Bear Fam

In the spring, when the snow is melting and it’s time to emerge from the winter den, a bear’s thoughts turn to romance. When the cams go live again in June, the boars show up one by one, often with fresh wounds and looking deeply beleaguered. They have all been in a mood; they haven’t eaten since the previous autumn, there is no salmon available yet, and they’re horny.

Sows will go into estrus in the spring if they are no longer nursing cubs. If a boar is interested in such a sow, he will follow her like a puppy for several days, courting her. This is where the tussles with other boars can occur; if one is trying to close a deal with a sow, and another has his eye on her, there may be trouble. For her part, the sow is interested in mating with as many dudes as she can.

Bears employ a nifty reproductive hack called delayed implantation. That means that if the sow does not gain enough weight before hibernation, the fertilized egg will not implant, and no cubs will be born. If she does gain sufficient weight, she will give birth to one or more tiny one-pound cubs in the deepest part of winter. Those cubs will start consuming milk and gaining weight while the group remains in the den.

The boar’s contribution to parenting, by the way, concluded with mating. With that, he was free to gorge on salmon, pack on weight, and seek a Fat Bear Week title. Meanwhile, the sow will raise her cubs alone, keeping them with her for two, but occasionally three summers.

Bear 910 wishes she could have just one piece of salmon for herself, thank you very much.

A mother bear and her offspring constitute a typical family unit, with no outside participants. But there are outliers.

In 2014, Bear 402 went into estrus after only one year with her cub, Bear 503, and abandoned him. The yearling spent several days wandering alone, until some photos popped up from another area in Katmai, Margot Creek, that bears often travel to in August. The photos showed young 503 hanging out with Bear 435 Holly and her spring cub. That alone was not out of the ordinary. But what followed was: Bear 435 fully adopted the yearling 503, allowing him to nurse along with her spring cub, and fully assimilating him into her family. Holly kept 503 with her for the next twenty months, allowing him an extra year of maternal care in the bargain. Holly was already a popular mother bear, but her adoption of 503 only added to her allure. Today, Bear 503 is a successful, charismatic boar who frequently fishes at Brooks Falls.

This year, I was able to witness the latest Brooks Camp family drama myself. Young adult bears 909 and 910 are sisters from the same litter. Last year, 909 had her first litter of two cubs. Only one cub remained by middle summer. This year, her sister 910 had her first litter, a single female cub. In a twist that no one had on their bingo card, the two sisters began spending most of their time together with their offspring, allowing each other’s cubs to take fish from them, and allowing the cubs to play together. Rangers speculated that the unusual family association might have been made possible by this year’s abundant salmon run, and that it might have offered some additional protection to their vulnerable young. (Watch here to see the older yearling step in front of her younger cousin as another bear approaches.)

Bear 910 Jr.

Bear family dramas aren’t always uplifting, and one took place after I left Brooks that I was thankful to miss. Bear 94 and her quadruplet cubs — the ones that delayed my flight out of King Salmon because they were asleep under the float plane wing — were on the Lower River two days after my departure when her smallest cub was killed by another bear. Few details are known, and there is no identification of the bear who grabbed the cub. A litter of four cubs is unusually large, and much more difficult to rear successfully. Indeed, no mother bear at Katmai is yet known to have raised a complete litter of four to emancipation.

For me, bear family dynamics are the most emotionally risky aspect of bear watching, for precisely the same reason they are so captivating: the stakes are high. Cub rearing is at once endearing and deeply risky. One study on the Katmai coast showed that cubs have about a 34% chance of survival.

Still, we watch. And hope.

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The Lower River

As rivers go, Brooks is a short one. The 1.5 mile long waterway connects Lake Brooks and Naknek Lake, and serves as a highway for migrating salmon returning to their birthplaces to spawn. In early summer, the fish enter Naknek River from Bristol Bay to the west, near King Salmon. They forge ahead into Naknek Lake, then enter the Brooks River to continue swimming upstream. About halfway in, migrating salmon encounter an oh shit moment when they reach the intractable obstacle of Brooks Falls. There the fish cluster, trying to figure out how to surmount the towering impasse. Brown bears, having learned that the pool at the falls is the literal equivalent of the “shooting fish in a barrel” metaphor, also gather there to pluck them from the water and eat them.

The bears of Brooks Falls employ a variety of fishing methods. Some of them sit atop the falls and wait for the fish to attempt the jump. The most dominant bears sit in the froth, wait for the fish to come to them, and when they feel the salmon bump into them, trap them with their paws and pull them out of the water. Some, like 480 Otis, sit patiently next to the far wall, staring down at the water to be ready to grab a fish. Others, like my personal favorite Bear 164 Bucky Dent, are innovators. Bucky has become known for sitting in the shower of the falls and snatching fish whose jumps fall short. (That link is worth watching, trust me. Start at 2:30.)

The area downstream, close to where the Brooks River opens into Naknek Lake, is known as the Lower River. The salmon buffet is still on at the Lower River; it’s just not as fresh. The bears fishing at the Lower River feed on dead or dying salmon, and scraps from the fish-fest occurring upstream at the falls. The caloric content of the Lower River offerings is less than the fresh, whole salmon available at the falls, but bears expend less energy obtaining the mostly inert items. Each bear must determine which compromises to make in their quest to gain enough fat for hibernation. Many sows (with or without cubs), young subadult bears, and older, less dominant bears frequent the Lower River. The risk of conflict there is lower than at the falls, an area often populated by the largest, most dominant boars.

The Lower River is usually the first place where the Brooks Camp visitor goes after bear school and settling into their accommodations. It is there, walking along the boardwalk, that the visitor encounters yet another surreal experience: watching many bears swimming casually in a river, looking for food. I can’t adequately express the strangeness of this first impression. It’s just that looking out over a river and watching bears snorkeling confuses the brain a little. I never tired of it while I was there.

The elevated bridge over the Lower River is a recent addition, built in 2019 to replace an older floating bridge. The new boardwalk was the latest development in a decades-old wrestling match between the competing interests at Brooks. The stated rationale for the development of the new bridge was to reduce “bear jams” — when visitors’ movements are restricted because a bear is occupying a particular area — while also decreasing human-bear conflict. Mike Fitz, in his book The Bears of Brooks Falls, methodically dismantles these arguments, citing evidence that bear jams, while somewhat inconvenient, were not excessively problematic for most visitors, and the new bridge would reduce bear-human contact only in one small area of the camp.

But in the way of these things, the new bridge was built and has become, as Fitz put it, “normalized.” He writes:

“An expanded human footprint has become our new baseline for the Brooks River experience, along with record-high visitation…Travel across the river is more convenient than ever. Yet without additional protections for bears, the NPS prioritized enjoyment over conserving ‘the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein.’ [the statutorily defined purpose of the NPS.]”

