22 September 2014

The Kodiaks of Katmai: Peace in a Remote Paradise

An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on the workshop and on the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.  If you want to see more pictures, follow me on Facebook/mikaeladeigh.



T
ime on Harvester Island is non-existent.

After only a few hours on her shores, I lost track of what day it was.  The week stretched out to infinity and the air took on a patina of fairy-dust.

Picture for a moment the scene in LOTR when the hobbits first step into Rivendell or the Fellowship encounters of Elves of Lothlorien. 

That is a fair approximation of my experience of Harvester Island. 

It is an isolated, magical place, accessible only by bush plane and boat.  An isolation that might drive one mad eventually ~ mad with the 360° view of beauty that greets you each morning.  And the silence ~ a silence so profound, you sit on the pebble-strewn beach and hear a raven beating the crisp air with its wings.

The peace I found there I have never experienced anywhere else.  It is part of the silence and the timelessness and the overwhelming beauty of nature.

My spiritual experience extended past the island and into Katmai National Park, where another writer and I flew by float plane to see the famous Kodiak bears (aka grizzlies) fishing for salmon.

There was nothing between us and the bears.  No vehicles to hide in.  No trees to climb.  No guns.  No protection save the mace our guide from Kingfisher Aviation carried.  Just flat land, sea grass, a small river, and bears.  Ten of them all told, but only three that were close enough to be our photogenic models for the two hours we stood on the bank.

Two hours in paradise.

Overwhelming the Five Senses
Katmai is the least visited of the National Parks and for two very good reasons: 1) the remote location and 2) the number of brown bears that live there.  (Katmai is where Timothy Treadwell was attacked and killed by a grizzly.) 

Our little trio was not being foolhardy or cocky, however ~ we carried no food, kept a watchful and “bear aware” eye on our surroundings, and maintained a respectful distance.  Brown bears may look cuddly, but those sharp teeth and long claws can instantly rip you in all the important places. 

Fortunately, these bear tours are quite common and safe and the bears are focused on eating as much salmon as they can find to bulk up for the oncoming winter and hibernation.

We sloshed through about two inches of water as we walked toward the mouth of the river.  Then we rounded a corner and all five of my senses went into shock. 


Katmai National Park - Mountain Range near Geographic Bay
Image taken with Nikon D3300 DSLR

The absolutely stillness of the park, save for the rushing of the river, and the call of the seagulls and an occasional magpie.  The crisp cool taste of the air, so clean and absent of exhaust and pollution.  The mountains cradling us in their majestic arms.  The feel of the water and the sand and the sea grass as we sloshed and hiked our way towards the edge of the river.  The smell of decaying salmon heads and some unidentifiable scent that was uniquely Katmai. 

It settled in my lungs and I breathed a sigh of grateful surprise that I was finally, finally here.

There it was again ~ that sense of timelessness, peace, well-being.  I wanted to gather the park in my arms and hold it, protect it.  Which considering Mount Katmai blew itself up in 1912, is just a tad silly.  But I felt that same tightening in my chest as I gazed around the valley.

And just when I thought this trip of a lifetime couldn’t get any better, the unthinkable happened.
 
Katmai National Park - Kodiak Brown Bear
A lovely 3-400 pound female was directly across from us on the opposite shore. Although keenly aware of us, she was ultimately more interested in fishing and eating salmon.  She watched the other bears warily, sniffed the air now and then, and ignored us. 

And then she surprised us by getting up, splashing into the river, and walking towards us.  
Katmai National Park - Kodiak Brown Bear
My companion grabbed on to my arm and whispered, “Is she going to keep coming towards us?  I think I’ll just move behind you a little.”  I grinned and kept my camera up to my eye, snapping pictures madly.  Then our girl stopped, just over 5½ to six feet from where we were standing. 

It was the most glorious moment of my life.

My adrenaline spiked with wonder and excitement as she drew closer and closer, and I wondered, "What will I do if she decides to charge?"  And then “Protect the camera equipment at all costs!  At least someone will enjoy these freaking awesome pictures!”

She lunged for a salmon but came up empty-handed.  I held my breath, fascinated, as she stood still, as if lost in thought, and then walked up the river a few feet away, and lunged again. This time, she turned back towards us with a prize in her large jaws.

I kept my camera on her, shooting frame after frame, living in the moment, my heart racing like I was on an insane roller coaster ride.  The sound of her ripping into the salmon, crunching on its bones, was music to my ears.  Not because I’m morbid or particularly blood-thirsty (although I might be ~ but that’s another story), but because it was so silent in the park, and we were so close to her, that we could hear it.

Too soon, she finished her quick snack and left us to wander downstream.  We soon followed, hoping to beat the low tide out to the float plane.  I lifted my face to the sun and filled my lungs with one last taste of the cool mountain air, wishing I could have stay there indefinitely.

Since returning, friends and co-workers have looked at my photographs, heard me tell my Katmai story excitedly, and shaken their heads in disbelief and censure.  And I understand.  To stand unprotected in the midst of legendary Kodiak bears is not for everyone. 

But for those two precious hours, I felt no fear, only awe at the power and beauty of God’s creation.  And that deep abiding peace and awe that coloured my entire Kodiak experience. 

And just like Frodo, I am filled with “an overwhelming longing to rest and remain” cradled in the arms of Alaska.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

Where do you find peace and feel a sense of awe and wonder?


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