The Cult of Alders by Walt McLaughlin

As the high-pitched propeller drone faded to the whisper of wind through conifers, I watched the plane bank steeply towards Juneau, disappearing into the steel-gray sky. Then I was alone. A raven's hoarse croak echoed across the broad coastal meadow sprawling southward from the gravel airstrip. Then absolute silence. After slinging emergency supplies in nearby spruces, I grabbed the rest of my gear and slogged through that sea of fireweed, Nootka lupine and cow parsnip growing as high as August corn, on a two-mile trek to the Endicott River. There I made camp and waited two weeks for the plane to return. What happened during the interim was more like a dream than anything else.

Alaska is one of the few places left on the planet where you can immerse yourself completely in the wild and observe the workings of nature with virtually no human interference. I awoke daily to bald eagles screaming, followed the tracks of moose and wolves cutting through the dense alder bush, wandered aimlessly through a virgin coniferous rainforest and drank tea in the evenings amid mountains scoured by glaciers. Most importantly, I worked hard, real hard, at staying out of Mr. Bear's way.

Along the coastline of Southeast Alaska, there lives a variety of brown bear accustomed to being the master of its domain. Since full-grown males can weigh over a thousand pounds, it's easy for a solitary pilgrim such as myself to pay careful attention to their wants and needs. I rolled out from underneath my tarp and just stood there whenever a brow bear, male or female, meandered into my camp. No shouting, no rapid movements or unbroken stares. I minded my Ps and Qs, acutely aware that my .44 magnum pistol was no match for those catchers-mitt paws. Thus I avoided a showdown. Thus I learned the true meaning of the word "humility" while converting ever so slowly to the cult of impenetrable alders.

Wilderness is a quaint notion invented by dead, white explorers and perpetuated by modern legislators, but the wild is as real as the blood coursing through our veins. We need it just as much. Since my brief sojourn in the bush, I have often wondered what place there can be for an animal like the Alaskan brown bear in a world that grows increasingly more urbanized and technological. That's a tough one to figure out, but this much I know: civilization and the wild are inextricably entwined. And humanity, despite what we tell ourselves during orgies of self-aggrandizement, is neither the summit nor the focal point of creation.

 

Photographs courtesy of Walt McLaughlin

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