Drinking Wine on July 4th
Arriving in an airport at 1:00am with twenty dollars in one's pocket is never an ideal way to start an adventure. I grabbed my guitar, my over-size backpack and my camera from the baggage claim and looked around, exhausted and a bit overwhelmed. My objective was simple, a dark corner to sleep off my hang-over and wait for the morning. My thoughts were a fumbling mess of excitement, exhaustion and not so pointed anticipation. I stepped outside to collect myself, my luggage in tow. The air was crisp, the Chugach Mountains still snow covered. I thought about sleeping outside; however, thought better of it after ten minutes of shivering. I lit my last cigarette (no judging, it was a stressful month) and tried to relax.
The few people left were hugging their loved ones and putting their belongings in their vehicles. Enjoying my last puffs, knowing it would be my last, I resolved myself to the fact that I would have a horrible night’s sleep- suffrage for a cause.
Every dark corner was occupied. A drunk man with xtra-tuffs (a fisherman's sneakers) in the best spot (I gathered he had slept many o'nights in the Anchorage Airport), a group of young Europeans with high tech lap-tops and ragged dread-locks in another. Walking past the stuffed Kodiak gave me chills. I didn't think that sleeping under a grimacing dead bear posing on his haunches would be the best karma for a guy readying himself for another year as a brown bear viewing guide.
I silently expressed my sorrow and headed for the benches adjacent to the main terminal. The noisy florescent lights buzzed and flickered, exaceggerating the shade of my already pale arms. I was just tired enough to make it work. Bring on the inevitable late night vacuums; they'll have to suck around my corpse for the next few hours. I wasn't moving. I covered my face with my well used Bronco hat, used my down jacket as a blanket, put on some calming John Mayer on my iPod and dreamt soundly.
Alaska is a different world. The air is thin, even at sea-level; the people are friendly, even if rugged; the plants and flowers are bright and healthy, even if for just a short time. The morning brought another level of excitement.
I cracked every single joint possible from sleeping in the pretzel position that goes hand in hand with backpack travel, and went outside. From the terminal I could see my plane, a bright orange pumpkin, the hot-rod of bush planes. In less than twelve hours, I'd be in an area with more Brown Bears per square mile than any other place in the world. The Garden of Eden, I doubt, could hold so much beauty.
My stomach always begins to turn as planes take off, this time was no different. My baggage alone was enough to make the pilot double check the weight. When flying in the Alaska Bush, it's only a matter of time before a crash, big or small, is inevitable (more on that later). I got in, traced the cross across my chest.
"The father, the son and the holy spirit". I am not religious in the slightest, in fact, quite the opposite; however, a matter of "just in case" comes into play in moments of chance. If I knew a Buddhist or Simon Says ritual that was a matter of hand signals, I would apply those to the growing montage of good luck, if not quirky, rituals I have developed over the years for risky situations.
The flight was uneventful. The cloud cover hid magnificent volcanic peaks like silk sheets on woman's bosom. The wind increased rapidly as we flew down the Alaska Peninsula. Waterfalls seemed to appear from sheer cliff's edge to spill into the Cook Inlet. This was home for the next four months. We landed on a slightly angled beach at low tide and coasted to a stop.
My hetero-sexual life partner Joey (holla!) was a sight for sore eyes as he rode shotgun on a muddy, yet new four-wheeler. The driver, a fire-red bearded man shook my hand firmly with crazy snake eyes that pierced through me, making me uneasy and unsure of his intentions. He was a guide; I knew that much. I also knew that I would have to work closely with this crazy bastard, who spoke very little and seemed infinitely crabby. He said little to me and even less to his guests.
I often thought of my first few minutes in Lake Clark when greeting new guests throughout the summer. Brown Bear tracks lining the beach made seemingly random patterns- a sign of freedom. The brisk wind dancing with the tall grasses, bright yellows and greens, dominated my peripheral view.
Seagulls squawk meaningless threats at passing Bald Eagles. A lot to take in, even for someone who knows what to expect.
