18 Meditations from Denali
Northbound to Alaska, the plane rises above the smog-line of Los Angeles, gliding through a cocktail of metallic particles, methane, and carbon monoxide. I’ve been granted a ten-day respite from asphalt and freeways and bumper-to-bumper traffic, and from up here, so much concrete punctuated by patches of greenery and turquoise swimming pools seems etched onto a massive grid, like the motherboard of some gigantic computer. An average of 2,750 people live packed into each square kilometer of L.A., but even down there, in all that chaos, live raccoons, skunks, coyotes, and even mountain lions, taking space wherever they can get it—in sewers, in crawlspaces, in pockets of the foothills. Leaning back at ten-thousand feet, I close my eyes and try not to think about our limited water supply, children’s respiratory problems, and whether the animals will survive our three-year drought.
Two thousand miles later, I catch my first breathtaking glimpse of the Gulf of Alaska and the land that stretches beyond it. Vast glacier-rivers cut deep into ice-glazed earth, all this surrounded by verdant slopes and shore. So much geologic momentum, as the edges of the continent shift and break apart into inlets and islets. Permafrost contrasts with basalt and volcanic ash, evidence of the earth’s breathing and exhaling, burning and freezing. I’ve arrived at this state with a coastline longer than all other states combined; this land, stretching 2,261 miles wide—a distance greater than the distance I’ve traveled to get here; this place with names like Arctic Village and Salmon River, or historically descriptive names like Mary’s Igloo, Buffalo Soapstone, Unalaska, Women’s Bay, or Kalifornsky, and towns with native names that feel nice on the tongue like Chignik, Kipnuk, Yakataga, and Savoonga.
In Anchorage just before midnight, the sun lingers below the horizon as ravens and seagulls behave like its midday—circling and chattering, no mind to the time. After picking up the rental car—an alarmingly red Chevy Cruze—I find a big all-night grocery store where I can stock up on food for the days ahead. In the parking lot of the Fred Meyer, I gawk at the show of birds as they flap their wings low overhead. Don’t they realize that birds should be asleep by now, heads tucked under their wings? But should they be asleep? Feeling wide awake myself, I check items off my list and throw them into the cart, not sure if I’ll need the jumbo-sized can of pepper spray. Really? I can’t imagine that I’ll really need it. The only bears I’ve encountered are black bears that sometimes wander down from our San Gabriel Mountains searching for water and pawing through pizza boxes left in dumpsters. Either people chase them away with golf clubs or give them cute names like “Meatball” and then, feeling sorry for them, leave food out on purpose. Inevitably, an officer from the Department of Fish and Wildlife comes out, shoots the animal with a tranquilizer dart, and then drives “Meatball” back up to the forest. Anyway, I decide to hold off on the pepper spray until I get to Denali. We’ll just have to see about that.
After my late night shopping trip, I meet up with my best friend Dana who arrives on the red-eye from Sacramento. Dana and I first met when we were assigned to be college roommates in the dorms at U.C. Davis. Ever since then, she’s been a part of the family. My grandma Ruth used to call her M’ija—my daughter—and now my children call her “auntie.” We’ve traveled together to China, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and Mexico, and now she’s agreed to meet me in Alaska—a place neither one of us has ever been. I’m super excited to see my old pal, looking forward to another adventure together. We load Dana’s gear into the Cruze and head back to the hotel for a couple hours of sleep before heading north to Denali and into the wild.
I’m ten years old and my mother is driving us to Yosemite National Park. She’s tossed some sleeping bags into the back of our two-toned Dodge Van and we’re heading north on Interstate 99 to Fresno where we veer East into the Sierras. It’s a six-hour drive from Los Angeles, or more like eight hours, if you count all the bathroom and snack stops required for five children plus a few cousins. We’re hot and cranky because we do not yet understand the payoff: a dip in the icy Merced River, our first dazzling view of the Milky Way, the snaky-hot embers of a campfire. I’ll never forget my first glimpse around that bend into Yosemite Valley—a mindboggling view of El Capitan and Half-Dome. The valley smelled of sugar pines and sedges, all of nature churned up at once—a perfume of decaying leaves and mushrooms, sap and granite dust. At that moment I knew: I belonged in the wilderness.
Ever since I got my first taste of the wilderness, I’ve longed to see Alaska, especially, Denali. Now I’m holding the key to the East Fork Cabin, and the permit taped inside the car’s window gives us access to the park road beyond restricted fifteen-mile marker. We pass the checkpoint at the Savage River Station, sign our names on a clipboard, and then: We are in.
What unrolls before us takes our breath away. To grasp what I am seeing, my mind tries to make all kinds of connections. Is this what the earth looked like a million years ago? Is this what the land would have looked before the dinosaurs? Dwarfed forests of pines, aspen, birch, and balsam dot the horizon as the snow-covered Alaska Range rises up in the distance. The dirt road winds as far ahead as the eye can see, meandering into the tundra, where trees shrink away, and the ground is covered by a spongy mat of vegetation.
Then at mile 43, just before the bridge that leads to Polychrome Pass, we spot the roof of the cabin, barely visible from the road. Outside of the car, we take deep breaths as we look all around, and the first thing we notice is the silence. But then, we cock our ears and hear a whole muted symphony. Mosquitoes buzz. The creek gurgles. Wind rustles the leaves of the willows and the grasses. A pair of magpies swoops down to survey the newcomers.
The East Fork Cabin, built in 1929, has been slept in by hundreds of people—most notably, Adolph Murie who observed wolves and other wildlife and advised the park on how it should manage these animals to keep the numbers in balance. Rangers and park employees also use the cabin; a notebook on the kitchen table contains the names, dates, and often amusing stories of some such visitors—stories of lynx sightings, bear shenanigans, and an account of a wolf discovered on the cabin porch gnawing a broomstick and tossing it up in the air.