Here is how I know he’s right: I liked the bridge. Loved it, even, and found myself struggling to remember to move along and stop only on the platforms. In Bear School, we learned that some bears refuse to swim under the bridge if there are people on it. In practical terms, this means those bears’ access to the river is substantially curtailed. So this places me in the unusual position of being in favor of additional restraints on my own and others’ conduct and use of the area.

Complicating matters is the rich observational potential of the Lower River. It’s just a feast for the human senses. Every kind of bear drama plays out in that area. Sows rear — and lose — cubs there. (Bear 94, who delayed my flight into Brooks by sleeping under the seaplane wing with her four cubs, lost a cub to a bear attack two days after I left.) Newly emancipated young bears work through the confusion of learning to go it alone for the first time, socializing with other subadults and making their own living. Courtships between adult bears are conducted there. Older bears snorkel through the river looking for dead or dying fish, old joints cushioned by the water.

Two young bears play in the Lower River

The popularity of the explore.org webcams has only increased the human burden on Brooks Camp, while simultaneously creating a cadre of deeply dedicated bear fans who seem attuned to the needs of the bears. (While I knew about the place before the webcams went live, my bear cam addiction did nothing to dissuade me from my long-held desire to visit.) Although lodging is finite, day-trip capacity seems less so. Fitz writes at length in his book about the prospect of limiting visitation, and the obstacles to doing so. Congestion at national parks is not new; the long lines of cars at Glacier or Great Smoky Mountain National Parks on any summer weekend in the early 2000s would demonstrate that. Heck, Edward Abbey was writing about it in the Utah national parks in the 1960s.

But the issue seems particularly fraught in the uniquely delicate and precious Brooks Camp setting. I don’t think Fitz is wrong to conclude that human desires are often at odds with the express statutory mission of the national park system. How that plays out in the future is an open question.

(More than) day-old sushi

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Sleeping with bears

Brooks Camp is laid out like this:

We went straight from Bear School at the Visitor Center to pick up our packs, which had been placed on the porch of the lodge. From there, we hiked a third of a mile to the campground to set up our tent. There are two lodging options at Brooks Camp: cabins or campground. Cabins sleep four people in bunk beds, run $850 a night as of this writing, and are subject to a lottery system. Our campsite, however, cost $12 a night, and we scored one easily in March, 2022, when the NPS decided to open sites it had previously closed due to Covid. Because we’ve camped and backpacked all over the country, already had the necessary gear, and one of us hosts a blog with the tagline, “Life and Death and sleeping on the ground,” the choice was easy. The campground is a lovely space nestled along the shore of Naknek Lake, with enough of a human population to feel like you’re not alone, but with sites set far enough apart that you don’t feel like you’re on top of other campers.

Before you reserve a campsite at Brooks, the NPS makes one thing very clear: The campground is surrounded by an electric fence, and it is bear-resistant, but not bear proof. Once again, I suspect that people are responsible for the gap between those descriptors. Each time campers arrive at and leave the campground, they must open the gate and then be sure to close it securely. Campground residents are permitted to cook food in particular areas in the campground, but must store all food and gear in the campground caches, to diminish bear curiosity. If there are enough errors in that protocol, you can get a bear who wants to explore the campground. In that event, campers are advised to open the gates (if it’s safe to do so) and contact a park employee.

Despite the fact that half a dozen or more bears bed down for the night along the shore of Naknek, I felt safe in the campground. The campers I observed during my time there all appeared to take the rules seriously, perhaps because there are few temptations to do otherwise in that particular context. That’s not to say that my experience is the norm; I don’t know. But I never saw a bear approach the fence while I was there, and I never encountered an unlatched gate. (Although I know both happen.)

View of Naknek Lake from the campground near the fence. Yes, bears sleep on that beach.

The only time I felt on edge at the campground was during middle-of-the-night pee trips. Brooks Camp is home to the only pit toilets I’ve ever used that weren’t prohibitively disgusting. (I’m not sure how they do it, but I’m guessing it involves the frequent application of cedar shavings.) So Travis and I would journey together to the bathroom in the middle of the night, donning our rain jackets (it rained all night, every night during our trip) and our headlamps, and walk the hundred yards to the bathroom. Nighttime outdoors is unnerving under any circumstance, but when you know several large mammalian predators are lying just on the other side of a fence, it raises the mental stakes considerably. And yet somehow, I was able to go back to my sleeping bag afterward and finish off the night’s slumber, unbothered and unworried. It may just be that at some point, I had to let myself relax. Or it may be a result of 25 years of sleeping outdoors in wilderness areas, where you have to accept a certain degree of risk and still get some rest. I don’t know. But I would sleep again, happily, in the Brooks campground.

Also unnerving were the walks to the lodge in the pre-dawn darkness for 7 a.m. breakfast and coffee. We tried to join others when we could, because the period between sunset and sunrise is just not the safest time to be wandering the trails without the benefit of an electric fence. One morning, I caught the silhouette of a bear moving in the woods off the trail. It was ahead of us, and I kept watch to ensure we remained at an appropriate distance. I remained laser-focused on that bear for the entire walk to the lodge. When we finally approached the building, there was a man standing on the porch pointing behind us on the trail.

“Bear followed you in,” he said with a smile. I looked behind me and exhaled deeply.

I’d been so focused on managing my relationship with the bear I saw in the woods that I completely forgot there could be other bears in the area that I might not be able to see. That’s what I mean when I say that getting good at the Brooks existence takes some focused practice. Each moment there, each event, is a lesson in how to do it better next time. And whatever breathing room for mistakes that exists — and no one can really quantify that at any given time — is due to the indifference and human-tolerance of the Brooks bears. Later that morning, I told the story to a young woman who was working there for the summer as we sat in front of the lodge fire, drinking cider. She nodded understandingly, and told me about a co-worker of hers who was walking in similar low-light conditions. He was so focused on a nearby bear that he tripped over a sleeping bear directly in front of him, terrifying both himself and the slumbering animal. For the next three mornings, I consciously broadened my field of perception on the way to the lodge.

Over my days at Brooks, I began to wonder how the bear techs cleared the camp of bears in the mornings. So I asked one of the techs while we were standing on the beach one day, watching a sow decide whether she was going to wander down the beach or stay near the river mouth. He described the morning task of waking up the dozen or so bears who had overnighted on the beach, and making enough noise to induce them to move along, then walking through camp to clear out any other lurkers.