We crossed a salt-water drainage/creek and made our way to my new home, a two building lodge with plenty of character and history to justify its own book. Makeshift works dominate the old and new additions. The original homestead unsuccessfully stitched together with contemporary add-ons, high tech solar panels and an obtrusive, yet affective, wind generating tower dominated the ambiance. I felt content.
I stepped inside the cozy and warm main room. I was exhausted, both emotionally and physically. I took off my sneakers and met my coworkers.
Pat- a sixty something chef. Her smile was impressionable and infectious.
Affectionately, We would later call her “mom”.
Drew’s wife Jenny. Her loud, dominating personality would clash with mine all summer and cause us to not like one another for most of the summer; however, a happy ending does exist.
The owners- sweet and caring on the outside.
A twenty-one year old housekeeper. I cursed my luck. I was hoping for no women at all, or at least an unattractive, hideous beast, inside and out. I wanted to be woman free all summer. Luck, as it turns out, should have been anything but cursed.
The next two weeks were a rainy, muddy mess. Manual labor dominated our days, as I expected, and boredom filled our nights. We were cold, wet, crabby and ready for clients.
We were ready to bear-view.
Living in the bush has a tendency to induce hysteria in mass quantities. The owners of the lodge had made everything impossible. We were supposed to be representing a company with professionalism. Clients left with a smile on their face and a huge spot in their giant hearts for a beautiful and well run lodge filled with love. However, behind closed doors, we were fighting for, what seemed like, our lives, at the very least, our livelihoods. I felt like I was leading a double life, as if I was cheating on my wife of thirty five years. Lying to clients and pretending that we were one big happy family, when the truth could not have been more different.
Employee’s jobs were threatened on a weekly basis.
Conspiracy theories ran rabid. They suspected two of the women as being gay. Two of us had to sneak around for being with each other while not being married. As one of the tyrants put it, “they may tolerate that stuff in ‘America’ but not here”. Guests loved the fact that they called the lower 48 eight states “America”. They thought it was a unique quirk meant to be shared with their journals. However, I saw it as less of an idiosyncrasy and more a major problem. We WERE in America. It wasn’t their own little kingdom of family values to be shoved down our throats. We had the right to be atheists, agnostics and shamans; homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual; black, white or purple.
The pathetic kingdom of a man’s making, ruled by a woman who had to compensate for her lack of self-confidence with control was worth very little without the bears that dominated the area.
My mind began to crumble. Hysteria has a way of finding anyone, even those who know that it’s coming. I took a step back to catch my breath. I knew why I was here and no one could take me away from it. The bears knew nothing of human control and drama. They were concerned only with calorie intake and procreation. Food and sex, maybe they are smarter than we are after all. After a long and hectic month of rain, drama and mentally exhausting work, I decided to take some time for myself. I took my binoculars, my camera and my raincoat to the beach.
A rare moment’s pause to realign my Zen as it were.
The waters separating the Kenai and Alaskan Peninsulas were swollen with white caps as the north-west wind penetrated the otherwise beautiful day. The sandy coated beach gave way to brackish sedge grass and meadows of endless green which, from a distance, looked as groomed as even the most elite golf course. The exhilaratingly brisk breeze caressed my sun-burnt face, each touch more awaking than the last. The Kittiwake Gulls, floating on endless thermals, created sometimes deafening squawks as they fought for Stickleback fish in mud puddles. The tracks of the last night’s bear traffic dominated the otherwise vacant river bed.
I sat quietly as Buttercup ate grass within twenty yards of me.
Her gigantic head was a good sign of how she’d fill in the rest of her body by summer’s end. I circled upwind of her so that she could get my scent, something that is known as “good bear etiquette”. I still have no idea if these bears know certain individuals or if that is just an ever constant fantasy of mine that stems back to the days when idolizing Timothy Treadwell seemed like a natural thing to do for a young bear fanatic. I would like to think that they can smell certain people and get to know their habits as well as they do with one another. I guess all in all though, it doesn’t matter. I do know I was wrong about one thing and right about another. Bears aren’t interested in relationships with people.