The cabin records its own history with thick, burnished layers of sealant and, inside, logs that have been cut away to reveal knots in the wood, as well as cracks, striations, and places when the rough cuts have left deep slashes or notches in the grain. The gaps are stuffed with hemp or burlap or some other fibers which make one feel the age of the cabin and remind me of how many hands have worked over the years to weatherproof the walls from rain, snow, and subzero temperatures. I imagine Adolph Murie writing at a desk surrounded by equipment, children, cameras, notebooks, an adopted wolf-pup. It’s easy, too, to imagine this place in winter, visited by travelers who ski in, often with teams of sled dogs. I shiver just thinking about the whorls of ice fog outside with Aurora Borealis dancing overhead, while inside, the furnace cranks out blankets of heat as travelers unload all that wet gear and warm their chilblained fingers and toes against the bright blue flame.
Now banana bread bakes in the oven, the citronella candle is burning, and I’m sitting on the porch all bundled up and drinking tea. It’s raining steadily but the sky looks brighter off in the distance against the mountains. Because of the vastness of this place, you can look across the sky and see different weather patterns—sunshine in the east, rain in the west, clouds to the north, snow way up high.
“Squeaky” the Arctic squirrel who lives under the porch, darts out from his burrow, stands on his (her?) hind legs and stares at me. He looks me up and down, as he probably does all the visitors. Then he scurries off into the bush to continue his daily business. I feel like I should be working as hard as Squeaky who chomps a blade of grass in fast motion—one-hundred miles per hour!—most likely taking advantage of all those daylight hours before retreating to a long sleep in his subterranean den. So far, I can’t do much but sit idly and let this place wash over me, let myself melt into it, which is harder than it sounds for this city person who’s used to being bossed around by clocks.
The East Fork River splits according to the will of the melting glaciers, braiding across the gravel in patterns that vary each day. The channels, from above, look like tentacles emerging from the rocks. This river bed, and the tundra, in general, is a wide-open place where animals can move freely but also an arena where one can be sniffed out, stalked, pounced, and eaten. If you’re a caribou, it’s like walking across an enormous dinner plate. A female grizzly smells the ripe scent of a caribou calf and follows her nose. A wolf spies her grizzly cub and circles round the bears. We find a chaos of footprints in smooth mud—a perfect record of two or more animals engaging in a tango of predator/prey. Claw marks and hoof prints encircle the other, leading me to wonder about unconscious sacrifice and whether animals understand the needs of other animals. A Japanese foliage spider, Chiracanthium japonicum, for example, allows her spiderlings to feast on her body thus giving her offspring the strength to spread themselves far and wide. Does a fox mother ever offer herself up to a predator to save her young, perhaps when benefits outweigh the loss? Do animals somehow calculate such actions? We tend to assume that everything a wild animal does is controlled by pure instinct, by behaviors programmed deep within the DNA, but to what extent do animals make choices that will lead to their success or demise? Furthermore: Do animals understand (or sense) that they can be eaten at any time? Do they feel their own loss in the moments before their death, during the kill? I am an animal, after all, and I cannot fully grasp the fact that I, too, can be eaten right now as I sit in the middle of this wide gravel bar cradling my coffee mug to my cheek and scratching this pen across the paper.
It rained all night—a soothing drizzle that made a pinging tune off the aluminum stovepipe and lulled me into a deep, moonless sleep. A new morning reveals a fresh layer of snow across the adjacent range and the hills over yonder. The sun emerges only briefly, glossing the foliage and casting dramatic shadows at an Arctic tilt. Now a heavier rain patters against the roof as the East Fork River churns and cuts into the land, as a delicate fog encircles us. It’s thirty-nine degrees according to the outside thermometer, but we intend to go for a hike, because, as someone tells us, There’s no bad weather, only bad gear.
Meandering across on the riverbed for hours on end, I consider the size and age of North America. I begin thinking about the passage of time and how some 70 million years, herds of duck-billed dinosaurs roamed these lands. The McKinley range was in its infancy then, a granite mass rising up millimeter by millimeter. Consider all the creatures that have lived and died in those years; all the species that have evolved; the seasons; the rotations of the earth; the revolutions around the sun; civilizations that have flourished and crumbled away—the Greeks, Romans, Mayans, Aztecs, Incas; queens and kings that have decomposed, become skeletons, and blown away in the wind.
On the one hand, how depressing! Clearly, we are but mere specks in time. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Here today, gone tomorrow. On the other hand, how exciting! What a miracle, to be alive at latitude 63.3333° North, longitude 150.5000° west. How eager this makes me to return to my family, my familiar humans, and to cherish these short moments. Isn’t the curse of being human this very awareness? The blessing of the bear is that he knows what his nose knows, which gives him a rawness of thought and feeling: to pounce on a squirrel must be an avid delight; to rub up against a tree; to gnaw on bark, to chomp a mouthful of berries. So with this awareness, I tell myself, I must be acutely aware of each breath; I must not let any of it slip by.
What I have yet to realize is that a bear’s sense of smell is one hundred times greater than that of a human. Spaghetti sauce simmers on the cabin’s four-burner stove—Roma tomatoes and basil leaves bathed in olive oil, bubbling extra long until the juice turns thick and sweet. The cabin is more luxurious than I’d imagined, with a fully-equipped kitchen including a gas-powered refrigerator. I’d been prepared for ten days of “roughing it” and I’m feeling giddy at the thought of the easy days ahead that stretch before us in an arc of ten suns and nine moons. After a little bushwhacking and a long walk up Polychrome, nothing sounds better than a big bowl of pasta.