Imagine doing a job in which the first task of the day is to awaken a dozen large bears and get them to leave a space they are invested in occupying. Such a person would need not just confidence and courage, but the caution and judgment to determine when a bear should be hazed, and when people should simply be moved out of the way. Complicating matters further, those decisions need to be made quickly and decisively. I admire bear technicians, and I don’t think I could or would want to do their jobs on a regular basis. But I’m grateful for the people who can. I always felt a little more uneasy at dusk, when I realized they were going off duty. Until I got behind the electric fence, anyway.

Bear School: Do Not Run, And other edicts

The twenty minute float plane flight from King Salmon to Brooks Camp is a stirring experience, with miles and miles of unbroken wilderness below. Toward the end of the flight the view becomes surreal, as two electric-blue lakes appear through the window, the same shade of shocking blue in both sunlight and gloom. As the plane approaches camp, dark blobs appear in the water where the Brooks River spills into Naknek Lake. As the plane gets closer, the blobs take on a more determinable shape, and the traveler realizes they’ve just seen their first Brooks Camp bear.

Then comes the water landing. From there, the reality of the place continues to drip in slowly. A couple of dark brown lumps become visible on the beach of Naknek Lake — also decidedly bruin in nature. Then, the sign for Brooks Camp, and the guys waiting on the beach — a couple hundred yards from the resting bears — to help unload the plane.

Brooks Camp’s version of Nessie.

I’ve never been anywhere like Brooks, and I felt ill at ease at first. From my reading, I knew we would be herded into the visitor center for “Bear School,” a ranger-led briefing designed to impart information we needed to exist safely at Brooks Camp. But I felt the weight of not fully understanding the layout of the place yet, along with the knowledge that it was run entirely around the habits of some of the largest brown bears on earth.

“Welcome to Brooks Camp,” smiled the young man who quickly offered a hand to the passengers scrambling down the plane’s ladder. He must have said that hundreds of times during the season, but for the newcomer, it’s thrilling to hear. For many of the people visiting Brooks, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and those words cement the reality of the journey.

The visitor center was only a few steps above the beach where we disembarked. There is no free-ranging permitted between the plane and the building where the rangers get half an hour to teach you how not to get yourself — and possibly a bear in the aftermath — killed or injured. Bear School consists of a video, then an in-person conference with a ranger. The first rule of Bear School is about distance: do not to come or remain within 50 yards of a bear. Fifty yards seems like a long distance, but when the ranger defined it for us using the silhouette of a bear posted down the trail from the visitor center, I was surprised how close it seemed. The second rule of Bear School, imparted in bold tones, with pauses between words for effect, governs how to leave that 50 yard radius when you find yourself within it:

DO

NOT

RUN.

Instead, should you find yourself closer to a bear than is allowed, you must walk calmly and expeditiously outside the mandated 50 yard range. But one should never run to remove themselves from proximity to a bear. First, running is hopeless. Bears can run up to 35 m.p.h. You cannot. To drive this point home, the ranger mentioned that the fastest run ever recorded by a human being is a 27.5 m.ph. sprint by Usain Bolt. Which means that even the fattest, most ponderous bear at Brooks could still have Bolt for dinner if he or she so desired. That put things in perspective. Relatedly, running only increases the likelihood of a confrontation with a bear. Running tells the bear that you are interesting, and perhaps nutritious. No one wants to be of interest to a bear at any time of year, but particularly not during the season when they are constantly, gnawingly hungry, a state biologists call hyperphagia.

“Do not run” seems at first like an easy edict to follow, but I am here to tell you that for an anxiety-based life form like me, it’s easier said than done. Shortly after I left Bear School, I walked down a trail toward the shore of Naknek Lake, turned to look down the beach, and saw a huge bear lying there in uncomfortably close proximity. The adrenaline dump was immediate. (I was able to see that exact moment later on my FitBit.) My legs immediately began moving, without the engagement or permission of my conscious mind. Fortunately, my location meant that I just quickly disappeared behind some trees, and the bear didn’t even lift her head. But it was perhaps my first lesson in the mental focus a visitor must practice while in residence at Brooks Camp.

Many of the bears at Brooks are tolerant of humans, and are even somewhat docile in their behavior around people. But former Katmai ranger turned explore.org naturalist Mike Fitz wrote in his book, The Bears of Brooks Falls, that habituation between bears and people at Brooks is a two-way street. People often arrive at Brooks with a disproportionate fear of the bears there, but after enough innocuous encounters, they may become complacent, even careless. For my part, it’s fair to say I arrived with a healthy store of vigilance, and I was never able to reach a state of continuous comfort while moving around the area, let alone complacency. I maintained a kind of low-level unease and alertness whenever I was in a bear-run zone, like the trail to the campground or the path to the falls. I’m okay with that. If there is an ideal middle-ground mental state to achieve at Brooks, respectful alertness seems a good choice.

It’s critical to note that the many regulations are in place not just to protect human beings, but also to protect the wildness and prerogatives of the bear population. As human-tolerant as many Brooks bears are, getting too close to them, disturbing their fishing, or being otherwise obtrusive in their habitat causes them unnecessary stress. These creatures are trying to make a living in a challenging environment. We ought not make it more difficult for them to do so. Fortunately, the dictates of human and bear safety often go hand in hand. It can be a paradox, though: without the wildness of bears, there can be no Brooks Camp as it currently exists. (At least for those who see it primarily as a wildlife-viewing location, rather than a fishing location.) But too much unrestrained human activity harms the very animals we are there to see. It is, like so many things, a fragile balance.

To help maintain this balance, and navigate the challenges posed by bear-human habituation, Brooks has a number of people working as a “bear management” team. Bear technicians address bear incursions into the camp area, and visitors’ relationship to them. In the four days I spent at Brooks, I rarely saw a bear in or near camp that wasn’t immediately followed by the appearance of a bear tech, at least during daylight hours. In response to a bear moving into an area frequented by humans, a bear tech might remind nearby visitors to move to a 50 yard distance, place a sign closing a path or walkway, or engage in some low-level bear hazing to induce the animal to move, such as yelling, clapping, or other noise-making.

As diligent and competent as the bear techs are, bear incursions into camp still happen; it would be impossible to maintain a constant inviolate space in the middle of one of the largest concentrations of bears on earth. This was demonstrated to me one morning after my first round of coffee at the lodge, when I had to go to the restroom. The building housing the bathrooms and showers is just a few steps behind the lodge. It’s a long, rectangular building, with a path running along one side. The women’s area is in the back of the building. I usually approached the door from the left, by the pathway, and returned the same way. For some reason, this time I exited the building around the right side.

