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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bear Scat - A Warning


Nature has its own early warning systems. One of the best ones in Southeast Alaska (as well as other parts of Alaska) is bear scat. It warns you when bears are in the area and when it would be a good idea not to take the trail you had been planning to take. I have no idea why it is called scat. At this time of year, late summer, it is certainly scattered all over. But I doubt that that is why it is called bear scat.

Some people can "read" scat: how old it is, how large the animal is, and what the bear has been eating. The last part is easy. As you can see from this photo, taken a few days ago near Haines, this bear had been eating seeds and weeds. How do enormous brown bears weighing more, sometimes much more, than 400 lbs. survive on plants? Although the salmon have started to spawn, this bear hasn't gotten lucky yet. I usually feel sorry for them when I see that they aren't eating salmon. That also serves as a warning. A bear who isn't eating salmon is probably hungry and then they resort to unconventional food. This sometimes happens toward the end of the season when they are heading into hibernation. One summer, a bear ate my foam bicycle seat, and I couldn't ride it anymore. That same bear got into a neighbor's car and ate a huge amount of foam from the back cushion of the backseat. That kind of hunger left people feeling a little nervous and more cautious than usual.

So when I see bear scat on a trail I want to take, it gives me information and serves as a warning. Sometimes you just take the road less traveled by bears.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

It Wouldn't Have Happened on Alaska Airlines

It didn't really surprise me that the JetBlue flight attendant finally cracked after an altercation with a female passenger who cursed him, leading to his deplaning by the emergency exit slide. I think flight attendants are the canaries in the coal mine of air travel. Standing alone at the front of the airplane, they are perfect targets for the anger and fear of their passengers and have to bear the brunt of it since no one can get at the pilot and copilot who are locked in the cockpit. Since 9-11, so many things have made travel uncomfortable and, in some cases, so unpleasant that it is a wonder that no one has cracked before now. Add to that the general decline in civility and respect for other people and you have a pretty nasty brew of fear, anger, and incivility in an enclosed space with draconian rules on movement in the cabin. (I remember when it was not mandatory to wear seat belts on air planes.)
In Alaska, people can be rude, but I suspect there is far more respect for air travel professionals since so much of our travel is by air. We depend on jet pilots and bush pilots and flight attendants and baggage crews and mechanics to get us to where we want to go because we can't get to most places in Alaska by ourselves, i.e. by car. All of us have endured terrifying flights that have ended on the runway with the passengers wildly applauding. Most of us also know people who have perished in air planes and we realize that those who keep us flying are doing so at some risk to themselves. Sacrifice engenders respect. If the Jet Blue flight attendant had been treated respectfully, none of this would have happened.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Salmon of Wisdom Are Spawning

The salmon are spawning now. You may not be able to see them in the photograph above, taken at Sheep Creek, but the water is alive with the fins of many salmon who have swum in from the sea into all of the creeks around Juneau, into the waters where they were born, in order to spawn. And once they have spawned, they will die. I know it is anthropomorphizing them, but it seems like such a tragic heroic quest. They travel so far, and at the end of their journey, after leaving their eggs and milt in the gravel beds of streams, they die, sacrificing themselves, never seeing their progeny, who hatch later. They have done this for thousands of years. And these valiant fish (OK, I cannot stop with the human characteristics) feed us all. And by all, I mean eagles, bears, gulls, seals, sea lions, wolves and of course, people. The actual list of creatures nourished is much longer. The salmon are the pinnacle of an upside down pyramid with all of the rest of us who eat them spread at the top. A fabulous new book about salmon and the ecosystem of Alaska is Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska's Tongass Rain Forest by Amy Gulick. Even the trees "eat" the salmon when the nutrients from their bodies become part of the soil.

I don't think the salmon in the photograph below made it on their quest. They died trying. This too is sad. The gulls have eaten their eyes and left the rest for others. But, like everything else in the universe, nothing from their bodies will be wasted.

Every year at this time, the salmon return to us from the sea to feed us, all of us. In Irish mythology, they are called the Salmon of Wisdom, and to eat of the salmon is to gain knowledge. I think the knowledge we gain when we eat salmon is that we are part of a wondrous cycle of life that gives to each what is needed at the right time and that our role is to give to others when our time comes.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Water Water Everywhere

I once met a poet from Hokkaido who marveled at the water in Juneau. "You have so many forms of water here," he told me. "Mist, fog, rain, dew, snow, ice..." He made it sound magical. I had not quite seen it that way until he said that. We also have lake water and stream water and sea water. We have water coming out of the sky and running down the mountains and bubbling up when we step onto the wetlands. This perfect little stream crosses a trail a few miles from my house. I don't think there is anything more abundant in Southeast Alaska than water. Sometimes when it seems that the most common form of water here is rain, and I am complaining mightily about it, I will remember that poet from Hokkaido who found it entrancing.