Posts Tagged ‘Lynn Schooler’

Denali 8. Mr Cheep’s revenge

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

Day 7:

Last full day in the park.

My plan is to pack up and get to the road in time to meet the first bus out in the morning. I have some things to do in Anchorage so I want to get back ASAP. I think the first bus leaves Wonder Lake at 6:30 but I’m not sure, and more importantly I don’t know how far Wonder Lake is. So since the weather is a bit crappy today anyway, I pack up my day pack and hike to the road. I get on a bus to Wonder Lake. It is weird to be among: 

  1. people 
  2. other campers 
  3. tourists

I realize that the landscape around Wonder Lake is much more in line with the kind of view that Sydney Laurence was portraying of Denali. This picture would be a very Sydney Laurence view of Denali, if not for the clouds.

On top of everything else I hadn’t seen a real TREE in 6 days. Also, I realized that if I were to ever come back here, I might want to use the campground at Wonder Lake as a base. This is what I saw a lot of people doing.

The Wonder Lake area is beautiful. There were a lot of mosquitos, and I felt a smug satisfaction at how much of a hardship this seemed to be for some of the tourists. I used a urinal, and washed my hands in a sink. Seeing my face in a mirror was also kind of strange.

I ride the bus back, past my valley to the Eielson Visiter Center. This is a pretty amazing place with a lot of info. I watch a 17 minute movie about climbing Mt. McKinly. I don’t need to do THAT. A bear shows up and the rangers have to close down one of the trails and one of the observation decks. I have to exert effort not to feel blasé and superior. Yes the guy who spilled half his water the on his first night is now Grizzly Adams.

I had been to the Visiter Center on my way in. All of the buses make a stop at all of the half dozen or so facilities like this. It’s set up very much as a way for people who are only visiting the park on the road to get a direct sense of the park. And they do a good job. I saw a small family get off a bus, kids running around and screaming. Later I saw a ranger corral the same kids, put her hat on each of their heads, make them do something like a scouting salute and swear an oath to protect the environment. The look in the kids’ eyes was really kind of cool. Like a lot of rangers that I’ve met, these people have a sense of which war they’re in the front lines of.


In addition to the bear, there was an arctic fox who appeared to be quite habituated to the center. Nothing was closed down when this guy showed up.

These moose skulls were reportedly found in this locked state.

One spur of one’s antler stabbing deep into the eye socket of the other. They died like this.

John Muir is still very much a guiding spirit in a park like this. Denali National Park would probably not exist without him. There is a stone at the visiter center with a quote by him carved into it:

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

My life is continually teaching me that this is true in art. This thought made me feel closer to Muir than I think I ever have before.

I talk to a ranger after the bear goes away. Mostly I want to verify some things about the caribou from yesterday. I also talk to the bus dispatcher about my plan for tomorrow. Everyone is gratifyingly happy that I’ve been out for week. They say things like “Nice going!” or “Well done!” I don’t know if they would say that if they had seen me stumbling around out there, but it makes me happy. I eat my lunch at a table!! I get a bus back to Mt. Galen and take a bit of a detour to look at the expanse of the Thorofare River delta.

I see another bear on the way back but he doesn’t affect my route.

However, when I get back, Mr. Cheeps is again upset.

Here is some video I shot of Mr. Cheeps the ground squirrel: YouTube video of Mr Cheeps

He has even acted out a bit. There are now two little nibbles out of the heel of one of my Crok flip-flops that were in the vestibule of the tent. More dramatically there are two little holes in the largest of my water bags. It is now useless. Harumph!

As I write this, I am reminded of something Lynn Schooler said to me about nature documentaries. He was talking about how, over the years that he was serving as a guide for a lot of documentaries, he saw a decline in quality, which he correlated with the educations and interests of the people who were shooting them. To paraphrase and generalize: It used to be that they were being shot by people who deeply understood the biological and zoological science behind what they were doing. Genuine experts who were interested in getting good footage that accurately represented the true nature of the animals and environments they were filming. The shift has been towards expert cinematographers who have a deep understanding of dramatic structure who are interested in getting cool shots of good looking animals doing exciting things, whether it’s scientifically representative or not.

