In Alaska, this time of gratitude begins with the scraping of leaves, the last, dismal voices of a season. It arrives fortuitously, when I and the land are suspended, like a deep gulp of air before the brilliant, frigid flood of snow washes over us. With the work of an entire summer grinding into nitrogen beneath my boots, I devise different ways to find light in darkness and counting the kindnesses that have come to us on bone cold fingers helps to buoy me up. This year the net does not need to be cast far, as we were given a gift.
Anchorage, Alaska, 300,000 strong, is actually a small community in proportion to its vast land. So rather than the six degrees of separation in the lower 48, it is more like two here. In this manner we met Dan Redfield, through our son’s physical therapist.
Coda was born with Down Syndrome three years ago. I’ll be honest; his diagnosis clobbered us over the head and his tenacious medical issues kept us on our knees a while longer as we strove to stand again.
We have since come to realize, that which matters hasn’t changed and Coda is nothing more, nothing less than our son. Our feelings, hopes and expectations for him are no different than those for our typically developing children, namely that from the fiery obstacles we all face in life, happiness and kindness can rise up and create a life worth living.
However, it is necessary to point out, had someone told us we would find ourselves living easily, together in the Alaskan wilderness one day with our hearts trailing these four beings, it would not have eased our initial anxieties; the journey was necessary for our family.
Dan is a wilderness videographer with an impressive resumé. He approached us with a proposition: a day trip from Anchorage to anywhere we could dream up, as long as he could document it for his new project—a tribute to his own daughter with special needs, Adventure for Ava. We took him at his word and asked if there was any chance we could take a family of six (!) bear viewing. Dan reached out accordingly and from his sea of followers rose Angela and Wes Head, of Beluga Air, volunteering to help. Angela offered us some amazing options—listen to this description that applies to the Hallo Bay or Crosswind Lake options:
“What to expect: Incredible wilderness area, bears grazing on sedge grass and possibly clamming (fishing at Crosswind). Wild, remote Alaska with hanging glaciers and very few people
Positives for your group: Awesome bear activity, trekking required (we provide hip waders for everyone). Limited human interaction. Flight time 1 hr. Guided tour.
Negatives for your group: No services, completely remote, mobility required and it is essential that children be able to follow directions, stay with the group, and not make sudden noises
We decided to heed their recommendation of clients being over age 8, as a wily toddler cannot be depended on. Smile. That narrowed our choices to Katmai or Lake Clark National Park.
Angela and Wes work regularly with Redoubt Mountain Lodge to fly people into Crescent Lake, part of the massive yet roadless Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, and managed to secure a boat and (very) patient, kid friendly guide for the day. Redoubt Mountain Lodge is a small cluster of cabins and communal buildings on private land in the midst of the public park. Under the hypnotic eye of Redoubt Volcano, this business caters to clients interested in immersion into the wild, by offering hiking, kayaking, bear viewing, fishing and exploring.
So did you catch that? Let me emphasize: We got to fly in a FLOAT PLANE—
(that could seat seven!)
to one of the nation’s least visited national parks to watch bears fish for zombie salmon (having already spawned) with that very patient bear guide.
Dan had to literally stop us from thanking him, we were full to overflowing.
So we shared our outpouring of gratitude with Angela and Wes, from Beluga Air, which they more than deserved. For example, we ended up flying out of Homer, and had planned on camping near our favorite park.
Unbeknownst to us, Angela, being well rooted in the Homer community, asked around and Darren and Kelli of Cottonwood Cabins (as well as an established floral business) happily donated a treehouse for us to occupy for the few nights that we stayed in Homer. What fun we had exploring their numerous cabins and greenhouses, coaxing chickens to follow us and tearing around the back forty! Again, the net need not be cast far.
The National Park Service describes visiting Lake Clark National Park as ‘becoming part of the wilderness’. This land is the ancestral home of the Dena’ina people and here too, is another chin’an, or thank you. We are grateful to the Dena’ina, for their example of land stewardship, and for reminding us that we are a part of nature, not something separate.
“The relationship with the land is filled with gratitude and respect, for we are nothing without the blessings of the land in which we were raised.”
Now in the same article linked above, Michelle Ravenmoon says, “I think many people look at wilderness and think that they need to see a bear or a moose for a true experience with nature, but it is through patience and mindfulness that the true experience takes place.” These words I feel viscerally. Millions of mindful, patient moments in nature are what keep me coming back, grasping for more and wanting to share in them with my children and husband.
Nevertheless, we saw a lot of bears.
Normally when we travel into the mountains, or trace a river vein, we do everything possible to avoid bears and moose. As my mother in law constantly cautions, we are not at the top of the food chain here in Alaska. When Dan posed the question, “Where to?” my first thought was to suggest somewhere we can’t go on our own, due to our family size, age variance, safety concerns and financial limitations. Bears are something we cannot, of our own means, travel to watch in their natural habitat. Or so I thought.
The kids decided to name all the bears we met. Our second encounter, this was a young, energetic male they dubbed ‘Fisher’, because of his numerous failures. We silently cheered him on for quite a while, until he finally scooped one up.
We rested with this mother and cubs (Sky, Bramble and Berry) for a long time. We learned bears yawn when nervous or threatened. We saw her catch wind of and alert to a nearby, lone bear. We watched her move the cubs down the shore to nurse them, something our guide informed us is pretty rare to witness as the mother must be very comfortable in order to relax enough.
These two newly ousted siblings were such a gift to see! In their mischievousness and banter, our children saw themselves, and their cousins, and their friends, and our cats, and our dog. In short they saw that we living creatures share far more than we differ. When we get annoyed by our ten year old’s ill timed banter now, he reminds us that play is necessary for success in life…
Big Ben made us all laugh in amazement and wonder how he/she would make it up into the mountains to hibernate. We later read about Holly, the winner of Fat Bear Week, and realized Ben didn’t quite compare, but from the bears we met, this guy seemed to make the best use of the circle of life.
These are a few of the myriad of reasons our family is thankful this season. The most stunning one being that we stumbled upon a gift. And that gift has done nothing but give our family a wider, warmer view, deeper perspective and sharper focus since he was born.
Because we all traipse daily into the unknown, I’d like to tip a wing to Angela and Wes’s motto: It doesn’t matter where you’re going, it’s all in how you get there.
*Please note that the featured image, as well as some others, are Dan’s, used here with his permission. A trailer of our adventure should be on Adventure for Ava in a week or so.