We’ve got the cabin door propped open and Dana is sitting at the table reading, when suddenly, she looks up, and says—“Bear!”
I glance out the door and gasp at the sight of a grizzly ambling up the path headed straight for us. He’s a gorgeous creature—all shoulder blades and claws, the tips of his fur, blonde and fluffed. “Oh my god,” we say. Dana grabs her camera and takes some pictures as it gets closer and closer, trailing after what must be a confusing and mindboggling aroma.
Quickly, we discuss whether we should yell, whether we should wave our arms, what the safety brochures say we should do. “Shouldn’t we at least close the door?” I say. Yes, we should now shut the door, we agree. But first, Dana decides to speak to the bear: “Go away. Go on, now,” she says. I am impressed at her natural ability to speak to a bear so firmly and so confidently, without alarm or anger.
Upon hearing Dana’s voice, the bear drops his head, turns around rather dejectedly, and then plops down onto his haunches with a groan. There he sits for a while having a good scratch. He glances back a few times toward the cabin, sniffing around half-heartedly. Then he paws at the ground a few times before standing up and making a wide, slow arc around the cabin, pushing his snout into the dirt, taking his sweet time. Finally he finds a good spot and hunkers down just beside the outhouse in plain view of the rear window. Because he moves so slowly and seems so sleepy, we are not afraid—though I do wonder what prevents him from tearing open that side window and eating whatever he damn well pleases. Instead, he lounges behind the cabin for a long time—an hour perhaps. With our steaming bowls of pasta, we get cozy in our chairs and watch this “nature show” through the back window, almost not believing what we are seeing. “It’s like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom!” I say. “Can you believe this?” Dana keeps saying. “We’re the luckiest people on earth!” And then we ask ourselves, “How many people do we know who can look out their windows and see a grizzly bear just sitting there?” (Answer: Zero! Nobody!)
For most of the night, the sun sits just below the horizon and casts a purplish light against everything. Until 1 a.m. or so, there are no dark places, no shadows, really, just this soothing low light that I believe I might get used to. On the road back from Wonder Lake, ten p.m., a moose sits off in the distance, legs folded delicately beneath his enormous body, antlers resting on the ground. From a distance, the bowl and rise of this enormous rack make him clearly visible across the flat tundra. Is it a burden for him to carry these antlers? A pair of moose antlers can weight forty pounds—maybe not such a burden for a thousand pound animal. Through the binoculars I observe that he is not fully asleep, stirring slightly and half-aware, drowsing in this lowlight. On this tundra of predator/prey, this lowlight seems a bonus. But with a moose’s poor eyesight, light might not matter as much as the musky scent of a wolf or the sound of a single, snapping twig.
In this low light, another moose wades in a kettle pond—no other creature his size visible for a mile in all directions. He’s graceful and lovely, this little dance he does of dipping his mouth into the water and lifting it up again, his antlers bowing and dipping with him; he in his own space, in this lavender light on that tundra that rolls out for miles and miles in all directions, framed by jagged snowy peaks and shale hills.
In the lowlight, two caribou bound lightly over shrubs, their fuzzy antlers like an elaborate candelabra—such artistry in nature! Their dark fur is rubbed off in patches, only remnants of their winter coat. Caribou move with light legs—not mechanically like deer or elk which seem less athletic in comparison to caribou, so clearly visible with their white-painted haunches. Do they stop grazing in the lowlight? Are their movements more subdued? To what extent can animals dim their awareness; can they ever just enjoy the view?
I believe a Dall sheep can enjoy the view. Even in near darkness, sheep can be viewed clearly through binoculars. Nestled in crags and crannies on velvety green hillsides at the top of North America, their snowy-white coats make them easy to spot in summer. They seem so insulated in their elevated paradise. In the lowlight, eleven sheep gently graze, the, one by one, lower themselves to their forelegs, still munching on grasses, their eyes closing part-way. Unlike bears who keep a tight circle round their cubs, lambs are allowed to wander off and frolic, bucking and prancing, at times a fair distance from the family. Adults lounge far apart from one another, legs folded beneath them. Sheep, however, wear their horns for a reason. I learn that during mating season, rams will fight with other males, rising up on their hind legs—almost flying!— charging each other in repeated head-on collisions. Thus far, I have been consumed with bears and wolves, but now I see these mountain-inhabitants with horns like rocks and brambles, coats melded from snow. They connect heaven and earth, poised over glacier valleys, steeled against violent winds. Even with hunters watching me through their scopes, even with wolves circling my heels, and even with those vicious arctic blasts, I would want to be a sheep, if given the option.
Wilderness allows us the privilege of living “off the clock”—to rise at a pace similar to the animals that inhabit that space. In wilderness, we can mostly do as we please. I study the clouds and some raindrops fall onto my face; I dance around on an empty road and halt when I notice a gray jay staring at me. I stare back. Sitting on a rock, I study the heart-shaped leaves of an arctic birch—its veins like raised arms. Later I note the nod of a bluebell’s petals and admire the undulations of the river, and looking closer, the minerals and silt that swirl around inside of it, noting how that sparkly gray water grabs up debris and hurries it along.
Today I wander around outside the cabin, peering down at grasses and examining a fuchsia fireweed flower. I turn it round and round, noticing how the sticky pollen clings to the stamens as long delicate hairs unfurl around the petals, little invitations for bees. Suddenly I have a vivid memory: I see my first skateboard—a fiberglass beauty with red acrylic wheels, and there it floats, like a ghost hovering above this grassy hill. This leads to the memory of how I got this skateboard…another story, perhaps? So why did I suddenly envision my beloved skateboard while staring at this flower? Did its color jar my memory? What about the purple monkshood? The yellow of the tundra rose? Can memories and new ideas arise from these unfettered spaces? How rare are these days of uncharted time!
