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Living with Wildness Interview

Chugach State Park book, featuring photography by Carl Battreall

49 Writers Blog Posting: Of Essays & Animal Stories

Facebook Page: Animal Stories by Bill Sherwonit

The Nature of Cities blog posting, 2012: Rediscovering Wildness -- and finding the "wild man" -- in Alaska's Urban Center

   

 

HERE IS A SAMPLING OF SHORT ESSAYS THAT BILL SHERWONIT HAS WRITTEN ABOUT HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH WILD ALASKA

LISTENING TO OWL

It’s a Wednesday night in late winter, which in our part of Anchorage means take-out-the-garbage night. Shortly after 10 p.m. I put on bathrobe, gloves, and boots, and prepare to haul our green plastic trash can to the edge of the driveway for Thursday’s early morning pick-up. First, though, I take a broom and head out the front door to clear three inches of fresh snow from the porch. I’ve just begun sweeping the soft, fluffy powder when a voice calls out from the darkness.

Hoo. Hooo-hoo. Hoo. Hoo.

I lift my head in surprise, my heartbeat quickening at this familiar yet uncommon call. Uncommon, at least, in my neighborhood. I’ve been told that dozens of great horns are scattered throughout the city, most often heard -- and occasionally seen -- in large, wooded areas like Kincaid and Hillside parks. Yet in 7 1/2 years on Anchorage’s Hillside, only once before have I heard a great horned owl while standing in my yard. Not that I spend lots of winter nights outdoors. Except for occasional hot tubbing, snow clearing, or aurora gazing, my forays into the yard are brief: to and from the car for meetings, classes, basketball. To and from the road, hauling trash.

The owl hoots again. And again. It seems to be calling from the wooded lot beside our next-door neighbors, the Nelsons. I wonder if they’ve heard the owl. Unlikely, unless they too have by chance gone outside.
Then, off in the distance, a faint response. Hoo. Hooo-hoo. Hoo. Hoo. It could be a competitor responding. But when told of the back-and-forth hooting, local birder Bob Dittrick thinks it more likely that two mates are “talking” to each other on this night. Great-horned owls hoot year round, he adds, but they’re most vocal from late winter through early summer, during courtship, nesting, and fledging of young.

Ears still tuned to the hooting, I finish sweeping, then grab the trash can and carry it to the road. Along the way I cross hare tracks, freshly imprinted into today’s snow. I follow the tracks, hoping to glimpse their maker, but lose them where they cross the newly plowed road. Snowshoe hares, like great horned owls, are mostly nocturnal animals. They’re also one of the owl’s favorite foods, along with other rodents and birds. Trying to imagine the hare’s response when it first heard the owl tonight, I suppose it instinctively froze in place, depending on a snowy white coat to avoid detection. Perhaps now the camouflaged hare is watching me while listening for owl, long ears rotating this way and that.

I’m feeling lucky. If not for my garbage-hauling duties, I wouldn’t have noticed either owl or hare. They provide a glimpse of mostly hidden lives, a reminder of nightly dramas played right outside my door, yet so rarely noticed. A few flakes of snow drift groundward. The 20-degree air is still, the night unusually quiet. The fresh snow that covers the ground and drapes trees helps to muffle noises. No other sound but owl until a jet briefly passes through the night sky, mechanical roar muted, on the approach to Anchorage’s airport. Then, once more, marvelous silence except for the owls’ periodic hoots.

Returned to the porch, I simply stand and listen, relishing the owl’s hoo, hooo-hoo . . . I consider waking Dulcy, who went to bed early, exhausted by her work with the local school district. No, she needs her sleep. I’ll hope the owl returns this weekend. And, come morning, I’ll ask my wife if she’d prefer to be roused when owl is calling, as she’s requested when the northern lights are especially magical.

There’s no doubt the owl is working some magic on me. The hooting has an eerie, haunting quality, but that’s not entirely it. The call, like the wails of loons and the howls of wolves, speaks of wildness and mystery. The lives of owls are secrets, rarely revealed. Tonight, I briefly glimpse a sliver of one owl’s life through the darkness. Its repeated hoots send messages to my brain and create images: I picture the great horned owl perched in a nearby spruce, head swiveling, claws gripping branch, eyes wide open, calling into the night.

I’m reminded of another winter night, six years past. Can it already be so long ago? Camped with two friends in the Alaska Range foothills, I heard the rapid hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo of a boreal owl. The rapture of that night’s campfire, sub-zero cold, forest stillness, ink-black sky, wildly flashing stars, and owl calls are forever imprinted on my brain and heart.

The hooting also reminds me how much I love my life here in Alaska, here on Anchorage’s Hillside. To be part of a world that includes this owl’s voice is a gift indeed. I wonder if any others in the neighborhood are standing outside their houses, temporarily pulled away from familial responsibilities or the technological distractions of TVs, CDs, videos, computers.

