In October of 2004 four friends and I arrived in Anchorage, Alaska for a five-day backcountry trek before attending the North American Association for Environmental Education Annual Conference. The five of us were serving as environmental educators in various capacities and we all lived in the desert. So, naturally we anticipated freezing to death and had each spent hundreds of dollars at REI outfitting ourselves for the Alaskan fall weather. Stepping from the plane, we were relieved and surprised by balmy fifty-five degree air! A burly-faced Alaskan explained it was the Pineapple Express—an occasional trade-wind from the Hawaiian Islands that “takes a hard left up the Pacific coast” and blows tropical breezes over the Alaskan archipelago and beyond.
We rented a van in Anchorage after settling in at a comfortable hostel at $25 per night. Leaving behind the confining spaces of our respective workplaces, our female energy, like water, ran free, gurgling here and there. We began a woman’s journey as rich and multilayered as an ancient Tell with its visible present and deeper layers of forgotten pasts. Over five days we melded into a mobile community, sharing deeper aspects of our lives in a natural setting like no other. Along the way other women crossed our path whose life stories fit like colorful pieces in a hologram.
Rain makes popping sounds on our water proof gear, spills down slender Aspen trunks, and makes rivulets between tangled roots that crisscross the trail. Our voices like wood winds – a light rolling melody – play in the silent woods. Around us streams and rivers pour forth pewter-gray waters. [Earlier the ranger explained that Alaska’s glaciers are retreating in the global warming of the Earth, the glacial silt freed in heavy liquid flows.]
Our jackets make colorful splashes of orange, aqua, and sky-blue in the misty green of the forest. White-trunked beech with fall’s last yellow leaves still clinging to their branches, drop a soft, yellow carpet on the earth. We are alert to the presence of grizzlies. One impaled a red salmon from the river with a long, sharp claw at the entrance to the trailhead where the ranger reflected that as far as he knew grizzlies had never attacked a group of five or more. Grrreeeaat, we mumbled. Someone makes a joke about entering the food chain. I am not amused. We come upon a steaming pile of grizzly scat. I am looking behind me often.
We search for velvet brown moose passing behind dense trees up ahead and chat excitedly like kids let out of a school house for recess. Far from our desks piled high with projects, notes, and timelines, far from incessant e-mail and the glow of computer screens we begin a new rhythm.
Up from black stones – Alaska’s bones – emanates a deep vibration, slow and strong, retraining our erratic energies. With the gentle wash of a steady light rain, our false identities drain away. We are swept away in the beauty and rawness of the landscape and the wild creatures that still walk its paths and swim its waters in fair abundance.
The following day we leave the Eagle Pass area where we had hiked seven miles in back country to learn that a photographer and his girl friend were attacked and killed by two grizzlies. The incident happened only a few miles from where we had been hiking. This dramatically confirmed for me that nature does not have our plans in mind as she moves in her mysterious ways. The incident stayed with me the whole ten days we were in Alaska and forever imprinted on my mind that wildness is not a fuzzy bear to play with or a player in our imagined destinies. They are simply in their own homes and they are predators.
Alaska Lesson #1…Lesson #2 came that next week when I listened to scientists from Yellowstone National Park describe the role of top predators in the health of ecosystems based on what they were learning from wolf reintroduction in the Park. These are the bookends then of the human struggle to be safe, to protect livelihood while giving space to bears, cougars, and coyotes.
Alaska presses on the chest with its wild power – though diminished, still vital and instructive.