As I turned the corner around the men’s door, I was squarely facing the giant butt of Bear 435 Holly, who had been sleeping just off the path in the woods the night before, and was now moving toward her daytime spot on the river. Before dinner the previous evening, we had watched a bear tech place a sign on the path, indicating the area beyond it was closed due to bear activity. Had I exited that morning around the left side, I would have come down the steps facing her front end as she lumbered along the path toward the river. That would’ve been startling for both of us.

Fortunately, 435 Holly is known as a pretty calm bear, and she had no cubs with her this year to change that, so it seems likely that the only consequence would be another blip on my FitBit. Instead, the experience was yet another lesson in habituation. I had left the bathroom assuming that no bears would be there. Weirdly — and this shows the fundamental uniqueness of the place — it was also a celebrity encounter. Memory is faulty, and my mind may have inflated the size of Holly’s butt afterward, but I don’t think so. Holly was the 2019 Fat Bear Week champion, and in honor of our encounter, I voted for her again three weeks after she made my heart rate spike. And after that morning, I never again assumed I was entering a bear-free zone when walking out of any door in camp.

At the end of Bear School on that first day, I felt mostly equipped to manage my time at Brooks. Before we left, the ranger handed us each a pin shaped like Alaska as a bear’s head. Because I am a hopeless wildlife dork, I love this pin and probably always will. In the next four days, I would find that life at Brooks is set firmly within the context of the Bear School Rules, and I found myself constantly making behavioral adjustments to conform to them: Do Not Run, always stay 50 yards from a bear (which can become difficult or even impossible when you are caught between multiple bears), store your food and gear in the provided caches, do not walk around with food or anything scented, speak conversationally in the bear-governed areas to alert them to your presence, stop only on the platforms and not the boardwalks, and just generally be aware of yourself and the bears. It’s an entirely different kind of existence, and it takes focused practice to get good at it. But following those rules and living within them is a privilege, and it’s the only thing that allows the unique bear-human ecosystem at Brooks to exist in the first place.

Still, Mike Fitz has concerns. He notes in his book that “although recent history suggests the experience and work environment at Brooks Camp will remain relatively safe, I worry. No injuries to people or bears are acceptable, yet each summer we play with fire near a pile of oily rags.” After spending time there, I can’t disagree. And only the human beings can determine how oily those rags get.

From the outside, Brooks appears to be run like a Swiss watch by the NPS and its agents. Though Fitz does acknowledge that complacency can exist even among those who work there, the dangerous behavior I saw at Brooks was committed by visitors. On our third day, a story swirled around camp about a group of photographers who had left the boardwalk and approached a bear family in flagrant violation of the 50 yard rule. Rangers promptly relieved them of their pins and sent them back to Bear School. Word was that the photographers claimed a mistake of some kind — they didn’t know how close they were, or some such. I don’t necessarily buy it. I know what it’s like to want an image. I know how charming bear families look. And I know the limitations of long lenses. I know the temptation, and I know how strong it is in a place like Brooks.

This was not the kind of small mistake we all made, like being too gobsmacked when a bear walks by on the beach to move immediately from a 40-yard to a 50-yard distance, or getting so awestruck by swimming bears that you stop on the boardwalk before remembering to keep moving. It seems to me that trouble most frequently arises when a person is overtaken by a strong human temptation, like capturing an image or staying in a productive angling spot, and healthy fear has dissipated enough that it doesn’t counter that temptation. Arrogance also has its place in the risk structure. I overheard one of the bear techs talking at dinner one night about a parent who had allowed his child to run along the beach parallel to a young subadult bear, until he intervened. And the flame moves closer to the oily rag.

While I was heartened by the fact that the rangers nabbed the child and the transgressing photographers so efficiently, I know they can’t be everywhere at once. And I also know the reaches of human stupidity and arrogance. My hunch is that when and if the flame finally meets those rags, it’s not going to be a visitor trying in good faith to conform to the rules who gets into an incident with a bear. Rather, it will be a result of that all-too-human temptation and arrogance. But that nuance will be lost in the aftermath as reports circulate through the press. The rest of us — including the bears involved who are just being themselves without reference to the human world — will pay for the error too.

Brooks Camp is a unique and fragile system that exists by virtue of constant negotiation between opposing pressures and interests. Most of the people who work there and visit seemed deeply dedicated to its preservation and maintenance. But we are all animals, and we are all individuals. Many bears at Brooks are docile. But not always. And most people at Brooks are careful. But not always.

For now, there’s the hope that peer pressure, Bear School, the diligence of the system and its people, and the calmness of the bears carry through.

iPhone shot taken from a respectful 50-yard distance with the phone camera zoomed all the way in.

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Bears

My trip to see bears started with a small plane parked outside the Anchorage airport. Our airline was a cargo company, and none of the customary routines of air travel applied here. Instead of going through metal detectors, our bags and bodies were weighed in the terminal beforehand, the scale helpfully pointed towards the attendant and away from the weigh-ee. That was a nice touch. Once weighed, the bags were respectfully stacked on a cart. Nothing could persuade me to check my camera pack on a commercial airline, but this time I willingly handed it over to the man gently loading the gear. Bears and cameras go together, and this was not the only photography gear on the flight. I watched as he carefully stowed my gear alongside others. They were used to this.

The plane was shaped like a penne noodle, long enough for ten or so passengers, but narrow, with only a few feet between the rows. There was ample leg room, far more than on the big commercial jets. Two young men in fluorescent vests hopped in once we were all seated.

“All right folks, safety briefing!” one of them chirped. He was our first officer, he said, and pointed out the exits on the aircraft and how to open the doors – it was a little too easy for a vehicle flying several miles above ground, if you ask me – and let us know how to operate the oxygen masks. “But if that engine is on fire,” he offered helpfully, pointing to the left side of the plane, “go out the other exit door, okay?”

Noted.

“And also,” he added as an afterthought, “there’s a plastic baggie in the pocket in front of your seat. There’s a barf bag in there, as well as a portable toilet bag, since there are no bathrooms on this plane. Just do us a favor? If you use it, carry it with you off the plane and dispose of it in the airport. The maintenance guys get really mad when they find full bags stuffed in the pockets. Okay then! Ninety minutes to King Salmon. See you there!” He climbed jauntily into the cockpit with a kind of farewell wave.

I looked around at the other passengers to see if they were having the same reaction I was to this part of the briefing, but everyone was either looking at their phones or out the window. But I was marveling at the contents of the Ziploc, trying to imagine the magnitude of internal discomfort that I would have to experience before utilizing this device in this tiny, fully-packed aircraft. And yet, someone had not only done that before, they had then left the bag in the seat pocket. And it had obviously happened often enough that the justifiably irritated maintenance guys requested that it become part of the safety briefing. I considered this for several long minutes, through takeoff, and until we reached cruising altitude.

Welcome to Alaska.

