About twenty years ago, I stepped into the Anchorage airport for the first time with my friend, Jerry, and I knew instinctively that I would never really leave. We were there to fish. I have since moved increasingly away from that sporting pastime, but I was passionate about it at the time.
We had been angling partners since the 1980s, when I asked Jerry to teach me how to fish. I had been taking my children on weekend camping trips since they were infants. As they grew a bit older I was looking for an activity to fill out the hours between morning pancakes and evening campfire.
Fishing seemed like just the ticket, but I had neither skill nor experience in the activity. Jerry graciously took me under his wing, putting up with my initial incompetence. Soon my family was fishing as well.
We were living in Chicago and mainly fished in northern Wisconsin. Sometimes we camped, but as fishing became increasingly important, we started renting a rustic northwoods cabin with access to half a dozen motorless “kettle” lakes in an adjoining wilderness preserve. The kettles were formed by the melting of large blocks of ice deposited during the most recent Ice Age, properly known as the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, and most of the surrounding forest had been spared from logging even when Paul Bunyan strode through the area a century before.
One day, when my daughter was seven or eight, she and I had arisen before the first glint of dawn and were gliding across one of the kettle lakes by sunrise. We were casting small bass lures into the shallows from a vantage point maybe 100 feet off shore. We had the lake to ourselves, but soon we heard loud thrashing sounds in the woods.
A black bear emerged and entered the water in front of us. He was old enough to be out on his own but not yet grown to robust adult size. The bear apparently did not think to look for intruders out on the water and seemed completely oblivious to our presence. I recognize that we cannot begin to know the inner workings of a wild animal’s mind, but he proceeded with a series of antics that I could only interpret as play.
For countless minutes, the young bear pranced around in the shallows, jumping and splashing and generally making a commotion, reminding me of my own children. Frequently, he threw his arms high in the air to create leaping cascades of water that showered back upon him. After a while, the animal tired of the sport and crashed off into the bushes, leaving us gaping with amazement.
I have had many more opportunities to observe “charismatic mega fauna” in Alaska than I ever did in Wisconsin, although bears were not uncommon and wolves were beginning to colonize from Minnesota. But I mention this northwoods encounter simply to note that accessible wilderness can also be found much closer to the places where most Americans live.
Next post (Wednesday): the brown bears of Katmai.
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