Wilderness, then, equals time. Open space allows us to consider our size as we stand alone on the tundra. Who are we, really, without all our things? Rather than diminish us, this feeling of smallness should liberate us, giving us faith in our silly ideas, showing us that “I” am as important and as unimportant as any other creature in the world, whether it be a marmot, an arctic squirrel, or the president. My equal importance and simultaneous lack of importance calms my worries, gives me courage to take creative risks, and to use my voice. Wilderness, especially Denali, is good medicine for all that ails us, as we city people continue to compete for space and for resources (both internal and external). Being in wilderness forces us to unplug from the chatter of information—no cell phones, no computers. All this uncontrolled chit-chat echoes until the noise makes fractals of our thoughts and memories.
I look outside the window. Rain and mist have settled, water ticking against the stovepipe. Suddenly I see another seemingly random image: my Brownie uniform—the one that I wore in the second grade. Why now? I can recall my chubby knees, my brown polyester knee socks, my orange snap-on tie, and how proud I felt wearing it. I can ignore the vision or I can follow it down the rabbit hole and see where it leads. Conclusion: These moments of tranquility—in this protected space—may truly be our last salvation, not just for inspiration, but to keep us pure of heart, healthy, connected with the past and able to envision the future. By studying this land and sketching a picture with words, we can also look inward. The trick is capturing those words before they disappear. Even here, words, like chickadees, flutter down and then arise in a second, all wings and chatter before they melt into the sky.
Two pristine mountain bikes lean up against the side of the cabin and I’m itching to ride. The smooth 92-mile dirt road looks like a dream come true. Even with the occasional dust-up from a bus or pick-up truck, the road seems meant for bikes, for gravel churning under the tires, for standing up on the downhill.
Before our arrival Dan Irelan from Toklat Camp had kindly driven the bikes down to the cabin, along with helmets and a bike pump. I’d asked if we could borrow some bikes, and, voila! Here they are. Again, I feel like the luckiest person on earth. Tightening our helmets and adjusting our gears, we head up to Sable Pass, a restricted wildlife zone with signs posted forbidding hikers from wandering off-road. The land dips into a deep, lush valley where the rivers merge into streams, lots of them, and the tundra tilts and rises all around. With this surreal, painted landscape and gentle cloud-cover, I feel like I could ride for one-hundred miles without stopping. What I love about cycling is the feeling of moving through a place—of letting it wash over you like a stream. The chilly air cuts through you like a cold river, and it feels good to get sweaty. On a bike, there’s no telling what you’ll run into, and here, the odds of running head-on into a grizzly or a moose are pretty good, which makes riding, even slow uphill riding, especially thrilling.
We are becoming wildlife scouts, scanning the horizon for aberrations in color or shapes, peering high and low, near and far, across the horizon. Only minutes into our first ride, we spot a medium sized male grizzly. Of course I have no basis for calling him male, nor any real basis for deeming him “medium,” only that he looks pretty big but I’m sure he could be bigger, “he” doesn’t have cubs, and if he were any closer, I’d probably call him enormous.
I must try to explain the sensation of being on a bike—a familiar feeling—pedaling along, adjusting gears, hearing one’s own breath and the pleasant sound of dirt churning under the tires—and then seeing—from a bike—A GRIZZLY BEAR. We dismount quietly, scarcely breathing, beholding this creature. I Dana snaps some pictures and I try to discern which direction he’s heading and whether he’s noticed us. For the moment, he seems to be at a safe distance, but my instincts tell me to keep moving. Even though he looks to be several hundred feet away, without a fence or plexiglass window between us, that seems pretty darn close. To get to us, he would have to run down a hill, cross a narrow stream, climb back up a hill, and emerge onto the road. This distance would take most humans at least ten minutes, but I’ve been told that grizzlies can run pretty darn fast when they want to, even if only in short bursts, which would mean that this bear can get to us in a matter of seconds if he is so inclined. If he smells our veggie bologna sandwiches in our backpacks, he might just do that. This gets me thinking that humans must be pretty stinky to an animal with such a keen sense of smell—our natural odors must be quite gruesome, and then on top of that, all our lotions and powders and sprays must, to a bear’s sensitive nose, smell acrid and offensive.
One’s thoughts move at a hundred miles per hour when looking at a grizzly bear. But we can’t take our eyes off him: He’s gorgeous. Rambling in small arcs and semicircles, he paws the dirt with those comb-sharp claws, gnawing at leaves, yawning. Eat, eat, eat, seems to be the main purpose of the grizzly.
We hop back onto our bikes and keep riding. About another mile up the road, we spot a sow and her two cubs. We wobble and practically fall off our bikes when we see them. They, too, are foraging up against the hillside, but this family is much closer than the last one bear, and we know that cubs add a potentially dangerous dimension. If these cubs decide to come check us out, we’ll have a protective mama bear to contend with. Fortunately, the cubs don’t seem to notice us, although their mother sniffs pointedly in our direction, her nose wide and wet, her eyes trying hard to focus on our shapes. We decide to move, once again, not wanting to take any chances. Now with four bears between us and the cabin, it seems like a good day to keep on riding.
Once over Sable Pass, it’s mostly downhill all the way to the Sanctuary River, a distance of about twenty miles. With those bears behind us, more in front of us, and all around us, I feel terrified, joyous, and dare I say—alive! The landscape seems utterly surreal, as if painted by hand with impressionistic strokes of shale and wide swathes of green. We learn that the white flowers growing in abundance as far as our eyes can see are called “bear-flowers” and are the preferred food of the grizzly. Where there are bear-flowers, there are bears!
