Hi, Juneau! I’m going to break with form just a bit this time, to tell you how I got to be 30 feet under four bears at once, and catch a fish out of a tree! And what I choose to learn from it all.
My wife Stacy and I were on an evening walk by the glacier, talking loudly, when I just barely saw the slim shape of a beaver slip into the lake ahead on the trail. It slid on the water just past some brilliant harlequin ducks, and I tried to get closer, but it slapped the water and disappeared.
Just a little further we saw a jaywalk of tourists (a smack of jellyfish, a jaywalk of tourists) with their noses up. We looked. I squinted until I could make it out. Two little awkward black lumps of bear fur, then a third even smaller one, and then a giant momma-bear sized shape rustled out of the leaves. We sat, like at a movie theater, and watched as the momma bear, 35 feet up, ripped branches off with her teeth, to get at the tasty catkins. She shook the tree hard. The tiny, tenacious cubs imitated mom, grabbing twigs with their teeth, holding on with their paws like a “Hang in There” poster.
Eventually they shuffled down the tree, mom first, and made their way to a grove on the other side of the porch. “What’s that humming?” I said. We put our ears to the bear-grove to hear better. It was more of a purring sound, but squeaky. “They’re nursing!” said someone. You could hear the runt squealing, fighting his way in to the meal. We watched for as long as felt appropriate. To the east was a bright stripe of alpenglow, and to the west, a giant strawberry-sherbet sunset, large enough to be seen even from Back Loop.
That was two days ago. Today, Stacy and I were on a walk out to Point Louisa, past some people fishing, and were collecting driftwood when we saw some brown fur dart out by the water’s edge. “A thing!” I said, pointing with all my fingers. “It’s a river otter,” Stacy said. Sure enough, and it moved skeptically, like mustelids do, up the beach to where children chased it away. We kept collecting driftwood on our way back to the car.
We hadn’t gotten far into the woods when an eagle swooped through the trees just overhead. His feather-tips grazed the spruce trunks as he pitched and rolled his way to a perch. Now, Stacy has this funny habit of whistling at eagles. She started whistling a pretty convincing bald-eagle. This eagle looked at us, in what I imagine is confusion in bird body-language. Then there was a second swoop. And a third. Soon there were at least four eagles, maybe as many as eight, in the trees just around us, all whistling and sounding, then diving suddenly and returning. It was an erratic upper-register symphony in 360 degrees. After a little while Stacy noticed a juvenile bald eagle on a low branch just near us. It had a fish in its right talon, and the fish was on a line. On closer look, I noticed it wasn’t just a line, it was a stringer. By this point I was starting to construct the back story.
Then, one after another, a murder of crows gathered, threateningly close to the juvenile. He shifted warily while they leaned in closer. The heat was too much! He dropped from the branch and flew away, but the stringer caught on a fork and the fish fell to the ground. I will admit to worrying that I was going to be fought by an eagle over a fish, but I picked it up anyway. Maybe the fishermen were still out there, I thought. I started toward the beach, a fish in my left hand, and a handful of driftwood in my right.
When I found them they were staring at the rocks, pacing. Lifting the shiny Dolly Varden, I asked “Looking for a fish?” They loved the story about the eagle, and didn’t even mind the talon-holes in the belly! Plus, on the drive home we had to stop so a beautiful cinnamon bear could run across the road.
I guess I’m writing all this to say, I almost didn’t go out walking those days. But I’m so glad that I did! Often we think of the outdoors as a way to exercise, “get fresh air,” or practice our power and skill. But it’s also a place to “be.” It’s a place to watch and be watched by, and interact with, the animals and environment. Anyway, I hope this summer you have a chance to get out and look out too!
• Guy About Town appears the first and third Sunday of every month and includes seasonal musings on what changes and what doesn’t in a small town. Guy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.