He said: If you’re watching something and they give an animal a name… be careful.

So I’m very aware when I anthropomorphize a caribou or a ground squirrel that I am skating on thin ice. I actually have a deep problem with it. As I think I’ve said before, I think when we anthropomorphize, we’re cutting our imaginations off from exploring forms of consciousness that are significantly different from our own. I don’t think that whales are beautiful because they demonstrate sentience that is similar to ours. I think they’re amazing because they are the apex of a form of sentience that is their own. Just as we are. We are profoundly “other” to each other. And therefore we must tread softly when around each other. We can’t assume we know what’s going on in the other mind, and we diminish it when we try.

But Mr Cheeps is a water bag & flip-flop nibbling little terrorist who deserves to be reduced to a YouTube cliche! As much as I can be interested in the alien mind of the other… this guy was driving me NUTS! Cheeping like that RIGHT BESIDE MY HEAD…

Denali 5. …shit.

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Day 4:

Slept very well. Woke up cozy in my sleeping bag and slept in. Made move to camp 3 in 2 trips. I just don’t want to carry the heavy pack too much. Left tent for second trip. Finished move around noon as weather makes clear signs of rain. I hurry to deploy tent. It is windy, nevertheless I do the best job of it yet. Practice. I put on rain gear and pack water kit for a trip down to the river. Glassing the valley across from me I see what appears to be moose antlers. I decide to investigate at a later date. Rain on and off as I go to river and explore upstream a bit. Many moose tracks. What is proper moose avoidance behavior? it begins to rain harder as I collect water and head back. After dropping off water I go on a scouting mission to explore what might be an alternate route to the road. It isn’t, but I clarify the best route. I am planning to do this early on the morning on the 11th. I don’t look forward to the heavy pack, so I want to eliminate route mistakes.

In retrospect and even at the time, it is amazing to me how much I obsessed about what day it was, how many days I had been there, and when I was going to leave. This little trip to the road was all about trying to quell constant worries about whether I knew the way well enough. Also, I had been quite distressed by how hard I found it to hike with my full pack, and the return to the road on the morning of the 11th was the next time that I would have to face that.

I go all the way to the road. It rains hard most of the way back but the sky is clearing. Also: earlier after pitching the tent I was able to get a signal on the Weather-band radio. Isolated showers and thunderstorms. Clearing up by Monday. So I am not profoundly worried about the weather.

I had tried the radio at both of my other camps and got nothing. I assumed it was a bust and I had wasted money on the thing, but I think the higher elevation of camp 3 gave me a signal. I had to hold it in a very specific way which was not a lot of fun, but the robot voice of the automated weather radio system at least gave me a point of reference in terms of my own observations of the weather. The new camp was in fact a little exposed and I was worried about storms.

My rain gear is working well. Tent egress is tricky.

I rest in the tent when I get back and wait for a break in the rain to go out and cook dinner. Louisiana beans and rice with Earl Grey tea. Very good. I see a lone hiker with the red pack working up the river. I pack up the Jetboil, and check the hikers progress… skipping my valley. I go back to food storage to get a vitamin tablet after brushing my teeth. As I return I see something across the valley.

Grizzly bear.

It is slowly working its way back and forth across the valley opposite me. But he is definitely coming towards me.

The camera is not doing justice to this situation. Even at maximum zoom, it’s just that fuzzy dot. But in the flesh he was huge and coming closer and soberingly real.

I’m not sure what to do. We’re supposed to avoid them and not let our presence alter their behavior, but what if it’s coming towards your camp? It appears to see me at one point when it gets to the bottom of the valley. I wave my arms and yell “Hey Bear!” It rears on its hind legs to get a better look, and then follows the valley floor around to the south, avoiding me.

I follow it with the binoculars as it heads, ironically, in the direction of the site of camp 2.

After watching it for long enough to see that it is not decidedly leaving the area, I put up Lynn’s bear fence for the first time.

A huge part of what was so distressing about this encounter was that for some stupid reason, I had thought that the fact that I had seen no bears in my immediate vicinity and only scant bear-sign, meant that there were “no bears around here.” This is why I hadn’t ever put the fence up. It was now painfully clear that this assumption was based on ignorance. I fell for the oldest trap in the book, even though, intellectually, I quite familiar with the maxim that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” How stupid could I be?