A hot shower at the Toklat River Camp requires a drive over Polychrome Pass, a road both harrowing and breathtaking. The mountains, glowing from within, emit shards of amber and pink as the absent sun’s rays continue to reflect off particles in the air such as ice and dust—a phenomenon I learn is called alpenglow. Looking down from the top of Polychrome, I wonder what the earth looked like at the beginning of time when plates crashed together and the earth rose up in chaotic crests, when magma flowed freely. Now the glaciers carve out deep ruts, dragging with them granite boulders as big as skyscrapers, taking with them whatever lies in their path. This place makes one think on the biggest scale, not just about the land before one’s eyes, but about the planet itself, and we are reminded that this is a planet among planets, not just a field of isolated land.
Last night, driving back from Toklat at 12:30 am, clouds had crept into the valley or rather it seemed that they had suddenly been breathed from cracks in the earth, a ghostly white vapor settling atop the land. The highest point of Polychrome Pass, at just under 4,000 feet, seems so much higher, maybe because of the extremely narrow road and sheer cliffs that overlook it! Here the earth seems to inhale and exhale, and driving on this narrow road feels like tiptoeing over a sleeping giant or like I’ve climbed the beanstalk, emerged above the clouds, and found this new land, mythic in proportions. People who live north of a certain latitude or above a certain elevation are most likely used to such billowy cloud formations, where land and sky are not exactly separate, where clouds are no longer “up there” and the ground is no longer “down here” but land and sky swirl together in arcs and spirals that amount to one continuous, connected mass of universe. Aliens from other galaxies should be very impressed should they visit this area of the solar system. If I were a painter, I would want to illustrate the merging of earth and sky. There exists natural artistry on our blue planet; the earth—a living thing—creates its own patterns which can be easily seen if we know where and how to look!
Some Field Notes on Ursus Arctos
Bears like to Eat: bog blueberry, cranberry, gooseberry, red currant, red bearberry, black currant, salmonberry, cloudberry, raspberry, and soapberry. As for flowers, they enjoy the alpine azalea, bluebells, violets, bear flowers. They also enjoy birch, spruce, willow, balsam, and quaking aspen. Grizzlies may also prey on moose, caribou, and sheep. During the spring months, grizzlies also feed on the calves of these animals.
Soap berries are quite pretty, growing in enticing clusters. They are covered in an almost sugary coating with delicate whitish sparkles. Bears literally vacuum up berries, snorting across the bushes with their 42 teeth, sniffling and licking with their prehensile lips. A soap berry must taste very different to a bear than it does to a human, hence the name soapberry. A raw soap berry, though eye-catching, tastes bitter and sour to this human (though whipped up with a bowl of sugar, I hear, makes an excellent Tlingit ice cream)
A grizzly’s long, non-retractable claws make a grizzly unsuitable for climbing; on the tundra, there being few places for climbing anyway, unlike the black bear that can scamper up a tree and dangle there for protection or for fun.
A grizzly cub may be 8.5 inches long, and can fit into a human hand, and is as hairless as a human hand, or most human hands.
A bear tree is one with the outer bark scraped off to expose the cambium. Grizzlies will eat this tree-flesh, seeking the raw syrup inside.
In treeless country, a boulder makes an excellent substitute for a scratching tree. We will learn that there are scratching boulders as well as scratching cabins. And sometimes bears will straddle a log to rub their under parts.
Bears recognize deep water and will avoid crossing at certain depths and at certain precarious locations.
A bus driver said today that now, at the end of July, each day loses six minutes of daylight. She said that if we stick around for another few weeks we might see Aurora Borealis. I felt the pain of leaving, when she said that. So disappointing to not see the Aurora, but each season brings distinct gifts, as today is warm, dry, and cloudless. Delicious sunlight warms our faces— first day without rain.
All morning a grizzly and her cubs have been foraging on the river just below the cabin. From up on the road, Dana has been studying them through her binoculars. I’m itching, once again, to go on a bike ride, but I’m too chicken to go by myself, so I convince Dana to put away the binoculars and get on that bike.
One last ride down to Teklanika. A perfect way to end the trip. Four or five miles on a gentle uphill to the top of Sable Pass, and then coasting downhill as the road snakes and hugs the mountainside, claustrophobically narrow at times. Coming down the mountain, I ride the brakes pretty hard because I am really scared of running into a bear. With the steep downhill and the sheer drop on one side, there’s really no avoiding a face-to-face encounter with an animal, should one emerge onto the road. Dan Irelan told us this crazy story of how he’d written up a report of a cyclist who came face-to-face with a “grizz.” Apparently this guy was speeding down Polychrome Pass when a bear climbed up onto the road, blocking it. The rule is, get off the bike. The other fact: You can’t outride a bear. Dan told us about how this guy did indeed get off his bike and was standing there, frozen, when the bear trotted right up to him and sniffed his crotch, sniffed his foot, and sniffed his crotch again. Suddenly, the cyclist vomited violently. This odd human behavior sent the grizz running back down the embankment.
So rolling down Sable Pass, I keep seeing that scenario in my mind. We pass a fresh mound of bear scat on a particularly narrow stretch of road, thus confirming the possibility. Knowing that I share this road with grizzly bears, caribou, moose, wolves, and foxes surely gives me an adrenaline rush, though.
Even with my fear, I’m thanking God for this day, for letting me live to see this day, for riding through this land that looks like a cathedral, feeling as giddy as John Muir up in his tree during the windstorm. Now I wonder: Why has this adventurous spirit been historically thought of as masculine, as belonging mostly to men? Yet I do not consider myself a thrill-seeker so much as I am a person who wants to absorb as much living, as much of this earth as I can see in the days that I’ve been given. The bike ride is a metaphor for all that—wind in the face, body moving across a place, the scent of grasses, icy air, fragrant bogs, and wildflowers. I try my best to absorb it all, letting it sink into my skin, my soul, my memory.