The penne plane landed safely, with all its portable toilet bags unused and with no engines alight, in King Salmon, Alaska, a tiny town near the Bristol Bay. We boarded a shuttle bus and were taken to a comfortable waiting room in a log building on the Naknek River. Just outside the building was a dock, where passengers and gear would soon board a seaplane bound for Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. Brooks Camp possesses one of the highest concentrations of brown bears on the planet, in a setting in which they are easily viewed by people. Platforms and walkways have been strategically constructed to maximize both bear and human safety. Webcams hosted by explore.org are placed at multiple locations, allowing for 24/7 viewing of the bears around the world, from which activity has sprung an entire community of obsessive bear watchers.

Avid cam viewers can identify dozens of bears, their habits, character traits, and physical characteristics as the animals ply the Brooks River and surrounding lakes for salmon throughout the summer and fall. Each webcam season culminates in “Fat Bear Week,” a bracket-style competition that allows the internet to take successive votes on which bear is the fattest, and therefore presumably the best prepared for hibernation.

I don’t remember how I first stumbled on the cams, but I did. (A quick scan of my overcrowded email account lists the first mention of the site in an email to my brother in 2016.) With each passing year, I became more absorbed in the bears at Brooks and into the culture of Fat Bear Week, and I began recognizing some of the more easily identifiable bears.

Of course I wanted to visit — every cam obsessive wants to visit — but it’s not easy given the expense, the number of people who want to travel there, and the time and effort required to reach such a remote area. So I let the idea stew for six years, bided my time, and gathered information. By last year, my second monitor at work displayed the bear cam at all times during the season, and I had dragged my colleagues into the drama. In March of 2022, the National Park Service announced that it would be opening up campsites for the coming season that previously had been closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. On the appointed day, I waited with my eyes fixed on the screen, finger hovering on my mouse, poised to click, until the sites went live. These efforts paid off, and we secured a site for three days in mid-September.

That’s how Travis and I came to be waiting on a seaplane on a rainy, windy autumn day. After about fifteen minutes, I saw the man behind the counter pick up a telephone and have a brief conversation. Our ride had been delayed, we were told, because a bear and her four cubs had fallen asleep on the shore of Naknek Lake, directly under the wing of the float plane that was scheduled to fly to King Salmon and convey us to Brooks Camp. But the plane was now underway and would arrive soon.

I knew from my cam viewing that this was Bear 94, who had shocked the Brooks community that spring by emerging from her den with four tiny fluffballs. A sow returning to Brooks with one or two cubs in tow is common. Three cubs are noteworthy. But four is truly unusual, and the family quickly became a cam favorite. Having my flight delayed by a bear family I’d been viewing all summer made the trip start to feel real. Frankly, I’d rather meet these bears than most celebrities.

You know that old question, “if you could share a meal with anyone alive or dead, who would it be?” We’re supposed to pick Jesus or JFK or Shakespeare, but my answer is equally likely to be Bear 480 Otis, the wildly popular, elderly bear who manages to pack on the pounds every year with only about three teeth left in his head. But only if “sharing a meal” means watching him catch and consume salmon from a respectful distance. Which I finally did, about 24 hours hence, but only after two flights, a bear orientation, and a nervous first walk through bear-governed territory to the falls. It would be worth it.

Bear 480 Otis, 2021 Fat Bear Week Champion. Yes, I voted for him.

Froggies went a-courtin’, uh-huh

Despite the reluctant, indifferent spring we’ve had so far, last weekend the temperatures spiked into the 80’s. Into the kayaks for us.

In the moment I first put paddle to water, it feels like my pulse drops by ten. All the stress of getting the boat in the creek via the ankle-twisting hill of boulders seems to dissipate. I was still bathed in this soothing glow a half mile into the trip, when I abruptly paddled into a cacophonous orchestra that seemed to be coming at me from both sides of the river. I vaguely knew the sound was frogs; I’ve heard it a million times in spring. What I didn’t realize until I ventured to the riverbank was that I’d navigated into a legit frog orgy.

As I paddled closer to shore, they were everywhere, hopping and grabbing, splashing and calling, frogs piling on each other four or five at a time. There were scores of already-paired frogs hanging out underwater, clasped together and floating just above long strings of eggs that, once fertilized by the males clinging desperately to the backs of larger females, will become fully realized frogs in the next few weeks. I felt a bit awkward having stumbled onto this noisy amphibian sex-fest, and I took extra care with my paddle to avoid interrupting any of the already fully engaged couples. Then I whipped out the camera and started documenting.

I turned my boat to the shore again, and was immediately confronted by a frog in mid-call.

My first time being catcalled by a frog.

Frogs have a couple of different call types: The one pictured above is a direct invitation to hook up, and females select their mates by their evaluation of this call. The other call is basically “dude, let me go; you’ve grabbed the wrong frog,” and is issued — presumably in a tone of annoyance — by females without eggs and other males. After viewing the absolute chaos that is the frog orgy, I can understand why this call is needed. Selection does not seem particularly careful, and its easy to see why errors might occur.

This is not graceful.

The other cool thing about frog calls is that they have regional dialects. That’s right; so there may be one community of frogs talking dirty with a Boston accent, and another with a Jersey accent, and still another like Frances McDormand in Fargo.

In spite of the fact that these animals’ mating process is so chaotic that evolution required them to develop a “don’t waste your time with me” call, these toads have one clear boundary: what the science folk call kin recognition. This basically means that when they return to the specific area of their birth to reproduce, they are usually able to recognize and avoid coupling with any of their siblings. From a sheer numbers perspective, this seems like a lot to sift through, given that a single female can lay up to 10,000 eggs in one of those long strands. Still, a girl frog can recognize the calls of her brothers, and she ignores them, because eww. Say what you want about the promiscuity of the frog community, but they have stricter standards than the characters in a V.C. Andrews novel.

Taking a break from the party for a reflective moment.

In a few weeks, this warty bacchanalia will lead to something quieter and far cuter: wee toads. These tiny critters will leave their natal pools and take up residence elsewhere, most often in open, sandy areas, but sometimes in the woods, a field, or my backyard. It will be your time someday, little dude. Try not to catcall your sister.

A Dog Person gets a cat

When our dog died last summer, my family and I spent a few months in self-imposed pet exile. We didn’t have a heart for any other animals. Once the acute sadness passed, and we were finally open to thinking about bringing another animal into the house, we spent time ping-ponging back and forth. Should we get another dog? How about a cat? I hadn’t had a cat since I was ten years old, instead opting for a parade of dogs who were interested in cats only insofar as they could be eaten.