They care about surviving one more winter and that is the extent of it. Bears do however, have remarkable tolerance for people. I have been within a few feet from one of the biggest bears I have ever seen (Steadman) and he truly does not care one way or another. He’s well fed; therefore, he’s content.
I went back to the lodge smiling. No amount of drama induced hysteria could ever break me. I was there to educate people about the most dangerous and most gentle giant on Earth. My professionalism and my loyalty were to the bears and bear lovers only. A small, yet dedicated community of enthusiasts with big hearts and huge smiles.
As I was saying, life, as it were, couldn’t have been sweeter.
As ridiculous as outcamp life inevitably always is, I kept my mind on why I was there. Bears, Bears, Bears. The Alaska Peninsula never disappoints. More than forty different bears can be found within a three mile area. There are the cuddly looking ones that my clients always want to kiss on the nose; there are the dark and shady looking males that make Joey and I shit our pants when we accidentally startle them in thick brush; there are the sows with cubs that make your cheeks hurt from smiling; and yes, there are always the sub-adult siblings that get entirely too close for comfort (ten feet is my cut off). And if you must ask, no, amazingly enough, I have eluded the thousands upon thousands of bear scat piles from attacking my feet.
The weeks leading up to the summer solstice always seem surreal. The energy in the air is thick. I felt like a trucker on an over-dose of speed, exhausted, twitchy and agitatedly hyper. As I laid in my un-level, lump of a bed, Joey, as always, sawed logs. The sound amplified by the acoustically ideal plywood walls initiated unpredictably giddy thoughts of suffocating him with my pillow. The dimly lit room, illuminated by the delicate yet capable midnight sun, felt cozy and homely. Mosquitoes flew by my ears close enough to sound like bush planes flying above the three thousand foot hills to my left. I only know that there are mountains from seeing them on previous days. The cloud cover and endless showers sufficiently cover any hint of their presence.
I had to get out. I had to have a week’s vacation.
The lodge was slow. I had mowed the lawn every day for a week and decided to get out while I could. Our friends were waiting with giddy anticipation to host us in Anchorage. We boarded the next flight out. A week’s adventure was exactly what we needed.
We enjoyed endless days of sun, Frisbee golf, beer and friends- just what the doctor ordered. However, there was a turn for the worst waiting around a dark corner. I didn’t realize that there was a warrant out for me in Anchorage. A fee was neglected on my part from minor in consumption of alcohol from five years previous. While waiting for a cab to take us safely home after a long and ridiculous night of drinking, I decided that it would be fun to pose in a phone booth for a few pictures with friends.
Little did I know, a cop was watching the whole time and asked to see my driver’s license. I gave it to him and joked around not knowing that his dispatch would mean my night was going to make a turn for the worst. I don’t remember much. Just pictures flash through my head like a broken movie player- The cold handcuffs hugging tightly to my wrists, the not particularly gentle officer taking my fingerprints, the cold floor of a crowded cell. I woke up in complete disarray. “Why the fuck am I in jail!?!?” I tried to get answers from every officer I could find. I had a jumpsuit on and was treated like a criminal. They did not answer my questions no matter how charming I was; they barked orders at me and talked down to me in a way in which I do not ever want to feel such degradation again.
I found myself in a room filled with a judge, a lawyer, felons, robbers, rapists and thieves. I waited my turn for a sentence. The only sense of comfort was seeing Joey in the bench seats shaking his head. My throat seized shut when my name was called to approach the bench. The judge had been harsh to everyone before me. I was at the mercy of someone else’s making. “Mr. Gibson, do you understand the charges for which you are here today?”. I replied with a shaky voice “yes your honor, I do”. She then asked the prosecution to advise her on a fair verdict. The lawyer recommended six days in jail. “Six days in jail? I didn’t pay a fine for something that happened five years ago.