And then when this guy shows up, all my knowledge about what to do in bear encounters is a tea-spoon of comfort in an ocean of doubt. I’m still not sure if what I did was the right thing. I was downwind and up-hill of him. But I was banking on the thought that he would avoid me if he knew what and where I was, early enough to save face. I knew that as threatening as it was, when he reared up he was probably just trying to get a better view of me. I was pretty sure that we were far enough apart that I wasn’t in violation of the distance principle, but I kept a mantra going in my head about most charges being bluffs.

I knew I didn’t know enough. I also knew that no amount of knowledge would be enough. This is reality. It can be pretty scary. Even a pretty mundane encounter like this one, can be pretty scary.

I’m pretty sure he saw me and will avoid me, but I’m not absolutely sure. Just when things were tiny bit in control… Or seemed that way.

Finishing up this post in Madrid Spain, almost eight weeks after the day in question has put this day in a different context for me. For one thing, Madrid has, as a heraldic symbol, a bear eating from a madroño tree, so everywhere I look here, I see bears. And then a couple days ago I got an email from Lynn Schooler, with a link to a news story. It is no longer true that there have been no bear-fatalities in Denali park…

A 49 year old man from San Diego was found dead along the Tolkat river on Friday August 24th. There appears to have been a violent encounter with a bear. A bear which was sighted from a helicopter in the immediate vicinity of the remains was shot and killed as well. It has been established that this was the bear that killed him. The man’s camera was found, and the last 26 pictures on the camera were of the bear that killed him. The bear’s behavior in the pictures appears to be placid grazing, however there only appears to be about 40 yards between the camera and the bear. This is by Denali regulations, way too close. However, as David Tomeo wrote me in an email after the incident:

“…pictures likely don’t tell the whole story. Why was he so close to this bear and not backing off, perhaps other bears were just encountered
behind him, in the direction of retreat. The bear in the images appears to be feeding, but it is known that bears will often ‘ease up’ on their prey by casually moving closer and closer. If this hiker backed away as soon as he saw the bear, would things have been different. We may never know the full story.”

As I said, the incident throws my own little encounter into a totally new light for me. If I were back at my camp today and I saw that bear again, I would probably try to move away without letting it see me and try to find a vantage where I could watch my camp and the bear from a “safe” distance. The fact of the matter is that I will never ultimately know if what I did was the best choice. I didn’t have a “negative incident” so, on one hand, I was categorically correct, but I will probably always wonder about it.

Aside from my sympathy for the lost man’s family, I worry about the repercussions of last week’s tragedy. For the park. For the bears. For the community of people who work in the park. And for my own sense of proportion about it the next time I’m in grizzly country. David says:

“I’d like to emphasis that in some ways this is very much like a rare lightning strike or a weather-related car accident. It does happen, but not very often. Thousands of people walk through grizzly bear country everyday, some may take it for granted, but sometimes, just sometimes lightning strikes.”

I know that it is MUCH more rational in my life to be afraid of cars and busses. I am much more likely to get hurt or killed by these dangerous things that surround me every day. But I am a product of millennia of evolutionary programing, and that programing has a very old and powerful piece of code that asserts itself in the presence of a predator. Rationality has little to do with it at that point. And that piece of code just picked up another little bit of power last week. It hunkers down, deep in my amygdala and mutters: “…see… I was RIGHT!”

From the very first time that I went hiking in Alaska the presence of grizzlies, and my knowledge that in that environment I was NOT on the top of the food chain, was the active ingredient in the acidic solvent that I could feel, burning my hubris away. However, I do not think that the humbling nature of the cosmic perspective gained, is worth being actually mauled and eaten for. David is right, and wise, to point out how rare these incidents are. But if the lightning is striking you, there is really nothing you can do about it.

I don’t know of anyone in my acquaintance who has earned the right to a full-spectrum response to this kind of thing more than than Lynn. And I think he summed it up exceptionally well when he said in his email that his first thought when he heard about the incident last week was: ‘shit…shit, shit, shit.’

