheeto. Seriously, my husband and I try to be good role models, love our son unconditionally, and just be flexible, realistic, and go with the flow. I want my son to appreciate our close-knit family and of course the natural world around him.

When you were ten years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Zoo Keeper – I took a week-long class at the San Diego Zoo, and one at Sea World the following summer. I realized pretty quickly that to be this you’d have to clean up a lot of animal poop, and it didn’t seem so glamorous after that.

At present, what do you want to be when you grow up?

Public Affairs Officer for a National Forest or National Park.

Which books have made an impact on who you are today? What about them resonated with you?

Ed Abbey – Desert Solitaire – I read this book after my first season working with the Forest Service and it solidified my decision to want to work as Park Ranger, or similar job, with a land management agency. I wanted to have a job and a career that matched up with my passion in life, and that is enjoying and helping to protect the natural world.

What is the most important environmental book of all time? Why?

Aldo Leopold – Sand County Almanac. Leopold’s idea of a “land ethic,” or a responsible relationship existing between people and the land they inhabit, is at the very core of all environmentalism. If you believe in the relationship and its importance, everything else will follow.

What are you focused on today?

Raising my son, having fun in the great outdoors, and advancing my career.

Which environmental issues have you most concerned?

Our kids are growing up indoors, in front of screens and don’t spend as much time outside as previous generations. They are growing more and more disconnected to the natural world. Kids these days do not know where their water comes from when they turn on the tap. They don’t know where they get their food. They don’t know the importance of clean air. All of this needs to change if our planet is going to survive.

Of which achievement are you most proud?

It’s the little things – when my son points out manzanita or creosote bushes to me when we’re hiking. When I see my son and my Mom and Dad hiking in the desert together. When a visitor thanks me for the information I give them and says they had a great time on the trail I recommended. When I’m alone in my house and I look around at everything my husband and I have provided for our family. I’m proud of all of it.

What is your favorite animal?

I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like. But if I had to choose just one favorite, I’d choose a cat. We have four cats and they help me de-stress when they lay on my lap and purr. And I love it when they do silly things like chase their tails or streak across the room for no reason at all. They’re cute and very entertaining.

What is on your travel bucket list?

North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Lassen National Park, Crater Lake National Park, and Olympic National Park. Hiking the whole length of the John Muir Trail.

What is your favorite natural feature in the Owens Valley?

Mount Tom – it is the background to my best childhood memories.

What gets you up in the morning?

My son, he usually wakes me up with his giggles.

What difference can one person make, if any?

A person can make a difference, the trick is finding what you’re best at and sticking with it.

What do you know now that you wished you had known as a young adult?

To not care about what others think about you – just be yourself.

What advice would you give to someone interested in protecting the planet?

Do what you do well and is your passion, and then also teach a child how you’re protecting the planet so it will be in good hands after you go.

Does art and literature have a place in conservation and environmental protection? Why?

Absolutely – photographs by Ansel Adams and paintings by Thomas Moran inspired folks to protect this nation’s public lands in the first place. Also great nature photographs and writing are what inspire most people to go out and explore, and they also help lend appreciation for areas you may not ever visit.

What would you tell other families who want to get outside more, take their kids hiking/camping/climbing/fishing, but don’t know where to start?

Just go! Don’t think too much about it. And definitely don’t wait until your kids are older. It’s really quite easy to take babies on camping and hiking adventures – just put them in a carrier and go. Baby won’t stop crying? Go outside. Works every time. Now once they start walking and putting things in their mouths, it gets a little trickier, so I suggest taking another adult with you to help you keep an eye on them. Always keep a daypack packed with everything you need – diapers, wipes, small trash bags, sweatshirts, hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, pacifiers, water, snacks – in your vehicle so you can go whenever you have the chance. For inspiration look up information on your local county, state and national parks, botanical gardens, arboretums, visitor and nature centers, lakes/reservoirs, beaches, zoos, and rail-to-trails.

I’ve met so many people who are afraid of taking their babies outside, but from my experience a rocking chair in your living room has greater potential to hurt your child than anything does in nature. Just take the same precautions you do when you go outside yourself – check the weather forecast, tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to be back, and take a friend.

I recommend every parent buy three items: a comfy front baby carrier, a backpack for use when your baby starts to be able to hold their head up on their own, and a Bob/Jeep/or comparable stroller that can handle dirt roads/trails. These will make getting outside easier for you and your little one.
The planet we depend on depends on us.