Through my nephew’s cat Petey, a few friends, and a cat on my daily bicycle route named Phillip, I became acquainted with orange tabbies. They are, it turns out, awesome. I’m not sure what made me open up Petfinder a couple of weeks ago – it was probably some photos from my nephew showing Petey in a cardboard box castle he made – but when I did, I found an adult orange tabby named Beowulf in a shelter about an hour away. We decided to visit him and see if it was a match. I’m allergic to some cats, but not all, so I needed to get up close and personal with whatever feline I planned to take home to make sure he wouldn’t make my eyes and nose run for the rest of his life.

When I opened the door to Beowulf’s small shelter cubby, he immediately rose to greet me. Estimated at 8 years of age and only recently neutered, he has huge tomcat jowls, and a grouchy face that doesn’t match his affectionate personality. The shelter employee who walked us back to the cat room told us he was a staff favorite.

I reached out to him, and after only a couple of ear scratches, he placed one paw gently on my chest. That was probably when I decided he would come home with us. Plus, I was not sneezing.

I’d turned in my application two days before, but the shelter had not notified me whether it was approved. So I was not expecting to take Beowulf home that day, and hadn’t brought the cat carrier my nephew had recommended. And it turns out that cats don’t simply ride in cars, heads thrust out a cracked window, tongues aloft in the wind, and some of them indeed get very freaked out about it. So when the shelter employee came in to tell me we were approved, they also told me I could take him home, and they would just place him in a cardboard transport box.

When they did, it was the very first time I ever heard him meow. It wasn’t a happy meow.

Still, we carried him out to the car.

A few weeks before, when it was still warmish, my husband had brought groceries home and as was the custom, my son unloaded them and brought them into the house – but not all of them. Unfortunately, he missed a package of chicken. Since we don’t drive the cars much in the pandemic, we also missed the chicken. For about a week, anyway, until we went to go get groceries again. Then we were definitely no longer missing the chicken.

This unfortunate event swept my husband into an obsession with removing the smell of decomposition – or as he referred to it, “decomp” — from our small sedan. We tried charcoal bags, baking soda, and open containers of vinegar. Some combination of those three things and driving at high speeds with the windows open had rendered it at least drivable again, but it was a family saga for weeks.

As the cat continued to meow once in the car, I wondered if maybe he could smell the decomp and was as grossed out as we had been, or whether the problem was being confined in a small dark space in a moving vehicle. Being new cat people, we weren’t sure whether he’d be even worse off outside the transport box, and I was reluctant to release him while I was driving on the highway. Sean had opted to sit in the back seat with the box so he could console him through his continuous stress-meowing. I had just gotten onto the highway when the smell began penetrating the car.

“Mom, I think he shat in the box.”

We were 65 minutes from home.

Please God, I thought. Let it be a cat fart. Do cats actually fart? I asked myself. Is this a possibility? Praying for a fart is a proven technique with dogs, who will often foul the air enough to make you suspect the worst has occurred, but then it fades away as you sigh in a mix of disgust and relief. Dog people know this. There’s even a warning for it; when you’re sitting and watching television, and that old familiar smell comes your way, the polite thing to do is exclaim “Dog fart!” so whoever is further downwind can evacuate in time to avoid it, or just steel themselves for the experience.

But this wasn’t a cat fart, because it did not fade away, and, to my horror, worsened.

“Oh my God, this is so bad,” said my son, who is as unfamiliar with cat shit as I am, in shock and surprise. “So this was our first mistake, Mom,” he continued, his voice rising a little as he narrated our failure. “We should’ve waited till we got the mesh cat carrier Adam recommended.”

I weighed my options. Leave our new cat in his fouled box, or take the cat out of the box, risking the possibility that the new cat will go on a fecal-smearing rampage in my car while I was navigating highway traffic during rush hour. Either way, I was concerned our act of betrayal in placing him in a transport box may have soured the relationship for him.

My son made the decision for me. “Mom, he’s not meowing anymore; I have to make sure he’s okay,” he said, and before I knew it the box was dismantled and the cat liberated. Fortunately, our new cat’s apparent good nature held, and he just wanted to hang out on Sean’s lap, who was vacillating between anguishing over the smell and praising his new pet.

“You’re such a good boy,” he said, petting him gently. “Mom, I’m dying; I need some sort of commendation for this.”

We continued on like this, me driving at higher-than-usual speeds, Sean alternately talking soothingly to the cat and gagging. When we finally reached home – after what seemed like the passage of whole days – we executed a plan we crafted in the last five minutes of the drive: I pulled the car up to the open garage, ran around to Sean’s door to open it. He exited the car, holding the cat fast, and ran up the garage steps to the house. While he did that I carried the unfortunate transport box to the trash can.

Frankly, I expected hysterical cat behavior once I entered the house, but I found him in the living room, calmly being petted by my husband, as if nothing had happened.

“Hey babe, good news,” I said. “The car doesn’t smell like decomp anymore.”

My husband looked at me quizzically as the cat jumped into the fireplace, which thankfully was not housing a fire, and smeared soot all over his fur.

It turns out the internet is right: Cats are assholes.

But we’re doing better now. Really.

A tortoise-adjacent Gandalf

After we lost our dog last month, we decided as a family to take a short trip, to get the hell out of Dodge for a quick minute, where “Dodge” is the large, silent house with the tufts of fur I still can’t bring myself to vacuum up. My son and I are interested in skywatching, and the Perseid meteor shower was supposed to be in full swing, so I spent a few hours looking for a precisely located, contact-free Airbnb in a sufficiently dark place.

I found one nestled close to the Green River in a remote part of central Kentucky. No matter how old I get, and despite all my experience to the contrary, I’m still silly enough to think that trips like this are going to unfold in some magical, uplifting, healing way. Nope. It’s not wrong to think that travel contributes to healing. It can! It’s just that it’s so much messier than I ever fully anticipate. It’s a jagged, uneven, sometimes downright weird process. If I’m not careful, I could mistake some trips for a complete failure.

The entire enterprise was a comedy of errors from the beginning: They had forgotten about our reservation so the place wasn’t ready. While we were waiting in the driveway for the owner and his employee to clean the place, we decided to get some food out of the cooler, and I went to open a plastic package with my husband’s knife. Somehow, mistaking my own fingers for the summer sausage I was trying to open, I thoroughly slashed my thumb and index finger, and began dripping copious amounts of blood on the gravel while my husband frantically looked for something to wrap my wounds.

Fishing, one of the primary attractions of the trip for my husband and son, was a wash. Rains came and flooded the river, lines got tangled, and tempers flared. Until the last night, the meteor shower was invisible, thanks to the cloud cover. Each of our worst traits was on display and chafing everyone else. We were all in different stages of the grief we were feeling, both for our longtime canine friend and the losses inflicted by the pandemic. As for myself, the routines I experience at home that serve as a silo for my emotions were completely gone, and the entire range of feelings swept in on me.