Denali 2. Independence day

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

The 2012 ASTI program ended on July 1st. I had a flight up to Anchorage on the morning of the 3rd so I had some time to prepare in Juneau. The way my dates were working out, it was looking like I would have 7 days out in the wild. My plan was to take advantage of a program that Denali Park has, called Back Country Camping. I would spend a week, alone in the wilderness of Denali Park.

Denali Park is the size of Vermont and most of it is completely undeveloped. There is no trail system in the bulk of the park. Instead of trails, the system that exists is that the park is divided into 87 “Units.” To get access to the Back Country, you must register with the Park Rangers who discuss your itinerary and then work out with you when you will be in which unit. The point of this is that each unit has a quota of people who can be in it at any given time. The units are unmarked, except on the maps at the Ranger Station, so you have to get your US Geological Survey maps and mark the relevant borders for your trip, yourself. It is then up to you and your compass skills. You are on your own out there. The only way that anyone will know if anything is wrong is if someone calls park dispatch because you didn’t return when you were supposed to. At that point they will know which unit you were supposed to be in last. It is interesting to note that many of the units in Denali are larger than entire state/national parks in other parts of the country.

I identified about a half-dozen units which would potentially give me some options in terms of finding some spots with good views of Mt. Denali, and began gathering my gear. I had a rather old-fashioned external frame pack that someone gave me several years ago, along with a very cool little tent. Although I like the tent very much I didn’t have a rain-fly for it, and I just wasn’t sure about spending that length of time dependent on it. At the urging of my “little-big-sister” Faith (an experienced back-packer), I looked into renting a tent from REI in Anchorage. It was 50 bucks for a weeks rental of a pretty good tent, so this became a no-brainer. I had most all of the rest of the gear I would need from other trips including the Kayak Ranger trip. But there were some things I needed.

Art Rotch put me in touch with a friend; David Tomeo who is a Program Director for Alaska Geographic
at the Murie Science and Learning Center which is inside Denali. He was wonderfully reassuring when I explained my plans.

I wrote to Lynn, mostly because I wanted to see him while I was in Juneau, and see if he had any advise. His response surprised me. He offered me the loan of an electric bear-fence! I had seen these things at Western Auto (the best place to get gear in Juneau) but it really surprised me that someone like Lynn even had one. The result of this was the thought: “Am I in more trouble than I thought?” There is one thing that I knew. I would rather have the bear-fence and not need it, than need the bear-fence and not have it. I was deciding not to take any kind of gun or bear-spray. My reasoning being that by the time I was in a situation where I could use mace, I had already made about 7 mistakes. But I remembered how hard it was to get to sleep in Holcomb bay the first couple of nights. I would close my eyes and all I could think about was waking up with a bear-snout sniffing my face… As David Tomeo said about the fence; “You probably won’t need it, but if you think it’ll help you sleep, it’s probably worth it.”

I went out to Lynn’s beautiful house near Amalga Harbor. He cooked us some of his excellent pasta, and treated me to his always fantastic conversation. There were two pieces of advice he gave me that really stuck with me. One I followed. One I didn’t. The one that I followed was to get some trekking poles. The one that I didn’t was not to take a book. I understood why he advised this. It was to remove any internal escape. And I agreed. I had already thought about not taking a book, and had decided that there was one that I would take. It was The Golden Spruce. And there was a specific reason why I wanted to take it which had little to do with escape. I did not take lightly, setting aside the wilderness advice of Lynn Schooler. On the other hand trekking poles were an absolute revelation! I was SO HAPPY Lynn suggested them. As he said: “You’re much more stable as a quadruped, and it saves your knees.”

I was struck that Lynn rather casually referred to my trip as my “vision quest.” It’s not a term I feel I have a right to, but I certainly liked it as a container for what was ahead of me.

The entire trip, lived as a knot in the pit of my stomach. I had that weird sense of how this must be the right thing to do because it’s completely freaking me out! Or is this accurate fight-or-flight and I should just go home?

