Monday, August 15, 2011

In the company of bears: Part I

It’s mid August, and Ruthie and Naphtali and I are fleeing town in a big ol’ Subarban. Patty, the Subarban, wears a metal canoe and bumblebee yellow kayak on top like a tight party hat. Inside, we’ve got gear for five days of camping. This is our third year, so we’ve got it down to an art. Bliss.

Traveling to the mountains, it’s a gradual transformation from civilization to wilderness. The bustling city of Seattle behind us, a stretch of interstate before us, we turn off one highway onto another, and now the landscape changes to bigger lots and fields, fewer restaurants and shops, bigger sky. Another thirty minutes, and all we see from our windows is green pasture, farmhouses, cows and goats grazing, signs advertising berries and fresh produce for sale, creeks running swiftly beneath wooden bridges. And then, we’re swallowed in mountains. Snaking alongside Lake Diablo, lost again in its jeweled green, hypnotic beauty.

It’s perhaps as close to paradise as I’ve been. Nothing for transportation but self-powered canoes and kayaks in clear waters, mountains jut snow-peaked and majestic, stately and awe-inspiring, on either side of us, cradling us in the lake below. We’re sojourners, settling one night here and one night there, sometimes with other humans in sight and sometimes not.

Out here, fashion doesn’t matter. We wear the same thing for four days straight without showers, without mirrors. Money is almost useless in the wilderness, with the exception of our portage fare from the bottom of Ross Lake dam to the top. No cars, no cell phones, no towers or power lines, no running water, no internet or social networking, no television or redbox or music.

On the vast expanse of lake, stretching up into Canada, it’s almost eerily quiet. It takes awhile for my ears to tune into the music of the mountain wilderness. And when they do, I’m overtaken with peace and gratitude and wonder and this feeling of smallness. The song of creation. It takes my breath away. It’s the tune of the wind dancing up high in the tall, tall trees. It’s the melody of the water lapping, the waterfalls crashing, the waves breaking. It’s the high pitch of the chipmunk’s call, the tweet of the common birds dipping and playing, the crackle of fire at twilight, the gentle whoosh of breeze tunneling through the forests.

There’s a sense of reverence and vulnerability out here. We pack in and pack out, trying to leave no trail of our presence behind, staying overnight in the home of the creatures who dwell here, trying not to cross them. On a short hike nearby camp, Ruthie and I hear a crackle of branches off to the right, and she stops. “What is it?” I ask.

“A bear.” She says it as nonchalantly as she can, but I feel the tension in her voice. I look to the right and, sure enough, I see a little black cub staring back at me from a stone’s throw away in the woods. We walk quickly up a nearby bridge; underneath us the icy waters of glacier run-off flow into rapids. Mama bear’s got to be close behind her cub. Bears in paradise.