I can write you a check right now. I just want out of here.” My voice became less shaky and more determined. The punishment, 6 days, would not fit the crime. Fortunately, the judge found the lawyer confused and disorganized when she found out that the wrong papers were in front of the prosecutioner’s desk. She snickered with a smile that made me have hope. “Mr. Gibson, you cannot pay the fine because it is Saturday, however, I am going to let you out today anyway.” I sat down with a sense of hurried intensity. I wanted out of the suit, I wanted out of these Anchorage County Jail issued sandals and I wanted out of this shit hole. I put on my clothes, tossed the suit on the floor and hurried to the officer near the door.
Freedom! Joey was taking video of my first free moments as he laughed at my misfortune. The shaking of his head in the court room was not the shame that I thought but a communication that he thought the whole situation was ludicrous.
The rest of the vacation was amazing, minus my being the butt of countless jail jokes. After a week of civilization, I just wanted to get back to Lake Clark. I wanted bears, Danae, Pat’s food and a slower life with no cops!
We got on the plane back to the lodge and I slept. A vacation filled with turns was just what I needed (most of it). I was ready for the rest of the season. In a closed community, drama seems to find everyone no matter how much they try to avoid it.
We found out that the owners had taken it upon themselves to clean our rooms, look in our drawers, accuse us of smoking marijuana (which is not true) and made every staff member believe we were the bad guys.
Lodge life is very amusing. I laughed with disbelief at the accusations and ridiculous behavior two adults can think up. I brushed it off. It’s a short summer and I could deal with most anything for a short period. One thing did hurt me however. My housekeeper had a different view of us. Our eyes no longer caught from across a room. I didn’t see the same thing in her eyes as I once did. I had to realize that my summer fling was over and move on.
With bears around every corner and Joey and I hiding in our cabin every night, the drama soon past us.
It slowly turned back to Jenny and Drew. The ironic part is that the owners tried to use Joey and I’s professionalism as an example against them. I do not think they understood what the word “professionalism” was truly defined as. My co-workers were my team. They were my life-line. We stopped our bickering and started supporting one another. The rest of the summer would be smooth and fun. We would ignore any bizarre and idiotic requests and accusations.
It was cold, even bone chilling. The last days of August meant that the sun’s relentless shine is starting to give way to darker nights and colder days. The onsets of “cabin fever” were slowly beginning to set in.
Okay, I admit, technically cabin fever isn’t the best term to use; however, I was cracking up nonetheless.
For those that don’t know, let me elaborate. “Cabin Fever” or in our case “Bush Fever” creeps slowly. The first symptoms are often shrugged off as having a “crabby day” or being slightly drained. After a good night’s rest, one feels like their batteries are 75% charged. Yet, not all is fixed. Things that would otherwise be found sickening or disturbing become hilarious. For instance, the phrase “anal leakage” is no longer meant with a frown but with a shake of the head and a soft chuckle.
The next stage is often met with even more denial. The temper is like a short fuse.
Actually, it’s more like a fuse with a short. Anything and everything will spark a temper tantrum- your best friend’s eating habits, the way your co-worker breathes through his nose to make a whistle that sounds more like a steam engine, your other co-worker may have a laugh that makes you shiver to the bone and tighten your fists with internal rage and anger. Snapping is all too common and becomes a part of everyday life. Without it, the next stage becomes inescapable.
The quite stage is a stage that one does not want to find him or herself stuck in. Nothing matters anymore. Appreciation for people is all but lost forever. Questions that would otherwise seem natural and worthy of an answer make you cringe and clinch your jaw until an imaginary tooth ache is blamed on un-suspecting guests.
“Yes… the bears sleep wherever they want. No… they aren’t social animals. They are solitary unless they are forced into social situations. WHAT DO YOU MEAN WHAT CONSTITUTES A SOCIAL SITUATION!?!? Don’t you see more than one bear eating Salmon at one time? Then it’s safe to say that they are being forced into eating salmon within a distance that isn’t comfortable to them.. i.e. a social situation. No… the Mothers will not have reunions with her cubs and no… she doesn’t care if she is a Grandma.”