The planet we depend on depends on us.

On the Map and Back in My Heart

Cover of Barbara Rowell's 2002 book "Flying South: A Pilot's Inner Journey."

Cover of Barbara Rowell’s 2002 book “Flying South: A Pilot’s Inner Journey.”

Last Saturday night I sat enraptured in a cozy South Lake Tahoe cabin, listening to a member of the Ninety-Nines (an international organization for women pilots) reminisce about Barbara Rowell. Barbara learned to fly to fulfill her dream of freedom, expression and self-exploration. As the spouse and business partner of famous climber, explorer and photographer Galen Rowell, Barbara had a front seat view of back roads, wilderness, rare plants, enigmatic animals and ancient human settlements that very few people ever see. Yet perhaps she wanted to do something for herself on her own terms, not Galen’s.

I first became aware of Galen Rowell through National Geographic articles. His  photograph Rainbow Over the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, 1981 (below) imprinted upon me as though I were a young bird. Years later, browsing in a bookstore after college graduation, I came upon it in one of Rowell’s color calendars. But there was more. I screeched with delight and gestured to my then-boyfriend Joe. I was practically jumping up and down. “Look, it’s Bishop! This is where I grew up!” The calendar contained a couple of photographs featuring the Eastern Sierra and the Owens Valley. The biography printed on the back of the calendar noted the couple lived in Bishop. I had no idea! After fruitful careers traipsing all over the planet to shoot exotic locales and cultures, I soon learned that Barbara and Galen had found home.

Author’s copy of “Galen Rowell, A Retrospective.”

Until that point, hardly a soul I met in college or early in my career in Washington, D.C. had ever heard of Bishop. Even when I moved back to California to the Bay Area coastal community of Pacifica, most people only knew Tahoe. Bishop and the Owens Valley seemed like a fantastic secret that only my family and childhood friends shared. Yet here was famous adventure photographer Galen Rowell’s Fall Sunrise on the High Sierra Over the Owens Valley and Old Wagon Beneath Mount Tom and Snow Bent Aspen Trunks, South Fork of Bishop Creek Canyon. Bishop Creek Canyon! The hamlet where I lived in an A-frame house from the time I was six months old seemed like too small an outpost to be recognized by such a big-time artist!

Old Wagon Beneath Mount Tom, Round Valley.

Galen Rowell put the Owens Valley on the map and back in my heart, for shortly thereafter I began writing my book, Cover This Country Like Snow And Other Stories. A new generation of rock climbers and outdoor enthusiasts would follow Galen’s lead to the valley. As a result, Main Street in Bishop is now home to several backpacking, climbing, mountaineering and travel equipment stores.

Fall Sunrise on the High Sierra Over the Owens Valley from "Galen Rowell, A Retrospective," Sierra Club Books.

Fall Sunrise on the High Sierra Over the Owens Valley.

Months after I discovered Rowell’s photographs of my beloved Owens Valley and the Eastern side of the Sierra, Galen and Barbara died in 2002 in a plane crash at Bishop’s Eastern Sierra Regional Airport (Barbara was not the pilot). Though I did not know the couple, I was devastated by the tragic loss to the conservation and environmental movement. I  felt somehow that my hometown had let Galen and Barbara down, that the runway, or perhaps the rural darkness, had betrayed them.

Galen wrote “I’ve known all along that more of what I am seeking in the wilds is right here in my home state of California than anywhere else on earth. But … I couldn’t say it with authority until I had all those journeys to Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, China, South America, Antarctica, and Alaska behind me (Galen Rowell: A Retrospective, Sierra Club Books, 2006).

Like Barbara, most women pilots seek to prove something to themselves by learning to fly. For me, flying is about possibility and power. Whether the power of the engine, the power of nature below or the power of the mind to overcome fear, aviating is as important to me as my Owens Valley. About three years ago I flew from Death Valley over the Inyo Range into the Owens Valley. My instructor Maria helped me land in Bishop. As I climbed out of the cockpit I immediately turned my face up to Mount Tom, which was entirely covered in a sheath of glittering white marble snow. Though I had taken countless pictures of that majestic peak, it still took my breath away. I am certain Barbara and Galen felt the same way.

Mount Tom Beneath the Wing

Mount Tom Beneath the Wing. Photo by the Author.