Seven years ago I spent a summer on the Taku River in the northwestern-most corner of British Columbia, miles from the Alaskan border. I had read about an environmental organization called Round River Conservation Studies in Rick Bass’ book The Lost Grizzlies. His description of the group so enthralled me, that I knew as soon as I closed the book that I needed to make a connection to this group. I enrolled in their summer student program, where I would study conservation biology. So in late June I crawled into into a scorching hot automobile with my good friend Carolyn Stolzenburg and we began driving west across America. I remember that in western Minnesota we hit a storm so powerful that we pulled off at a truckstop for refuge. There may have been a tornado. In the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming there was snow and moose and the world seemed empty except for us, our faces pressed against the glass. In Cody, Wyoming we picked up a stranger, a man named Tracy Hruska, a fellow Round River alumni who would later become one of my best friends. A man who has repeatedly traveled across the country to visit me, even just for hours at a time. We made our way through Yellowstone, through Butte, past the great open-pit mines, through the desert, and mountains, and trees, to Seattle, and then to Bellingham, where under a splendid American sky and in a beer garden with a view of the ocean we drank until we were sick. In the morning, Tracy and I boarded a ferry and began a three day journey up the Pacific coast, through fjords and past glaciers to the port of Skagway. We then found a bus that transported us over the Canadian border to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory where we found a hostel. There was only one bed left in the hostel and we took it, with smiles on our greasy faces. Around midnight, with the sun still in the sky, we drank beer until closing, and then retreated back to our single bed, two grown men. In the morning, I met Doug Milek, the student director of Round River, who is also now a lifelong friend. Every day was like that – an adventure marked by encounters with rare and important people. People who don’t give up on landscapes, or creatures, or friends. Diehards.
For a month I lived beside a creek in my tent, The Hotel Wisconsin, a small rectangle of nylon that I inherited from my Dad. The floor of the tent was littered with my books, pens, diaries, river-stones, and dirty clothing. At night I lay in my sleeping bag and read James Galvin’s The Meadow (a paradigm-shattering tome) while Arctic mice tried to climb the slopes of my tent, always eventually skiing down. Everywhere the sound of water.
In the mornings: a campfire, coffee, mountains, the river, a story from the great Tlingit elder Uncle Jackie. Sometimes cribbage. Then we would divide in groups and go into the wilderness, collecting bear hairs from snares mounted to their rub-trees. The smell of grizzly bears on my fingers. Grizzly bears everywhere. Sometimes I was terrified of them. Other times, they were just like our neighbors. In the evenings: campfires, salmon, coffee, the stars, the aurora, stories. Our faces bathed in smoke and the colors of fire.
One time, Doug and I explored a cave high in the face of a cliff far above the river and in the mountains. It had been used by travelers immemorial. I saw the ancient fire-pit and the ashes. There were Sitka Spruce larger than any white pine I have ever seen. I saw rivers the color of milk. Chocolate lilies. Sea otters far up a fresh-water river. The border of America and Canada, cut out of the wilderness like a line made by God. I caught a fish with my bare hands. Twice a week we took saunas in a plastic hut and then dove into the river and frequently the river was choked with the corpses of dead salmon, the water slick with their oils and fluids.
I learned to observe the world more acutely than I ever had before. I counted species of plants painstakingly, on my knees, calling out the names of things alien to me, examining their leaves. I saw the world as it should be, not as it is, or as it has become, or as it has healed over. But a kind of paradise and yet still threatened by industry and greed and progress. When I came home my blood boiled with passion and indignation, I was ready to go to war over the Taku River, over Flanaghan’s Slough, over grizzly bear, and caribou.
If you read this blog, there is a good chance that you know about my experiences along the Taku. Maybe, you were even there with me. But I write this entry because I owe a debt of gratitude to Round River Conservation Studies because they altered my life and changed my perception of the world. They are also proponents of my writing, and without fail plug my poetry and essays. If you ever have extra money in your pocket and are in need of a charity, this is your group. They are special and unique and they are producing leaders and scientists and good people. When Regina and I have money, which in the past we have, we give what we can to Round River. You should too.