‘We nearly got swallowed by a humpback whale !’ They are words forever etched in my memory. With a sea kayak and an inflatable boat, little bigger than a lilo, we’d been paddling through the silky waters off the coast of Alaska when herring started to jump clear of the water. They knew too well while our own blissful unawareness remained. Moments later thirteen wide-mouthed hump-backed whales erupted vertically out of the water like ballistic missiles, scooping tonnes of water and as much fish as were unfortunate enough to form lunch. We were lucky not to go down with the fish or at least head for a very cold swim. Steve’s words had barely settled across the ripples left as the whales dived to line up a 2nd helping when another idea surfaced.
The tide was turning and the need to camp somewhere along the rocky shore to allow the adrenaline to subside was appealing. But adventure and all that goes with it was proving highly addictive. The hit from the morning’s activities was enormous and going to be hard to beat but our day was less than half through with the perpetual light of high latitude. We put up our meager nylon shelters on a raised platform out of waves reach and turned our attention to a salmon filled creek.
A few hundred metres upstream a small waterfall formed a natural barrier to the gravel spawning grounds that the sockeye were looking for. Experience also told us that it was the perfect fishing beat for Bear.
Armed with nothing more than a double barrel of hope we moved up the left bank, daring not to make a sound. The boney carcasses of salmon, the sort found under Top Cat’s Officer Dibble’s feet, littered the shore. Fallen trees bore the deep-clawed scars of our ursine friends. A sharp cracking sound of a breaking branch caught our attention. The dense undergrowth on the far shore waved in the sunlight just twenty metres away. A female bear ambled into view to the edge of the cascade, stuck her head into the foaming water, pulled out a huge salmon and stripped it clean of its flesh in one pull though its jaws. Two playful cubs followed, bounding in and out of the water, tackling each other into the eddies.
We crouched, eyes on stalks, nauseous with trepidation and watched until the mother set-off through the water and began to wander, belly full, along our side of the river. We clustered close together, held our arms out and calmly let the bear know of our presence. “Yo bear. Yo bear.” Sated on salmon and a fine summer berry crop we were of no interest. It raised its head, had a sniff at the air, turned left just metres away and with the two cubs in hot pursuit disappeared into the forest. Our hearts could beat no faster.
Alaska is one of my favorite places on earth. It’s mix of total wilderness, iconic mega fauna, powerful rivers, giddying canyons, dramatic mountains and calving glaciers form a heady cocktail ready to assault the senses. It’s a place where you lose yourself in grandeur and vastness.
It is a place where minds become like giant jewelry boxes. Where the trinkets of what we may have thought important get replaced by the diamonds and rubies of memories; powerful moments that no one can buy and that happen because we entered a natural flow, immersed ourselves within a landscape, with a subconscious notion of finding what, for most of the time, we have lost; this sense of wonder and awe and a wealth in experiences where a quick flick of the lock will ensure safe keeping forever.
Turn the key. Think back. Where was your wild day ? Tell us…