In the middle of the night, during the only two hours of complete darkness that I can recall of the whole trip, I am awakened by a scratching sound—scritch, scritch, scritch. Whatever it is reverberates across every log in the cabin—shaking the walls and even the floor. All I can imagine is someone holding a jumbo-sized screwdriver and scraping it across the walls, digging and prying, digging and prying, and then dragging it crosswise against the grain of the wood. At first, still half-dreaming, I think, “What is the matter with this person? Doesn’t he know it’s the middle of the night?? Then, as I begin to wake up, my conscious brain recalls that I am next to a river, in the wilderness.
The sound continues. Whatever it is, this person/creature is one hundred percent focused and determined to finish the job, whatever that may be.
“Dane!” I whisper. “Something’s out there. Do you hear that?”
“Huh? What?” she says, instantly awake.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
We listen for a minute, all the possible scenarios running through our heads, including the idea that it might be Evan and Junior from Toklat Camp, those nice guys who bring us water every few days. We wonder if they’d be crazy enough to drive all the way over Polychrome Pass in the middle of the night. We wonder if they have bear costumes that they wear just to give the Artist-in-Residence and guest a good story to tell. We wonder if this whole trip is rigged and if maybe this wilderness is not really wilderness at all but some very large movie set where the animals are released from cages each night and then put back again at the end of the day. (These are the kinds of thoughts you have when you’re alone in a cabin on the tundra and some creature is clawing at the walls)
But then Dana wonders if it could be Squeaky, busily digging new chambers and storing his food away for the winter. Ha, ha, I say. Very funny.
Clutching our skinny flashlights, we stand in the middle of the cabin staring at the wall. I’m biting furiously at my thumbnail, realizing that I may not be smart enough or brave enough to solve this problem. Wolf? Fox? Lynx? Too big! Too bold! Too strong! Could a moose be rubbing its antlers on the cabin? Do moose rub their antlers on cabins? Is this a thing that happens?
Then we notice the open window. We’d left the window ajar, a good five inches for ventilation. For each of the previous nine nights, we’d slept with both the window and the nail-spiked T-Rex shutters wide open, not giving it a second thought. Of course the shutters can only be closed from the outside, and it’s certainly too late for that now. I don’t even want to look at that triangle of soft open space—that small connective channel between us and this mystery beast, lest a paw or a snout should suddenly thrust through it. We both know that if this creature really wants to get inside, one good swipe to the frame will tear the whole window off its hinges like a piece of balsawood. We’d both seen the damage that black bears could do to mini-vans in Yosemite, and I had a feeling that even a half-grown grizz could turn a window frame into a pile of toothpicks. So what does it want? Does it want the banana bread? Does it want the apples on the counter? Does it want us?
Every thirty seconds or so, the creature takes a break, and then shakes off the way a large, wet dog shakes its fur after fetching a stick from a river. For a second, we wonder if it could actually be a wolf. We know that several wolf dens have been spotted not far from the cabin. But listening again, we hear this creature bumping around on the porch, creaking the boards as it moves around, and it sounds much too heavy to be a wolf. I’m thinking it would have to be the biggest canine that ever lived; it would have be a six-hundred pound canine, which could only mean one thing—not a wolf, but a grizzly.
Rangers say that when encountering a bear, you should talk in loud, calm voices. They say that you should always make bears aware of your presence. For the past nine days we’ve been singing and humming and whistling and waving our arms to “Hava Nagila,” or the “Star Spangled Banner,” or whatever random song comes to mind—this while walking up to the road or to the outhouse, or looking for wildflowers. But do these rules still apply?
I get this bright idea, then, that if we simply open the door, the bear will know that people live here and that it’s bothering us—maybe it’ll even feel a little embarrassed for having awakened us and will simply slink away into the night. Easy solution, right?
“Hell no!” Dana says. “You can’t open it! Are you crazy?”
Our nerves turn electric as the scratching goes on and on. “I’ll make some noise,” I say. Then I start singing some nonsense in a loud voice: “Hey Bear, nice night we’re having isn’t it? Hi Dana! How are you Dana? How do like Alaska, Dana?” Then I grab a metal bowl and bang it several times against the wooden cutting board.
Right away, the noise stops. Against any logic, I can’t help myself from projecting human sensibilities onto this animal. Is it normal to want to anthropomorphize wild animals? I annoy myself for entertaining such thoughts, but I imagine that this bear must be thinking, as it scuttles back down the path, “Oh dear! I hadn’t realized anybody was home!”
“Phew,” we say. “That was pretty crazy.” Then just as we get ready to settle back into our bunks, the screwdriver resumes its scratching just as busily as before, as if we had never made any sound at all. Scritch Scritch Scritch. Thump. Thump. Shake, smack smack smack smack. Pause. Repeat.
“Maybe it smells that garbage,” Dana says, pointing to a bulging and very fragrant thirteen-gallon garbage bag we’d propped up next to the front door. I clap my hand over my mouth. Should have gotten rid of it! We knew, though, that grizzlies weren’t as invasive as black bears—that they generally didn’t tear apart cars or houses to get at garbage—at least not here in Denali. Then the animal scuffles over to the opposite wall and begins digging in a new spot. We realize, then that this animal is going to go away only when it is good and ready, and that there are some things that you cannot control. At this point, I blow a small fuse.