Circumstances were demanding my complete, unconditional surrender.  I didn’t fully comply — I never do right away — but I sort of dropped the rope. Sometimes we do things, like take a trip, because we want to feel better. But we don’t need to feel better; we need to engage with the process. When I was home, the demands of daily existence limited my ability to truly feel things that needed to be adjusted or addressed. Curiously, just being uncomfortable in a different place, in the middle of Kentucky in August, with its humidity and rain, and the same three people I’ve been with since March, brought some things into clearer focus.

The last night, the clouds parted a bit and we were able to make a fire and do some stargazing. Four meteors. Not bad.

The next morning as we were packing the car to leave, I was redistributing a few of the fallen twigs we’d gathered that we didn’t use for the fire the night before. Walking around the side of the house that backs up to the forest, my eye was drawn downward to a broad rock underfoot, scattered with broken nut shells. There I encountered the highlight of my trip, a tiny Eastern Box Turtle.

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Box turtles grow slowly, so this one might be a year old or more. Although they are members of the pond turtle family, box turtles tend to stay on land, and are therefore somewhat tortoise-adjacent. We spent a little time together, and I just sat with the privilege of getting to meet this youngster.

I think a lot about the part of Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey that involves magical helpers — think Yoda, Obi-Wan, Galadriel, Gandalf, etc. The creatures I meet on trips feel like my magical helpers. They aren’t mentors, exactly. More like faith-restorers.

After awhile I called my family over, and we all enjoyed the encounter. Then, I told my turtle helper to stay off the roads, and I climbed into the car and headed home to the tangled mess of things to sit with and work out.

More than a week later, my fingers are healing, talks have been had, steps have been taken, and I still enjoy thinking about my young turtle friend. So by that measure, it was a good trip.

To let it go

When the pandemic lockdown began in March, my husband and I started walking every day to burn off anxiety.  One day we hooked up our 14-year-old dog, Thomas, whose mobility had been declining since the end of last year, to his leash.  We took maybe ten steps before we realized he was no longer able to go with us. As our time at home progressed, it become clear – after close examination of his gait and phone calls with his vet – that what we thought was arthritis was actually a degenerative condition similar to ALS in humans. Thomas’s fate would be a slow march to paralysis – first his back legs, then his front, then his respiratory system. I realized at about the same time that his tail was no longer able to wag, and instead hung limply down between his haunches.

One of the blessings of this pandemic for us has been getting to be home with him as this unfolded. He couldn’t go on leashed walks anymore, but he could roam our acre-and-a-half property at his own pace, the boundaries of which he had somehow intuited and always respected. He still enjoyed lying in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows in our sunroom – an activity I called “Old Dog TV” – and barking at squirrels, the kids next door, and occasionally, nothing at all.

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As his mobility changed, so did our infrastructure: when he could no longer jump across the creek, we made a bridge. When he could no longer struggle up the front steps, we built a ramp. When his back end began to slide off the ramp, we built guard rails, and I decked them with fairy lights so he could see it at night, like a runway. When he could no longer handle the steep descent on the right side of the house, we reached his backyard via the gentler slope on the left.

During those months at home, his world began to shrink. The dog that had once backpacked in ten states, across rivers, over mountains, and through prairies, had to find his wilderness in an ever-shrinking circle around our home.  Still, there was dog-joy: as late as early July, he was able to supervise our yard work, and took the time, as he did every year, to carefully examine the prairie flowers popping up in the meadow across the creek. Something had died back there in June, and his frequent carcass-sniffings were so routine that it seemed he was engaged in some sort of community science project. He was still busy.

But a few weeks ago, he began to need help getting up. It was easy enough at first, but then it got to the point that only my 17-year old, with his youthful strength and still-supple spine, could get this 75-pound dog on all four paws. Time for another infrastructure adjustment: on the recommendation of friends, we bought him a mobility harness. That expanded his world a bit, one more time. With a human hand on the back handle of his harness, his hind end was controlled enough that he could move about again. Always, we kept an eye on the most important question: was there dog joy?

Soon, that dog joy was down to two things: Food, and communing with his people. He enjoyed those things as much as ever. But the outdoor-loving dog, the one who had refused to limit his yard-surfing during a polar vortex, who insisted on attending every hike in oppressive heat and humidity, manic grin on full display, tongue dangling, no longer liked being outside.  He would reach the bottom of his ramp, pee, and then try to swerve immediately back indoors. Even the gentle slope to his backyard, the creek, and his community science project had become too much, and was abandoned.

And so I found myself sitting on my front porch one morning, phone in hand, trying to will myself to call a number. After twenty minutes of unapologetic procrastination, I dialed.  There was no answer. I didn’t leave a message. I sat another ten minutes. Then I sent a text, as the outgoing message invited.

This internal struggle eventually ended in a phone call with a warm, kind veterinarian who specializes in pet hospice and in-home euthanasia. She immediately confirmed everything I’d been feeling. Degenerative myelopathy makes it incredibly difficult to make “the call,” she said. The dog is not usually in pain, or overtly suffering. Their world has shrunk dramatically, yes, but they are still themselves. It makes the euthanasia decision, as the vet put it, “brutal.” She was right.

It was Monday. I made an appointment for Thursday morning.

That was the frank but warm conversation I needed to have. I wasn’t getting it with his normal vet, and I don’t blame him for that; his job is to make animals better.  This vet’s job is to know when to stop trying to make them better.  Still, I don’t regret the struggle to decide. There are some decisions that should be hard, even agonizing. This one, I assure you, was both.

It didn’t make me feel better to have that decision confirmed over the next two days. Just before Thursday, Thomas developed a terrible UTI – in the advanced stages, dogs with degenerative myelopathy sometimes can no longer empty their bladders fully. My big, strong, hiking dog was almost immobile and was now definitely uncomfortable. Getting up with the harness put pressure on his urinary tract, so we were back to lifting him ourselves.

During those last two terrible, precious days, he ate a lot of steak and salmon. Increase the dog-joy, I thought, where it can still be found.

On Wednesday evening, I roused him from his place in the corner to go out. He did the usual pee-and-swerve, and we walked back up the ramp. Then we walked around the house a little, my hand on the back handle of the harness. I followed him wherever he wanted to go. He walked back to the front door. I opened it. We both stood in the doorway, surveying the yard and the trees bathed in the honey-colored light of early evening. After about five minutes, he stepped forward. I followed, and we walked down the ramp. For the first time in two weeks, there was no swerve back indoors.

