By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter
Bears and butterflies carry exactly the same weight in my daughter’s estimation. I learned of this equality on a family outing this spring in the Skilak Wildlife Recreational Area.
My wife, 2-year-old Lynx and I had been canoeing Hidden Lake in the morning, getting up at dawn to beat the heat and breezes that come up as the day waxes on. By midday, the cloudless sky stretched in a spacious canvas of blue, and the sun hung at its zenith. A breeze as soft as a first kiss caressed our still winter-white skin, but it offered little relief to the three of us not yet used to temperatures topping out at 70 degrees.
With our watercraft securely tethered to the top of our car, we set the compass for home, but before we had even dusted our way a few miles down the gravel road my wife grabbed a fistful of my shirtsleeve and shouted, “Stop the car!”
Like most husbands in that situation, I stomped the brake hard enough to nearly put a hole in the floorboard. The car slid to a grating halt on the loose gravel surface, while I — wide-eyed and with adrenaline spiking — machine-gunned at her all the obvious questions: “What? What is it? What’s wrong? What’d I hit?”
Never turning to face me, she switched to a hushed tone and said three of my favorite words to hear while in the wilderness, “Look, a bear.”
We were at the aptly named Bear Mountain Trail. The bruin, black as midnight, seemed completely unconcerned by our presence and swaggered through the parking area and started up the hiking trail. We stared for a few seconds before it rounded a bend and went out of view.
We wanted — we needed — more.
But bears are not a species to be trifled with. As much as I relish the experience of seeing one in the wild, I’d be lying if I said every encounter didn’t bring apprehension, and with good reason. Just a few years earlier than that — in this same area, but on a different trail — a hiker was severely mauled by a brown bear. She had her scalp torn off, three ribs broken and sustained multiple puncture wounds, but she lived to tell the tale. On Aug. 4, a woman was attacked by a brown bear on Cottonwood Trail across Skilak Lake. She, also, sounds like she’ll be OK — luckily so.
Following the bear up the trail was not an option, not just for my wife’s and my self-preservation, but also for our daughter’s safety,
“I have an idea!” blurted my wife. Hiking in this area regularly during the summer months, she knows not every twist and turn of most of the trails, but she also has become pretty astute at bear behavior at this time of year. Roughly an eighth of a mile up the mountain, the trail skirts a steep edge where there is a small, treeless knob.
“It’s a sunny spot and there are a ton of dandelions there right now. There’s a good chance the bear might make a stop,” she said.
We started the car and backed up not even 50 yards. Sure enough, we SAW the bruin grazing at the top of the precipice. The nostrils of its wet nose flared, its thick ears bent at the tips and its amber muzzle and chocolate-colored eyes were the only deviations from its blackness.
And what a black it was. Its still-shaggy winter coat was like staring at a furred shadow, except for the indigo luminescence it gave off when it stepped from the shade into the direct rays of the sun.
We got out and stood in silence while watching the bear, which seemingly delighted in every last bright-yellow flower it devoured. In our silence, we could hear deep whooshing inhales as its snout honed in on each one, the sound of every stem snap as it cropped the plant with its incisors, and the reverberation of loud lip smacks as it masticated mouthfuls of blooms.
It was about this time, as my wife and I stood statuesque, that our daughter let us know she was transfixed on another species. I felt her weight shift in my arms as she leaned over to better see something ankle-high that caught her eye.
“Boo butterfye!” she declared, pointing at a fluttering spring azure, a stamp-sized butterfly with wings as light blue as glacial ice.
The insect was also partaking in the dandelion bounty along the road’s edge near our feet. My daughter was wholly captivated. She watched it for several seconds until it flitted away with the wind, then she nonchalantly returned her gaze to the bear until it, too, eventually went on its way.
On the drive home I was lost in introspection about my daughter’s equal enthusiasm between bug and bear. What were the implications for her future if she couldn’t make a distinction between (what I perceived to be) a simple versus a sublime wildlife encounter?
Certainly her process could be chalked up to a child’s naivete, but is it a lack of wisdom to not know, or want to determine, the worth of a species? Many of us grew up catching insects — perhaps letting daddy longlegs walk along the back of our hand, or feeling rollie-pollies curl in our palm, or trying to sleep to the glow of a mason jar full of fireflies — and we were fascinated by these windows into another world.
Somewhere along the winding path to adulthood we learned, almost without our knowing, to prioritize the intrinsic worth and — especially in this state — the financial value of certain species, and rank them in a hierarchy of importance.
Few tourists travel this far north to see an insect, but people come by the droves to experience wild bears, moose, caribou, etc., and the cash they spend — on everything from purchasing hunting licenses and hiring guides to paying National Park entrance fees — adds up. It gives them more worth, at least economically, as industry-minded folks would argue.
However, is putting a price tag on the potential significance of a creature a good thing to teach the next generation? It dawned on me that perhaps the error — if there was one — was not with my daughter, but with me, or even more broadly, we adults.
She experienced in that butterfly all the same things we saw in the bear — beauty and delight. How nice it would be if we could all retain a child’s sense of not just wonder for nature as a whole, but that all nature is equal, regardless of what we can take from it or how we can use it.
In the end, I didn’t lament her lack of distinctions between the two species. I envied her for it.
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx. He and Colleen operate Rouges Gallery Kennel.