“Oh my god,” I say, cradling my head in my hands. Then I climb back into bed, pulling my sleeping bag over my face and pressing my hands over my ears. If a grizzly bear is going to eat me tonight, I think, then what choice do I have but to accept my fate? I have reached my limits as a thinking person, as a rational human being. “Are you giving up?” Dana says, still standing in the middle of the cabin with her flashlight.
“Yes. I’m done,” I say dramatically. “I’m now putting my head in the sand.”
“Well, at least keep this nearby,” she says, smacking down a big red can of bear spray onto the bedside table. She crawls up the ladder to her bunk. What else can we do? Suddenly the cabin feels like the Little House on the Tundra—a tiny box on an endless expanse. Toklat suddenly seems like a million miles away. Oh, and by the way, where is that midnight sun now? Where is that purple twilight? Where is my washed out watercolor-blue sky? We have an emergency battery-operated satellite phone, but there’s no way I’m using that thing—not unless one of us is having a heart attack and or we’ve lost a limb or something huge.
I try to reassure myself that the Murie Cabin has withstood many traumas over its eighty-five years—blizzards, earthquakes, floods, and most certainly, grizzlies. What did we have to worry about? Wasn’t I overreacting? I close my eyes and force myself to breathe as the creature scratches away.
Somehow, I fall asleep. When I open my eyes, the sky is light and the only sound I hear is the water trickling through the creek.
A pair of chickadees tweets and flutters in the grass. It’s wonderful to lie in bed on this last morning as the furnace’s blue flame hums and crackles. I roll over and pat the logs nearest my bunk the same way I pat my bike when I get home safely, the same way I pat the side of the airplane before it flies. I have to say a little prayer of thanks to those strong logs cut from the best trees and those hands that built this cabin. Now all we have to worry about is the distance between the front door and the outhouse.
We sweep the floor, shake out the rug, and close the spiky shutters by securing the two halves with the smooth wooden bolt and wedging the brass barrels into place, and finally, securing the fat rusty nails into their holes.
One last look inside the cabin, now shadowed only by thin slants of summer light that filters through the cracks. The table and chairs, quiet now and at silent attention, all the books back in their upright position on the shelves, the bowls in correct stacking order, the beds stripped down to the white mattress pads, the stove’s tiny pilot lights beneath the four burners aglow, “my” little writing table, now clean (no coffee mug with wildflowers, no stack of blank notebooks, no pencil box, no watercolors—just a slightly warped surface of a rough little table that sits season after season awaiting the next visitor).
The meadow beside the cabin hums with insects—bees, flies, mosquitoes—all busily crawling about the stamens of the larkspur and getting their feet sticky on black, rich pollen. Mosquitoes swarm and hover above a puddle on the path.
We inspect the outside of the cabin to see what damage has been done by our mystery creature and discover tufts of brown fur caught in the edges of the wood. The fur is golden-brown, just like a grizzly. We find that same fur caught in the wood on the other side of the cabin and notice long, white marks across the logs. Had the hungry beast only been having a good scratch? It had never occurred to us during the night that the bear could be standing against the cabin, grabbing the edges of the logs with its claws, rubbing itself up and down, side to side, its claws used not so much for scratching but for leverage. We realize then that there are scratching logs, scratching boulders, and scratching cabins. We stand there for a few minutes peering at the tufts of fur, looking at cabin, and back again at the fur.
Just as we’re about to leave Squeaky chirps up from the willows next to the outhouse. I want to believe that he has chirped up for us, to say, “Goodbye! Goodbye! Goodbye!” Then I see the outline of a light-footed animal (a marmot? a fox?) slink out of the bush above the cabin and up onto the road. We say goodbye to Squeaky and wish him a good hibernation, a good squirrel life.
We walk down the path and take one last look around, left, right, scanning the East Fork River, the road up to Polychrome. A green bus chugs up the pass, ablaze in a cloud of dust. With one more look, I wonder if I will be lucky enough to stay here again, if my feet will touch this earth at this latitude and longitude again. Like another lightning bolt to the consciousness, I can’t help but think about the passage of time, our brief lives on earth as these plates collide and burn, the mountains that keep rising. Glaciers melting, rivers churning, so brief, so brief, so brief! My breath feels like an icicle.
In the cabin, someone has tacked a poster above the kitchen shelves—a quote by Edward Abbey: “If we could love space as deeply as we are obsessed with time.” But I see now that time and space are connected. If we study the space or the land, we are reminded of the passage of time, that the age of the earth at 4.54 billion years hugely dwarfs our existence, which proportionally speaking, makes us mere visitors on earth, having walked upright only six or seven million of those years, which is only 0.15 percent of time as we know it. What this means is that earth existed WAY before humans walked on it and, most likely, will continue to orbit in space long after humans have disappeared. The thought that we die is alarming! People we love will die. Our dogs will die. Our houses will crumble and become covered with grasses and vines. The grasses and vines will die. The sun will burn them out. The sun itself will burn out. But there’s only neutral sentiment here. It simply will be and we are enclosed within this reality. Therefore, I come believe, during my stay at the cabin, that to care deeply about space is also to care deeply about time, which in the end, should encourage us to live better lives, with our best efforts and our clearest eyes.
The park’s visitor’s center is packed with people. Our heads are spinning a little bit as we quickly try to adjust to the “real world.” With so much chatter and movement, I feel like a ball in a pinball machine, banging around from this side to that side. Dana and I decide to grab some coffee and a sandwich. I can’t help noticing how much food people buy and how hungry everyone looks.
This gets me thinking about food and consumption in general and how little we really need to get by. I think of my own city cupboards and how thoughtlessly I purchase basketfuls of vegetables, how careless I am about using them, a snip here, a snip there—oops...forgot to eat the cauliflower (now browned and rotting on the edges)—to the trashcan for you! I think about all the things that I’ve accumulated, things that I do not need—coffee mugs, clothes, books. I want to unload, lighten up and as Thoreau said, simplify, simplify, simplify.
