Paying Attention -- Gates, Part 3

Continued from Arctic Loneliness - Gates, Part 1, and Wolf -- Gates, Part 2.

Taking frequent breaks while hiking provides a good opportunity for rest, nutrition and hydration.  Breaks are also about paying attention.  This is when you see.  Get out your binoculars and glass around.  Wait a while.  Let the animals adjust to your unsettling presence.  Look again.  Keep glassing.  It is amazing what you will find.

In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez writes about an incident where the Canadian-born arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson showed a pair of binoculars to an Eskimo, who asked whether he could “see into tomorrow” with them.  Lopez offers a plausible explanation that the native hunter was collapsing the dimensions of time and space, asking if the binos effectively allowed Stefansson to see today the physical terrain that he would reach on foot tomorrow.  Which is a pretty good way to think about it.

Lopez goes on to describe “the mark of a good hunter,” which is that long after others have “grown weary of glassing the land for some clue to the movement of animals, a hunter is still scouring its edges and interstices.  He may take an hour to glass 360° of the apparently silent tundra, one section at a time.”  As a type-A urban lawyer, now in recovery, I have always found it challenging to slow down and pay attention on this level.  It requires patience and care, and can’t be forced. 

Cyn glassing the Sheenjek Valley.  (Photo credit: Taldi Walter 2012.)

The importance of breaks was brought home to me one afternoon on our Gates of the Arctic hike to Anaktuvuk Pass in 2002.  It was just a couple of days after our close observation of the wolf along the shores of Chandler Lake.  We had crossed over the ridge of a saddle and dropped down into a new valley.  We were traversing the left slope, about mid-way up the hillside where the terrain was firm and provided good walking, a happy medium between the wet tussocks below and the treacherously loose scree above. 

As far as I could determine, there wasn’t much going on in the valley.  All was quiet and empty.  No animals were in evidence, not even birds. 

Diane called a break, so we dumped our packs and sat on the ground, leaning against the offloaded bags to rest our backs.  The day was sunny, and warm by arctic standards, but we broke out our jackets anyway to forestall getting chilled.  We probably had a snack and a gulp of water.  After a while, we became aware of scattered song and then picked out a few birds, including a golden eagle that was soaring high above the valley, scanning for prey.  We were scanning too, using our binoculars to survey every segment of the opposite slope.

It turned out that we hardly even needed the binos.  After we had been sitting for a while, an arctic ground squirrel came over to inspect and before long to chatter at us.  And then, to my astonishment, three bears materialized on the hillside directly across from us.  It seemed that they had been conjured out of thin air.  They must have been there all the time, of course, but had hunkered down when four human intruders entered their home.  By sitting in quiet observation, we had given them time to accept our presence and resume their activity.

The animals were a sow grizzly, lightly colored, almost blonde with just a hint of cinnamon, and her two young cubs, who were both darker in hue.  Like us, the bears were about midway up a steep slope rising from the valley floor and towering high above them.  They were about a football field’s distance from our position if measured horizontally across the valley, but much farther by actual terrain.   While they were now easily visible without binoculars, the glasses could also bring every detail into view. 

As we watched, the mother flopped herself down in a sunny spot and sprawled on her back, limbs splayed in all directions.  The two cubs needed no further invitation.  They rushed to her side, clambered aboard and nuzzled up, eagerly nursing on her rich milk.  I alternated back and forth, sometimes observing with just my eyes and then using the binoculars to zoom in for a closer view.  I was entranced, but also experienced an embarrassing sense of voyeurism at the intrusion on their private moment.

I lost track of time, but at some point the mom spooked.  Did we make a sudden movement or noise?  Something must have caught her attention.  Or maybe she had just had enough.  Rolling to her feet with a barely audible woof!, she jettisoned the twins, then collected them again and led them straight up and over the steep hillside, unfazed by tundra shrubs or rocky scree.  For an instant, they stood in silhouette at the top of the ridge, then dropped out of sight as quickly as they had first appeared.

As the animals raced up the slope, I noticed something else.  Relative to the large adult, the cubs had thin and almost spindly legs.  This made the operation of their limbs plainly visible.  Through the binoculars, I could see each leg striding and rotating in its socket as the young bears moved.  It was quite different for the mother.  She not so much ran as flowed up the hillside. 

The animal’s powerful haunches rippled and undulated like amber waves of grain, but the mantle of her coat was draped so abundantly over her frame that it was almost impossible to detect the motion of particular joints and limbs.  I was reminded of watching a child dressed as a ghost on Halloween, seeming to float effortlessly along the ground with the movement of individual legs masked by the oversized sheet of her costume.  

I could only marvel at the raw power that propelled the large adult up the slope with such speed and apparent ease, the two little fur balls that followed her scampering madly to keep up.

This is the third post in a series about a 2002 hike from Chandler Lake to Anaktuvuk Pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park.  See Arctic Loneliness - Gates, Part 1and Wolf -- Gates, Part 2.