The calls stop. I wait a few minutes to be sure, then turn towards the door. Still under owl’s spell, I know that six years from now, even 20, I will remember this take-out-the-garbage night. I’ll remember the fresh snow, tracks of hare, and hushed stillness of the air. I’ll remember standing alone on the front porch, no rush to go inside, listening, listening. I’ll remember my heart beating wildly and my mind growing calm, serenaded by owl.


SEEKING CARIBOU, TOUCHING THE ARCTIC REFUGE'S COASTAL PLAIN

Standing on a rocky, windblown perch at the edge of Alaska’s northernmost mountain range, I look north across a vast green, undulating plain, hoping -- half expecting -- to see caribou. Five others join me in the search, binoculars pressed tightly against their eyes. Time passes and one by one the binoculars drop, as my friends wander off to discover other Arctic delights and mysteries: golden poppies, bleached bones, wolf tracks, golden eagles soaring against a cerulean sky. I stubbornly linger atop the unnamed marble mountain that rises, like a giant inverted cone, from the Achilik River Valley.

This north-south trending drainage is one of the corridors used by members of the Porcupine Caribou Herd as they migrate through the Brooks Range to and from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. We’d come hoping to intercept caribou on their way to southern wintering grounds. We know that most of the herd’s 130,000 caribou are already far to the south and east, but dreams die hard, so a few of us keep imagining that thousands -- or at least hundreds -- of late-departing migrants will suddenly surge into our valley and pass beside our tents in a thunder of bodies.

Though we miss the animals, their signs are everywhere, of every kind imaginable. Hoofed tracks mark the ground wherever it is soft. Clumps and tufts of brown and white hair hang from willow branches. Sun-bleached bones and antlers lie scattered on gravel bars, tundra wetlands, and craggy limestone ridges. Hundreds of deep, rutted trails crisscross the lowlands and hills. Even in the caribou’s absence, the sense of their presence, their spirit, is overwhelming. As Glenn, visiting from California, suggests, “It’s a little like being in someone else’s house when they’re not at home.”

I’d come to the refuge also expecting to spend a day, maybe more, exploring the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain: calving ground for the Porcupine Caribou Herd and political battleground between those who want to probe its hidden depths for oil and gas and others, like me, who wish to keep this landscape preserved forever as wilderness. Listen to Alaska’s politicians and you get the sense that only “outsiders” want to “lock up” the coastal plain. Another instance of environmental extremists spreading lies, and Lower 48 special-interest groups -- not to mention the federal government -- meddling in local affairs, or so the argument goes. In fact some polls have shown that nearly half of Alaska’s residents want the area to remain wilderness.

As it turns out, I spend most of my time in the mountains, where hiking is easier, the scenery more spectacular and diverse, and the mosquitoes less ferocious. Our group of six ventures onto the coastal plain only once. Most stay a half-hour or less before retreating to camp. Glenn and I stay a bit longer. Still, we hike no more than a mile or two beyond the Brooks Range foothills before chased back by swarming mosquitoes and wet feet.

The coastal plain isn’t a pleasant place to explore by foot (which is probably why float trips are so popular here). Tundra walking is made difficult, if not torturous, by biting bugs, abundant marshlands, and sedge tussocks -- unstable, mushroom-shaped mounds of plants. Tussocks can be avoided by hiking along the large, braided stream channels that dissect the plain, but there’s no escaping mosquitoes. Or soaked feet. And the meandering network of river channels makes stream crossings -- or tundra detours -- inevitable.

Stumbling through wetlands and harassed by mosquitoes, with no caribou, grizzlies, or other animals in sight, I can understand why some people so easily dismiss this landscape as desolate or barren. From a narrowly human perspective, the coastal plain is a remote, flat, monotonous, harsh, and expensive-to-reach place that few people would ever hope, or wish, to visit. In winter, it’s draped in darkness and sub-zero cold, wracked by blizzards; in summer, it’s bug-infested swampland.

Yet even in my discomfort, I notice wolf tracks pressed into the sandbars, the buzzing trill of a savannah sparrow hidden in the knee-high grasses. They are reminders that the coastal plain’s true importance has nothing to do with humans. These lands and waters are breeding, nesting, spawning, calving, feeding, and denning grounds for polar bears, muskoxen, wolves, voles, loons, ducks, shorebirds, snowy owls, arctic grayling -- dozens of species in all.

Crossing back to the foothills, I stop for a moment and once more imagine the pounding of hooves: the beating of the refuge’s biological heart, a place throbbing with life during the short Arctic summer. Barren and inhospitable to our kind, perhaps, the coastal plain is a homeland to our wild northern kin. Those of us who venture here would do well to show gentle manners and respect, as when we step into someone else’s house -- even if they are not at home.