This gets me thinking about how wilderness fills us city dwellers with a temporary feeling of displacement—even emptiness. Being away from our comforts essentially forces our hand—either we open our minds to possibility or we roll up tight as a sow bug. This tension must make most people feel a little edgy, for until we fill this space, it’s a vacancy, a hollow place which we are obligated to fill with new memories, new fears, new responsibilities. But the tendency is to want to fill this emptiness up too fast. Ice Cream! E-mail! Caramel Macchiato! Photographs! Souvenirs!
So do we often mistake excitement for hunger? Is excitement simply a form of hunger? We hunger for religion, for thrills, for love, and most likely mistake these feelings for food-hunger and then distract ourselves by eating because nowadays it all comes ready-made with enticing colors and textures and shapes.
Yes, most likely I’m projecting my emotions and conflicted feelings about leaving the cabin, but I swear, I can feel angst amongst the visitors, a sadness even swirling around the loud voices, the hats, the maps, a sort of unsatisfied hunger of wanting more and more. I feel sad for anyone who will not know the little cabin on the tundra. I feel sad for myself for leaving it. Sitting there, I wish I didn’t have to think so much and I that I could act more like an animal and know what my nose knows. If only we could control our brains and submerge ourselves into all that we do!
Heading back to Anchorage, the road is wide and fast with strip malls, chain restaurants drive-thru coffee shacks and sporting goods stores. We could be driving through any number of cities in America. The difference, though, is all around us—the mountain ranges, the lakes, the icy air, the space.
And as we head into the city, I realize that a city is its own kind of wilderness, though it’s harder to understand the rules, if there are any. At nine p.m. outside a convenience store, in the low-light, a boy, probably no more than fourteen years old, sits cross-legged and leans up against a wall, eyes half-closed as he clutches a paper bag to his chest. He stares up at the sky, his head angled toward something only he can see. He does not blink as we pass. A couple of guys zoom into the parking lot, revving their ear-blasting motorcycles, tourists laugh and slam their car doors, car alarms bleep, and still, the boy does not move. In a city, what is an aberration and what is the norm?
Down the road from the 7-11 are some dilapidated houses, patched together with makeshift porches, boards nailed here and there, each yard a collection of metal parts and pallets, to be used at a later time. I wonder if one of these houses belongs to this boy and why he is here instead of there. Light and dark; a land of contrasts. So much beauty, and yet people talk about the long dark days, feeling stir-crazy. Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reports that the alcoholism rate is twice the national average at approximately 14 percent, per capita. Like all cities, you see the statistics one by one.
Another wave of sadness. We are silent and don’t say anything for a few minutes. If you are a parent, you imagine your child sitting against the wall of a 7-11 at night. You wonder what forces have driven him here—what domestic storms, what words like lightening bolts have pieced his heart, what emptiness of that place has made this parking lot and concrete and bed of cigarette butts preferable to the other place, if there is another place.
Do animals in the wild ever fail at parenthood? Why do humans so often go astray in their desires? We seem both gifted and cursed by rationality and imagination. Do we lose touch with our parenting instincts with all this technology, all these roads and cars and pictures glued up on billboards? Technology, with all its modern conveniences, seems to move us farther and farther away from our instincts and from that necessary emptiness that gives us clarity and space.
At the hotel, we are further jarred back into reality when we enter the lobby and are met with two stuffed grizzly bears, one rising up on its hind legs, paws raised up in attack-stance, the other on all fours and posed as if walking across the tundra. It’s shocking, seeing them like that. Travelers to Alaska seem to love tales of ferocious grizzlies, those man-eating beasts, and I think about the ways that these animals have been both demonized and infantilized in the form of teddy bears and cartoon characters. These immortalized hotel-bears are beautiful, nonetheless. Their fur glistens beneath the chandeliers. We stand before them observing close-up, the yellowed fangs, the incredibly long, curved claws, trying to reconcile this creature and those creatures, trying to reconcile this Alaska to that Alaska.
Back at home in L.A.—beneath sirens wailing in the distance, atop the whirr of leaf blowers and lawnmowers, and among all these speeding cars—a feeling of internal quiet stays with me.
At the cabin, one can always hear the creek as if flows into the East Fork River. It’s a soothing, rushing sound—a constant but gentle noise. Then at the cabin I could almost hear the sound of my own blood. It’s as if each person has a creek of her own, one that too often goes unheard, so easy is it to drown it out with engines and chatter and television. It’s like if you think about the inside of your mind as having unused rooms off in the corners—these chambers that you can unlock when you find them. There are as many of these chambers as you need for space to write books, to paint, to find courage—all those things necessary for a good life.
Even now, I keep dreaming about Denali; it’s reverberating through my subconscious like a ringing Tibetan bell. Like concentric circles fading one by one, I see cabins and animals and feel alert and hyper-aware. Last night, I dreamed of Denali was a sort of Oz, a vast landscape of rolling green. I was soaring through the sky holding a mass of helium balloons. In yet another dream I’m sitting in a field of ice next to glaciers. It’s getting dark and “arctic fireflies” dance around me, lighting up the sky. As the dreams continue, and the circles fade, I begin to switch landscapes, moving farther and farther away from Alaska, through taiga, through tundra, down long roads and winding paths until, finally, I’m riding my bike back in Los Angeles across a gravel bar—a vast riverbed that I discover in the middle of the city. Why has it taken me so long to find this place? I wonder. In this last dream, I’m elated to have this piece of Denali back in the city, and to, once again, feel the gravel churning beneath my tires.