I got into Anchorage early on the morning of the 3rd and took a cab to Lucy Peckam’s house. She was down in Washington State but had arranged for me to use her Honda Escape for my trip while she was gone. I drove it to the Anchorage REI and got there in time to see the doors opened. I spent the bulk of the morning there. Jetboil, binoculars, water-filtration system, weather-band radio, freeze-dried meals, and trekking poles! Among other miscellaneous stuff. Plus, I picked up the tent I had reserved. Then to a grocery store to pick up the rest of the food I needed; oatmeal, cheese, vacuum-packed tuna, whole-wheat tortillas, coffee, tea.

At the crack of dawn, I headed up to Denali. Passing through the famous Wasilla (which auto-correct just tried to spell as “weasel”). It was a gorgeous drive up along the eastern edge of the park. Listening to Anchorage NPR slowly get fainter and fainter…

I checked in at the Back Country Camping desk. Went through the briefing process. Discussed my itinerary. I would spend the first night in Unit 35 and the rest in 34. I bought and notated the maps I would need, and was issued my BRFC (Bear Resistant Food Container). I was told that Denali has NEVER had a fatality caused by a bear. The main reason for this is that they have very successfully disassociated humans from food in the mind of the bears. In order to maintain this, it is very important that a bear NEVER get any food from you. Also I was taught an important triangle: With your tent as the downwind point of an equilateral triangle, your food storage is 100 yards away as another point, and your cook-site is another point 100 yards away.

The knot is the stomach is tightening and becoming a solid surface to push off of. I buy my ticket for the bus which will take me along the one road in the park, and drop me off in Unit 35. The buses are the main way that most people see the park, or get to the organized campsites. Once in the park, we campers can ride any bus that has room if we want to go somewhere further than we want to hike… but there’s only one road.

I call Akiko and give her the number for park dispatch and tell her that if she doesn’t hear from me by the evening of the 11th, something’s gone wrong and she should call them.

From here on in this series, italicized text is transcribed from my camp-journal.

4th of July: Day one

Boarded 2:00 pm Camper Bus driven by Mona.

5 hour bus ride to aprox Mile 72. Saw 3 bears + 2 cubs. 2 Caribou.

In my experience in the wild, to get decent pictures of wildlife, you have to either get really really close, or have a bigger lens than I want to be lugging around. I’ll leave that to Michio and Lynn. Here are some shots of the landscape as we drove into the park. Click on the images for high res.

Met Mona’s Husband Chuck, and camper from Anchorage. Denali Played peek-a-boo whole trip.

First Glimpse of Mt Denali

Bus driving away after dropping me off…

Hiked in towards Moose Creek from road. Hard work. Heavy pack. Glad to have poles, but lost tip caps. No good running stream so made camp near small pond. Got feet + boots wet trying to get water to filter. Also lost half may water to Jetboil tipping. Ate freeze dried meal. I think I brought too much food. Can’t get sunblock, bug juice into BRFC. Leaving them in small bags nearby along with first aid kit. Mosquitos a big pain. REI sent two tents. Went to sleep a bit discouraged.

The brevity of this first entry in my journal is eloquent to me. I was deeply discouraged this first night. The short hike had been SO difficult. The pack was heavier than I had thought and the terrain was impossible. I don’t know what I would have done without my poles. On top of this I was devastated that I was so stupid as to get my feet unnecessarily wet, and especially that I lost half my water just because I wasn’t being careful. Mindful. There’s a description of a man in The Blue Bear that I kept thinking of: “…the slow careful movements of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors…” This was NOT how I would be described.

My BRFC was full of food. It was my driver Mona who advised me to put everything that didn’t smell like me in the BRFC. But when I tried I couldn’t get the sunscreen etc in…

Also it was true. I had checked the contents of the tent bag before leaving but I didn’t unfold the rain-fly. When I did, I found another tent folded into it. Now I had THAT to lug around with me. It wasn’t that big or heavy but I didn’t need it and there was nothing I could do with it.

By the time I went to sleep I was cold and deeply miserable.

Went out to pee at 3am. Mind blowing sight of Moon + Alaska range. Denali in glory. Too cold to take picture.