LOOKING INTO WILD EYES

Dark clouds and thick fog cloak the Alaska Range and surrounding lowlands, as if some gray, sodden blanket has been dropped over the landscape. There’s no hope of seeing The High One, 20,320-foot Denali (officially known as Mount McKinley). And in all this soupy grayness, there’s little chance of seeing the wildlife for which Denali National Park is famous.

Given the weather and the hour – 7 a.m. on a Saturday – the 14 people on our bus might understandably be grumpy. Or asleep. Instead, we’re talking, laughing, sharing stories, and taking turns on “wildlife watch,” alert for memories not yet captured. In short, we’re a happy bunch, spirits refusing to be dampened by dank circumstances.

There’s good reason for our brightness: members of our small community have spent from two to six days in the heart of one of America’s great parklands. Only two of us are Alaskans. The rest come from Iowa, New York, and Paris. We were strangers to each other a few days earlier. Now we’re one giant family on holiday.

We’ve been staying at a backcountry lodge, with many of the comforts of home: heated rooms, hot showers, cushy beds, great food. And the lodge’s employees have been eager to make our experience the best possible.

But the people on this bus could have found such luxuries almost anywhere. What has made this trip memorable is the sub-Arctic wilderness and its wild residents. Beyond the reach of cell phones, TV, newspapers, and the Internet, we’ve been humbled by the immensity of vast rolling lowlands and faraway, snow-capped peaks tucked beneath stubbornly persistent clouds. We’ve seen snow-white Dall sheep, big-antlered caribou and moose, migrating sandhill cranes roarking overhead, swooping falcons, and, best of all, berry-crazed grizzly bears.

Bears are among my great passions. In fact one reason I’ve come here is to present a program on Alaska’s bears. My interest is that of a writer, naturalist and animal lover, and I make no claims to special expertise. But once people know that I’ve studied bears, spent considerable time in their company, and even been charged by one, they pepper me with questions, ask me to share my stories, and tell me theirs. Everyone, it seems, has a bear story.

One of the grizzly’s gifts to us humans is that the animal demands we pay special attention when passing through their homelands. In doing so, we notice things we might ordinarily miss: berries, flowers, diggings in the tundra, animal droppings. We move out of our heads and into our bodies. Into present time. All of this is good.

Even the sighting of a grizzly a mile away is something to be shared at dinner. Others tell how they broke into loud song when a trail took them into dense thickets, simply because a bear might be in the area.

To most people, no other North American animal symbolizes wilderness and wild ferocity as much as the grizzly. Except, perhaps, the wolf.

It turns out that Denali is among the best places to see wolves in the wild. But they’re not seen nearly as often as grizzlies and few people at the lodge have spotted any during their stay. This dark, foggy day is their last, best chance. Joe, a railroad engineer from America’s heartland, is especially hungry to see a wolf. Even the briefest glimpse will do. He keeps his eyes trained on the landscape until the gray shroud grows so thick almost nothing can be seen. Finally the veil begins to lift and someone in back announces, “OK, Joe, time to get serious again.”

Minutes later, there’s a shout: “Wolf up ahead!”

Fifty yards in front of the bus, a black wolf nonchalantly walks up the middle of the road.

Martin, our driver, shuts off the engine. Almost immediately the wolf stops and looks our way, then turns and approaches. The murmur builds. People pull down windows and reach for cameras, videos, binoculars. As the wolf nears, Martin recognizes her as the Toklat Pack’s alpha female.

The she-wolf pauses, steps forward, pauses again. She looks directly at us, yellow eyes shining fiercely with intelligence. The stark contrast of dark body and bright, piercing eyes is hypnotizing to some, unsettling to others. The eyes remind one visitor of images from a horror film. Others remark on the wolf’s great calm. She’s clearly comfortable around buses and people, but there’s no question she belongs to another, wilder world.

Several minutes pass, then the wolf continues down the road and turns back onto the tundra. There’s an electrified hush before the driver restarts the bus. Then everyone starts talking excitedly. This is the encounter people will share years and decades from now: a few minutes spent looking into the gleaming eyes of wolf, which somehow reflect back a deeper, wilder, more ancient part of ourselves.


WONDERS OF THE NIGHT SKY

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the rememberance of the city of God!”
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Late evening in the Peters Hills. The September sun has been swallowed by the Alaska Range, and only a thin, faint purplish glow now marks its passing. As day gives way to night, I stand on a northwest-facing ridge and search the landscape for lights. In the distance are a few scattered cabins and a mining camp, barely visible in the deepening dark. But no points of light.

