Nothing in the world enhances a wilderness experience compares with the thrill of a wildlife sighting. Whether I’m driving through the south side of Bellingham and notice a family of racoons gathering on a sidewalk as they plot their next garbage can raid, or I come face-face with a black bear on a mountain trail, there is something about seeing an animal in its natural state that evokes a deep sense of reverence and gratitude for me. Note below, the photo of a bear I took just yesterday when on local hike with a dear friend. It was a moment that bonded us deeply with this magical place.
Where's Waldo? (Just kidding...where's the black bear?)
In 1993, my father and I took a trip to Yakutat Alaska to go salmon fishing in the Situk River, a popular fishery known world-wide for its incredible returns of salmon and steelhead. We were there for a week, and every day, we would walk past coastal grizzly bears doing the same thing we were doing—fishing for salmon. If I recall correctly, at least at the time of our trip, there had not been a documented instance of a bear attack on a person there despite the high population of bears and people. This was due I believe to the protocols for hiking and fishing during bear season. That said, for some people, following the simple protocols like making conversational noise and listening to your surroundings were not enough.
One morning as my father and I fished, a group of fishermen walked up the valley from the parking area firing round after round of pistol shots in the air to scare away any bears on the trail. It was obnoxious. A few minutes later, they emerged from the dense rainforest directly across the river from us, and onto a beach. The river bottom between us was literally alive with the green swimming backs of Coho salmon, so many that in places you couldn’t even see the bottom of the river. This fishing was good for everyone, regardless of whether you were a bear or a person. Their fear of bears was assuaged by the presence of all the salmon that now had their attention. Right then, a brown bear emerged from the woods on our side, its great head swinging from side to side as it scanned the beaches. I realized that due to a sharp bend of the river upstream and to the left of these men, the bear was hidden at first from their sight. It glanced at my father and me with a look of nonchalance before wading into the shallows where it sat down in the water like a large dog. (The reason for my lack of pictures grieves me to this day. Every day upon returning from fishing, we cleaned our salmon while wearing rain gear, and I forgot my disposable camera was in the pocket of my rain coat. Alas, the film was ruined.)
I was worried these men across the river were going to start shooting again, once they saw it. I tried to get their attention by waving at them without making any noise. But my efforts were in vain as their attention was on catching salmon. The bear, not concerned at all with our presence, was now in plain sight of these fishers. Then, it laid down in the shallows, wiggling its belly on the rocks before rolling over on its back and doing the same. It had a most blissful expression on its face and the majesty of the moment was overwhelming. Then I heard the men across the river talking in excited voices, and they were pointing at it. I realized in that moment though, their fear had turned to wonder as they drew their not their guns, but their video cameras, still bantering excitedly. For the next few minutes, we all participated in the splendor of this encounter. It was wordless and profound, a moment of grace that temporarily bonded us all. Eventually, the great bear stood up, shook off before wandering back into the brush. We resumed our fishing, but long after the bear had disappeared, the feeling of exhilaration remained.
I tell this story because the effect this had on me was transformative and to this day, stands as a great moment of bonding between me and my father. A few years later he would die, but this moment and memory lives in me like a poem. I believe all encounters with wildlife have this bonding effect to varying degrees and some of those that have contributed to the blog, have expressed this theme beautifully. When we allow for our fear to become wonder, a miracle can occur.
Below is a video of a cougar one of my sons and I encountered this past winter while on a local outing.
The impact of wildlife on our lives cannot be minimized. I am grateful whenever I am so fortunate with an encounter. As always, I would love to hear more of your stories about wildlife encounters, and how they affected you. I know they have always been transformative if not life-changing for me.
Bull Elk, Olympic Peninsula