• Fishing was closed a few days ago so together with Cory and Mark, Gordon and I went on an overland adventure to Pike Lake.

    After a great but long day of fishing the day before, we slimed out of bed late and were off by 1pm. Summer is short here and the tundra is just now turning green. Small but lovely wind-stunted flowers grow in the lee of tundra hummocks (tundra bumps created through endless freeze and thaw cycles). We visited this chain of lakes last year and caught a handful of pike, but this year the water was stirred up for some reason and the visual predator proved uncatchable. Instead, we explored on foot around the lakes, finding spawning stickleback (small fish) in a tiny creek flowing into Pike Lake, flowers, feathers, tracks from many mysterious animals and even a nearly complete rainbow.

    Gordon and I walked around a small unnamed lake looking at tracks and talked about how the earth, where its texture is just right for tracks, is like a book chock full of information. I commented that although I just finished my master’s degree I was still mostly illiterate; to tracks in sand anyway. We walked a narrow beach on the downwind side of this small lake with rough wind-blown water on one side and grassy hummocks on the other. Four plovers in full mating plumage watched from a nearby ridge; their nests were no doubt very close. The sand had an odd feeling underfoot–firm at first but spongy, even gelatinous, if I paused mid-stride for more than a few seconds. I suspect the sand had accumulated on top of some lake moss during the winter storms. Inscribed in the sand were thousands of animal tracks, some the size of a dime and others like dinner plates. Gordon and I were immediately transfixed by this language like reversed braille written unconsciously but telling of so much: the past, the future and all the things that had happened to that ground in between. The soil had been wet, we surmised, before most of these animals had passed otherwise the tracks would not be so crisp. So, it had rained or perhaps a large wave from the lake had washed up to cover the beach.

    The tracks themselves told of the animals and what they might have been doing, where they were going and what they did along the way. A sand hill crane track, with massive tri-toed feet, meandered across the beach, changing directions with every step like it was distracted by each little wind-flung particle or wave-tossed flotsam. Pressed into those tracks were the delicate imprints of a fox with lobed feet and dainty claws. The crane had come after the fox–a good thing for the crane, a bad thing for the fox since the fox would have likely made a meal of the crane. The fox was purposeful, her tracks did not deviate and followed the center line of the beach from one side to the other. Perhaps she had already made a kill for the day and was proudly trotting home to her kits with a fat ptarmigan in her mouth. I have seen fox do this before and the noble yet comical image is indelibly burned into my mind.

    Over the top of them all were the deeply inset pads of a massive bruin–a brown bear. There are many bear tracks in this part of the world but none are the same and while all draw my attention, only tracks as large as these stop me in my own tracks and compel me to imagine the magnitude of the creature. I stopped and closed my eyes. The bear stood as tall as myself while on all fours and weighed over 1,000 pounds, more than 5 times my own weight. I watched it closely in my mind’s eye as it passed me on the beach, its muscles wobbling forward at the shoulder, clearly visible under the fur, then snapping taught as each foot made contact with the sand. Its fur was laid flat on the windward side but still no cold got through. On the leeward side of the animal, the brown and silver fur was thick underneath but the tips waved lightly in the rotors of wind that snaked over the bear’s back.

    Majestic in nearly every way, this bear, however, like most bears, probably did not smell good. But at this time of year the tundra is alive with Labrador tea and I imagined that the bear might have carried some of that wonderful scent after a long nap in a tundra divot. The bear passed along the lake but did not appear to take any notice of the other tracks or the small dead stickleback washing up, an easy meal. But I know the bear knew everything about the scene even without snooping around like the crane. Bears can smell like xray vision can see. The way Gordon and I used the tracks to learn about the comings and going of the beach, the bear had used only its nose. By simply breathing the bear had known more about this scene than any human forensics team could ever hope to find. The other creatures that had been on that beach as well as animals miles upwind. The bear knew the dead stickleback fish were there too but for whatever reason had decided not to eat them. Perhaps he was full, maybe they are too spiny, maybe too long dead even for the bear’s indelicate palate. I imagined the bear passing us, ambling as only a bear can, then lunging up onto the tundra before moving off across the endless open landscape. Looking for something? Going somewhere? Running from something? I don’t know, this beach is but a short chapter in the never ending story of nature. I will pick up this book again the next time I find some soft earth etched with the silent language of animals.

    Another discovery worth mentioning was that there was a plethora of ptarmigan and their chicks. The ptarmigan is the Alaska state bird and is very much like a grouse–a tundra chicken. These semi-flightless birds turn pure white in the winter and mottled brown in the summer. This time of year they are partly white and partly brown. When I was a kid we lived in Unalaska (Also known as Dutch Harbor) in the Aleutian Islands, not far from here. My father would take me hunting ptarmigan in the winter and, with my superior eyesight, I would spot the pure white birds from his shoulders by their black beak and eyes. My father would sight down my arm then shoot them with a .22. We would pluck them, gut them and take them home for dinner. The white feathers were gone in the snow and wind in an instant, but the blood would linger until the next snowfall. There is nothing quite like feeding one’s self from the land. I am excited for the fall so I can hunt ptarmigan here, which would be the first time I have done so since Unalaska all those years ago. Maybe someday I’ll hunt them here with my own kid.

    Last year there were very few ptarmigan but this year they abound–one of nature’s cycles. The ptarmigan will flourish this year and the predators will eat well and have lots of babies this year and next. Together with a human hunter or two, the predators will exhaust the surplus then start to fall on hard times themselves. Eventually the cycle will repeat. This is the natural order of things and it seems that only in places like this are these forces permitted to act against and with one another–death and life mean the same thing here.

    Walking across the tundra one lone ptarmigan flew out from underneath a hummock. I looked in and found a little nest full of speckled eggs.

    The nest is near the bottom of the image.

    June 28th, 2011 | Traveler | No Comments |

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