Fantasies then become realities for short periods of time. Bears eating grass in fields become allies in the mauling of innocent clients. The blood and carnage is often funny and a slight smirk and a giggle squeaks out, leaving guests wondering if these bears really aren’t Disney Bears after all.
There is hope however. Soon, the season will die down. The temptations that go along with sleeping on a beach with bikini laden women and cheap tequila are the cure. The sounds of Jimmy Buffet are an escape that is as priceless as it gets. As the twitching of my eye danced to the sounds of the beat, I smiled. Not at the words “anal leakage” but because I really did know how lucky I am… if just for a moment before I went back to day dreaming of bear maulings.
Lifelong friends are usually very hard to come by. People fade in and out of your life silently until they are forgotten all together. The best part of about lodge life isn’t the bears or the solidarity but the friendships that are bonded together by unique experience.
My summer fling slowly felt more like something much bigger. It felt right. It felt, without sounding too dramatic, like something I could feel for a long time to come. Stay tuned for later blogs for more. Even the thought of her made me smile and blush and smile again. For much of the summer Jenny and Drew were my nemesis; however, by the end of the summer I was with them every day. Jenny was my shoulder when I needed someone to help me through seeing my girl get on a plane for home.
We knew more about one another than most of our best friends know. We lived together; we ate together; we drank together; we fought together; we loved each other. Becoming so close has its ups and its downs.
I made lifelong friends, people who I will talk to forever; however, saying goodbye becomes incredibly difficult and painful. I still can hear Jenny’s annoying laugh and see Drew’s crazy eyes staring at me; yet, I think about them favorably and with the intent of getting annoyed once again in the near future.
The last few days were surreal. It was just Joey and I, for all intensive purposes. The tides made it impossible to guide people, as even the roads were filled with water at the most important times for photography. I flooded a 4-wheeler in the salt-water drainage/creek by trying will myself across it. The very next day, Joey had trouble with a bear named Montana. He was trying to get into his fish box and I had to pop a flare (my last full day of guiding!) at him (see the video).
It was time to leave. The fish were finally running. The bears were getting fat and lazy. The mornings were frost filled. After Joey almost punched one of the owners over a pay-check dispute, we loaded our bags in the plane and sighed. I said my goodbyes as we circled the place that was home for so long. It was a beautiful day, perfect for flight-seeing but I didn’t care. I slept soundly all the way to Anchorage.
Two weeks traveling around Alaska was the best cure for the summer’s huge hang-on. Campfires, beer, laughter, new friends, sight-seeing was our gift to ourselves. After dropping the rental car off at the airport in Kenai, our good friend Sarah picked us up in her own little hot-rod plane.
I was nervous but she put me at ease with her professionalism and her great flying. After a great flight, we were cleared for a landing. We circled the runway and headed in. Something was wrong. We started turning violently off the runway. I always knew that every time I got in a plane I was chancing a crash, here it was. We were on one wheel and going to flip. Well, I thought, if this is it, I’ve had one hell of a good life. I’ve done more than most people do in fifty-years. We skidded to a stop in the grass paralleling the runway. Joey and Sarah cheered that we were still alive and untouched. I was silent. I had no idea I felt the way I did. It felt good. It felt right.
I wasn’t sad about dying. I had no choice. If I was to go, I was to go; I had no choice in the matter. I felt validated with what I thought, if even for ten seconds, were my last thoughts. I’m happy and have no regrets.
I sit writing this in a Colorado. It’s a comfortable 70 degrees outside and the birds chirp outside my window. Seven chapters, eight pages and the longer this goes the more I feel like apologizing to my readers for saying so much about so little. I also feel the need to say thank you to those people in this blog and those who were unmentioned. As Chris McCandless wrote on his death bed, “Happiness to be real must be shared”. Thank you for letting me share my happiness and being a part of another chapter in my life.