People don’t usually mention the animals first. They want to know about the light: the lack of it, how long it lasts in the summer and how little of it there is in winter. After the light they ask about the temperature; does it snow all year long? How far down does the barometer dip in January and can you ever wear shorts in July? If I’ve satisfied their curiosity, they might continue then with the earthquakes and the volcanoes. After that it’s a slippery decline to the Sarah Palin questions, Did I Ever Meet Her, What is Wasilla Like, Does Everyone Love Her? (Answers: No, but my husband did, it’s pretty but strange, and no no six hundred thousand times no.)
The animals, sadly, aren’t given much thought. Sure, folks might think of Timothy Treadwell being eaten and of poor Christopher McCandless bagging a moose but starving anyway. They might think of the story they saw on the news about a girl riding her bike on a foggy fall morning and being swatted off, her legs scraping on the greenbelt pavement, her pink skin scratched and prodded by a fierce mama bear. But they don’t know about the animals. Not really. Even those of us who live or have lived there don’t know all that much. We know what we see, what they might allow us to see.
I can tell you that we saw lots of moose, and that they’re quieter and bigger than the picture you had in your head. I can tell you how still and orange the Fall is, and about the loud bangs that shake the leaves when a bull moose is deep in rut. I can tell you about the smoke that billows out of their muzzles in the winter, and how they can surprise you in a grocery store parking lot or a hiking trail or your front yard.
I can tell you about sea otters, hanging out near the shore, floating on their backs with babies on their stomachs. I can mention that I never saw a beluga whale when just ten years ago the waters of Turnagain Arm were choked with their silver white, swimming forms. I can also mention that a pack of grey wolves lived in our neighborhood; that sometimes they carried off family dogs and feral cats. Above the wolves and foxes, in the towering, shadowy firs, were dozens (sometimes hundreds) of bald eagles. They would hunt for carrion and field mice, their watchful and stern yellow eyes glowing. We always looked for them as we walked to the library or the coffee shop.
My husband got to fly deep into the interior often, in small planes with long histories. Underneath him, on the tundra, bears ran wildly, caribou moved in synchronized orchestration, and migratory birds roared from the earth before filling the sky with flickering wings and mournful calls. Xander, at the tender age of five, got to see orca and humpback whales skimming waves in the Prince William Sound. Though if I ask him about the experience now he mainly remembers the sandwich and cookie he got to eat on the boat.
We were lucky to live there, to share that huge space with the animals. Sometimes it was frightening, like when Xander and I were warned by a gardener at the botanical gardens to “Turn back now! There’s a huge mama black bear near the herb garden and she’s already charged a volunteer!” Sometimes it was solemn and quieting, like the time we saw a wolverine on our way for cinnamon rolls and rainbow sherbet.
But every time we encountered an animal, it was magical. It was heaven, really, to feel such life around us. I do miss that.