By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter
The underbelly of cumulus clouds still glowed with the grapefruit coloring of the setting sun as our car bumped down the final mile of dirt road. Gravel crunched under our tires as we came to a halt on the shoreline of Peterson Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. We feared we wouldn’t make it before dark, or by arriving so late in the day our site would be claimed. The latter turned out to be true.
In the place we intended to camp a greater yellow leg was standing his ground, glowering down his long beak at us and bobbing his head in agitation. “Tew-tew tew!” he repeated, but seeing we weren’t dissuaded by his disparaging greeting, he flew off after having his shrill say.
We had the place to ourselves.
I stepped from my vehicle and my lungs seemed to sing as much as expand in the fresh air. Like many Alaskans do after a long (and this year not very enjoyable) winter, my wife, 2-year-old daughter and I had come to experience rejuvenation — the kind that can only result from time spent in nature during the seasonal rebirth of spring.
“What do you want to do first, set up camp, get a fire going, or explore a little bit?” I asked.
They say the eyes are drawn to what the mind truly desires, and I saw my wife crane her head to look at the canoe tethered to the car’s roof. She had cast her vote without saying a word. We untied the canoe, got the paddles out, donned our life vests and pushed off from shore. The water was as clear as gin, and in the still air of dusk, the surface of the lake was a large, flat expanse of glass. The only ripples came from our paddling and wake.
We scanned the horizon, and despite it being nearly 10 p.m., we realized we weren’t the only ones feeling the manic enthusiasm that strikes in spring, with each day getting longer than the previous. Three dark shapes moved briskly along the eastern shoreline. It looked like waterfowl of some sort. We altered our course in that direction.
As we got closer we saw three Barrow’s goldeneye ducks, one female with a short orange bill and brown head, and two very agitated male suitors. The drakes were in full, crisp, black-and-white breeding plumage, their steep foreheads rolling back to long manes that gave off a purplish iridescence in the slanting, late-day sun.
“One, two, three,” my daughter counted.
It was one too many at a time of year when courtship called to the birds and bees. Somebody would have to leave their party.
They ignored us, their wide yellow eyes focused solely on the competition presented by each other. They postured and harassed one another until one bird rescinded whatever a duck declares when hoping to attract a mate. His fast wing beats gave off a low whistle as he departed. The other two glided away, perhaps to whatever tree cavity they called home.
With the show over we headed back to shore to build our own nest. We pitched our tent between some stubby tree stumps crowned with telltale beaver chews and a thick patch of willow with dozens of furry catkins budding the length of each slender branch.
The stars were beginning to shimmer and shine in the panoramic sky, and a huge white gibbous moon seemed close enough to reach up and pluck, something my daughter attempted when we camped this time last year. She’d grown wiser over the past 12 months. Wise enough to know other aspects of camp life.
I wasn’t sure if she was asking out of eagerness to toast some s’mores or, like my wife and I, could feel her skin prickle with goose bumps as the mercury began to drop, but either way it seemed like a good idea.
Under the heavy thunk of my maul, the dried wood I’d brought split and splintered, while the girls gathered tiny twigs to use as kindling. We arranged them in the ring of rocks, lit a match and savored the warmth as the orange flames grew taller, crackling as they fed.
We cooked over our campfire and enjoyed a simple meal and conversation without interruptions from cellphones, televisions or other forms of technology.
The fire burned down, and my daughter, sitting in a two-person camp chair between my wife and I, laid her head in my lap and began to rub her eyes. We made our way to the tent, unfurled our sleeping bags and wiggled into the comfort and warmth of the down. But as we lay silently, waiting for sleep to come, we heard one final reminder that we weren’t the only creatures to savor the evening.
From the far side of the lake we could hear the tremolo wail of a loon. More than emanating from a living creature, it seemed to effervesce in the still air and darkness. We savored the wild sound, letting it wash over us.
I can’t say what it conjured in the minds’ eye of my half-awake family, but for me it evoked the meaning of why we came. Author Annie Dillard once wrote when mulling over the philosophical conundrum of the sound of a tree falling in the forest, “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
I agree. It’s important to get out from beneath the wheels of routine, and not just get away, but to get into the wilderness from time to time. There’s no time like the present to enjoy nature’s present of spring.
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx. He and Colleen operate Rouges Gallery Kennel.