Higher on this ridgeline, I could look east and see the Parks Highway, with its lights of cars and lodges. Or, turning south, I would see the faraway urban glow of Anchorage. But where I’m camped, the surrounding hills shield me from highway and city. Here, in the far western corner of Denali State Park, I’ve serendipitously chosen a site where artifical lights won’t disturb my wilderness nights.

Above me, wispy clouds have moved in from the southwest, and no stars are visible as I crawl into my tent. Several hours later, feeling chilled, I awake; it’s much colder than my first night in these hills. I add another layer of clothes and then, sensing that the temperature drop reflects clearing skies, I open the tent door -- and am greeted by the universe. Never have I seen such an Alaskan sky. No moon, no aurora and no city glare. Thousands of brilliant stars sparkling in deep blackness. How to describe such an unexpected and overpowering sight?

I’m reminded of a wonderful story I read many years ago, the 1941 science-fiction classic Nightfall. Using the Emerson quote to begin his tale, Isaac Asimov explored how humans might react if they experienced darkness and stars only once every 2,000 years. Would we experience spiritual rhapsody? Or go insane? On this September night, the heavens hold promise, not danger. Lured skyward, I’m pulled from my drowsiness and out of the tent. Still in my sleeping bag -- and no longer chilled -- I lay my head on the frosted tundra and face the night sky. So many stars. Such immense, unfathomable distances. A taste of infinity, an escape from ego.

In Anchorage, I seldom gaze for long at Alaska’s nighttime sky, except to watch sunset afterglows, northern lights, meteor showers, or, perhaps, a full moon hanging low over the mountains. Hidden by clouds and summer’s late-night sun, or dimmed in winter by urban glare, the stars hold little allure. Not enough, certainly, to draw me out of the house and into the cold.

Tonight is different. I wander in a dreamlike trance among the Milky Way, the Big and Little dippers, the Gemini twins and the seven sisters of the Pleiades. I wish I recognized more constellations. I want to know their ancient names, their legends, their origins. What is the story of Orion, the giant hunter? Or Taurus, the bull? And where are they hiding? So many stars fill the sky, that I have difficulty seeing shapes and forms. Perhaps if I’m patient enough, ancient patterns will reveal themselves. As author and human ecologist Paul Shepherd once explained it, “the spectacle of stars seems at first formless and chaotic. But it is far too large a part of the world to accept as randomly structured. . . . We discern or make there organic figures.”

More than anything, humans have used animal forms to shape their universe and give it meaning. I like the idea of mythic creatures inhabiting the sky above this wilderness landscape. The constellation I know best is the Big Dipper. Yet it is part of a much grander figure, one I wasn’t taught to recognize as a boy: Ursa Major, the Great Bear. In Secrets of the Night Sky, stargazer Bob Berman suggests “It’s odd, to say the least, that so many ancient civilizations discerned the shape of a bear in this region of the sky. . . . . A bear is stretching it, and yet that is exactly what Native Americans, ancient Greeks, the Germanic tribes of middle Europe, and others saw in this formation. Why such disparate civilizations should all project the same unlikely bruin onto these northern stars remains a mystery.”

I like that too: the fact that modern scientists can’t figure out why several cultures, widely separated by time or distance, identified essentially the same Great Bear in the heavens. What could they see -- or imagine -- that we can’t now? The myths explaining the origins of Ursa Major vary greatly, yet those of many North American Native groups are similar in that bear is “born” in the heavens and later becames an envoy connecting the physical and spiritual worlds. It seems the perfect story for a magical night spent in grizzly country.

While most cultures have reveled in the images, stories and meaning apparent in the night sky, ours has largely blocked it out with city lights and, consequently, learned to ignore it. This seems a paradox, given our nation’s great interest in space exploration and odysses. While the masses watch Star Trek and Star Wars, the heavens themselves have become the domain of astronomers, physicists and other scientists who, with their high-tech instruments, probe, dissect, and analyze the universe as they “figure out” the universe’s mysteries. In the process, something has been lost. As with so many things nowadays, there’s too much science and analysis, too little myth and magic. Too much arrogance, too little humility. Too much separation from the rest of creation, too little connection.

Here in the Peters Hills, on a starry Alaskan night like no other I’ve known, I reconnect with the wonder I felt as a boy, while gazing at Connecticut skies. I shrink in size to an insignificant speck, yet I’m part of the glorious enormity that this extraordinary spectacle reveals. My imagination stirs, takes flight among faraway blazing suns and the power they reveal. Gradually I realize it was no accident I chose this place to camp.

I have no idea how long I’m caught up in this reverie. Maybe 10 minutes, maybe an hour. When I finally check my watch it’s nearly 4 a.m. Already, the stars’ brightness has begun to fade, and a pale glow lights the eastern horizon. I drift back to sleep, my spirit cleansed by starlight.


 

 
 
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