He seemed to sense something in the air, and we walked – haltingly, as always — down the gentle grade to his backyard, around the garden, and back up again. We motored around the strawberry bed in the front yard up a slight grade to the road. Each patch of grass was sniffed, and then the next one, farther on.

By the time we were in my neighbors’ yard, I realized with a jolt that we were taking a walk again together, as it used to be. I let him go as long as he wanted; he crossed the street to sniff some evergreens, and we naturally moved back home. When we reached our ramp again, my son and husband came out of the house, and I told them, astonished, that we’d just taken our first walk in months. They could tell; his tongue was dangling.

Now that they were outside, Thomas turned, again, toward the road. He wasn’t finished. The four of us walked, each human taking a turn with a hand on the harness, for almost half a mile in the waning golden light. We all knew we were in the midst of something glorious, even as we knew the hourglass was draining.

I’ve always known that there are these moments in life that crystallize in memory, like jewels tossed from the heavens. The older I get, the better I am at identifying them when they’re happening. So there it is now, tucked into my mind’s eye, the four of us taking one last, improbable walk as the setting sun spills through the giant pines on our road.

It was all he had left, physically – all three of us had to help him lie down comfortably when we got back to the house – and he spent it all on that walk. Nothing was left unsniffed; no patch of grass was left unmarked.

And then, the next morning, it ended much the same way it began for me and my beautiful, brilliant dog: me sitting on the floor with him in my lap, trusting me.

I felt like I could barely breathe for days. A week and a half later, as I write this, his absence is still a body-wide ache. Every day, though, a little more of that ache — not too much, just a little – is replaced by gratitude for having had such a great dog, and for so long.

Mary Oliver’s words about death revisit me over and over again:

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

There are extra tasks in that last part when it comes to our animal companions. That morning on the porch, when I clutched my phone trying to force myself to call the vet, I was engaged in a direct confrontation with that third condition: When the time comes to let it go, to let it go. With animals, we are so frequently called not merely to accept a death that is imposed on us, but to cause one, at precisely the right time, to spare our friends needless suffering. We must have a clarity of mind that all our own feelings are desperate to avoid.

Letting it go is a practice. I did the affirmative part well enough last week. Now, dammit, I’ll spend some time letting the rest of him go, at my own pace. I don’t know how long that will take, but when the time comes to let him go, I suppose I’ll let him go. That time isn’t here yet, though.

Hermit life

002-3Quarantine has ended for many people, but my life doesn’t look much different than it did in April. Although my private practice has ground to a screeching halt, my other work can be done remotely. My husband is a mental health professional, and has moved his practice seamlessly to telehealth. All of which is to say that, while I see a lot of magical thinking that all is back to normal again, my husband and I have withdrawn from the petri dish. We’ve done this both to protect ourselves, as well as deprive the virus of two vectors with which to infect others.  We don’t forget for a second that we’re fortunate to be able to do so.

It’s not that we don’t go out at all, but we’re extremely picky about where and how we spend our allotted risk. We attended a BLM protest in June, masked and distanced from the crowd, with plenty of space between us and others. There we heard a riveting speech from a young woman a few months older than my son, who noted that her grandfather had been part of the lunch counter integration movement, and here she was, today, continuing work everyone had hoped would be finished  by now. This and voting are probably the only crowd-based activities I’ll be willing to undertake in the next several months. They’re equally important to me.

Today we went to our egg lady’s alpaca farm to retrieve another three dozen and meet the brand new cria – a baby alpaca – that was born today. It was raining when we went so I left my camera at home. We pulled the barn door open to find ten or fifteen alpacas gathered in a group, staring at us with their trademark looks of rapt curiosity. When alpacas look at you, it’s impossible not to feel that they are fascinated by you. I felt like a rock star about to take the stage.  In the corner stall was the baby, fur still frizzy from the wetness of birth, standing on wobbly but determined legs. This was her first day of life, and here she was, checking the place out. What an odd thing, to one day be within your mother, and the next day to be standing in front of a group of your curious-looking brethren, trying out your legs.

As I exclaimed over her, I felt a nudge at my elbow. I turned, and there was another alpaca, leaning in at eye level, nudging me as if to say, “cute, isn’t she?” My intrusive friend leaned in some more, and we touched noses.  I remarked that this was the closest I’d been to anyone other than my husband in three months. As far as I know, I would be the first person to get coronavirus from an alpaca, so catching the disease from this encounter would definitely have its compensatory aspects – if nothing else, at least a great story and perhaps a little notoriety.

We got a little closer to our egg lady, who can give us the virus, than I would have preferred, all things considered. But even though the verdict isn’t in yet, I’ll still say it was a risk well taken.

Just like “normal” life, this new hermit life has fallen into routine. I wake up, stumble into the kitchen, and get coffee, absolutely convinced I don’t want to do ten seconds of exercise. After half an hour or so I start to get restless, and my husband and I get on the bikes and ride ten miles or so, up and down a few hills, across the reservoir and back again. We go through a prairie patch next to a golf course, say hi to the goldfinches congregating on the thistle, and proceed into a cool, dense forest, my favorite part of the entire ride. Then down a hill, and down another, wind in my face, opening out onto the hike-and-bike trail across the reservoir. We pass people, but it’s quick, distanced, and outdoors. It’s also the best part of every day. So again, an acceptable risk.

We ride home. He sees clients over video in his office. I spend my work day in our sunroom. One of us takes my son on a practice drive to prepare for his driver’s license test. I may teach him how to cook something if there’s time. My husband works in the vegetable garden between sessions; we make sure our aging dog gets time to yard surf. If the temperature isn’t miserable, there will be a mile or two of walking in the evening.

Tonight I recognized that our lives seem a bit surreal right now, because there are few overt markers to demonstrate the passage of time. The ones that exist are subtle: the cucumbers in the garden are getting bigger; the milkweed is growing taller; the neighborhood owlet looks bigger and her feathers less raggedy each time I see her; my dog slips away a little more every day. Even my own physical condition is a marker; every day it takes us less time to bike our established route, and the hills are easier. That’s how I know time is not standing still.

In this world, everything is present and immediate. All the places I used to hide from anxiety are inaccessible. Going to work and being with my coworkers was an anxiety-reliever. So was burying myself in work. So was my long daily commute. Now I can simultaneously see the future for miles, and not a foot in front of my face. I can see my rapidly fledging child and the end of full-time parenthood. I can see a deteriorating canine companion that’s been the hub of my blended family. I can see my own mortality.  At the same time I have no idea when or how any of this current moment ends, or what comes after.

Like I said, it’s surreal.

I’m determined to get what I can from it. I just don’t know what that is yet — other than the hills getting easier. That’s it for now, I think.