Maybe this wasn’t so dumb…

Denali 1. Prologue

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Working on the theatrical adaptation of The Blue Bear at Perseverance Theatre during 2010-11 had a transformative effect on me. I had realized fairly early on in the process that there were things about this story that were inaccessible to me because I simply didn’t have the relationship to the natural world that the two principal characters in the story had. It isn’t that I think that you need to share the principal characteristics of characters in order to portray them, but in this case, I felt that the vague sense of wonder and respect that I did feel for the natural environment of Alaska was too easily mistaken for the very specific and deep relationship that Lynn Schooler and Michio Hoshino
had with it. It was too easy for me to think I understood it. So I went out with the Kayak rangers of Holcolm bay and at least had the sense that I understood the place, knocked down a bit. The experience didn’t give me the same depth of understanding, but I got a better sense of what it might be to have a deeper relationship to place, from which it was possible to extrapolate as an artist. The effect on The Blue Bear which premiered in Juneau in January of 2011 was of incalculable value.

I have been intending to blog about my experience with the Kayak rangers and still plan on doing it, but for the next little while, I’m going to post a series about another trip, while it’s still fresh in my mind, heart and body…

The summer of 2011 after the first ASTI (Alaska Summer Theatre Intensive) training program at Perseverance, I traveled up to Anchorage to look at the the Sydney Laurence theatre where we were going to remount The Blue Bear in early 2012. After spending some time at the theatre with Art Rotch, I headed over to the rather excellent Anchorage Museum. Wandering through the galleries I was struck by one room in particular. Landscapes that were poised precariously on the razor edge between impressionism and realism. And there was a subject that kept asserting itself like Mt. Fuji in Hokusai’s prints. These were the paintings of Sydney Laurence, and his Mt. Fuji was North America’s highest peak, Mt Mckinley.

Like Monet’s water lilies, reproductions do little justice to these paintings.

This is how dumb I am: It took WAY TO LONG for me to realize that the theatre I had to come to Anchorage to check out, was named after the painter who’s work I was being so struck by in the museum.

But to be honest, what I was really getting from Laurence’s portraits of Mckinley was an awe and regard for the mountain itself. And there was one particularly monumental work that just took my breath away. The truly awe inspiring Arctic King:

This afternoon in the gallery began a low level obsession in me. Mt Mckinley is more properly called Mt. Denali or just Denali. That’s its Athabaskan name. Attempts to change the name are consistently blocked by the congressional delegation from president Mckinley’s home state: Ohio. That’s how dumb the United States is!
Denali means something like “The Great One”. The mountain has an origin myth/story, which I will not relate because although I’ve heard it, I don’t really understand it or have the right to re-tell it.

Reproductions of these works being so poor, I hurried back to the museum when I returned to Anchorage for the remount of The Blue Bear. And looking at the paintings again, the low level obsession began to focus into an impulse. It was actually very simple.

“I want to go and be in a place where I can see Denali.”

I recognized this impulse. This was not a vague need to face nature, or testosterone driven need to test myself. This was an artistic impulse. I decidedly did not want to climb the mountain. It was almost the opposite of that impulse. It was an impulse to simply go to its feet and… hang out. To listen to what it might want to say to me.

But I wasn’t naive enough to think that I could handle such a trip. I was definitely being egged on by thoughts of Michio Hoshino
spending 30 days in a tent on the Tokositna glacier just to get one shot of the northern lights:

Or Lynn Schooler’s solo trek around Lituya bay
. But I wasn’t delusional enough to automatically think I could go out into the wilderness by myself. Nevertheless I knew that we were planning on doing another ASTI in the Summer of 2012 and it was looking as though my schedule might be open after it was over. I had enough Delta miles to get me a flight up to Anchorage from Juneau. Denali Park is a bit of a drive north from Anchorage, so just as a trial balloon I asked my good friend, the Anchorage based composer and sound-designer Lucy Peckham, if she could drive me up to Denali if I came up in early July. She said we could definitely figure something out and that I could assume her help.

But I still wasn’t sure if I was just fooling myself, so on one of the last nights we were in Anchorage, I mentioned the idea, rather hesitantly, to Lynn. I knew him well enough to know that the last thing he would do would be to encourage me to do anything foolhardy, but also that he would wish for me to learn the lessons that I would learn by getting into a bit of trouble. Half-way through my description of what I was thinking, he got a steely kind of look in his eyes, and he just started saying one word, over and over as I was talking…

He kept saying: “Go.”