Sports column by Matt Dickerson: Fledglings in the wilderness
This past weekend I had the privilege of watching at close range a pair of bald eagles walking along a gravelly beach. One was a mature bird with a snowy white helmet. The other a fledgling, still dark golden on the head. They were scavenging pink salmon spawning up a small stream in Kachemak Bay in south central Alaska. After my son Thomas and I watched for a while from our tandem kayak, the older eagle flew off to a quiet perch on an old skeleton of a spruce tree. The younger one, however, chose instead to run off down the beach. It ran far enough that I wondered whether it had even learned to fly. But eventually it took to wing, sailed low over the beach, and then up and over the bank disappearing into a wide coastal meadow.
Thomas and I were on a four-day sea-kayaking adventure in Halibut Cove at the southern end of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, about four hours by car from Anchorage to Homer followed by another 30 minute sea-taxi ride across Kachemak Bay. This trip had been long in coming. Thomas graduated from Saint Michael’s College this year, and a few weeks after that got engaged to his long-time sweetheart. In about one week he will officially move out of the house and into his own apartment in Providence, where he will begin graduate school. At that point, he will cease to be a legal dependent.
Now over the 23 years that Thomas has lived at home, or gone to college nearby, we have spent a fair amount of time together outdoors. When he was a young teenager, our family took a 30-day camping trip to Yellowstone National Park and back. I have also brought Thomas on a pair of canoeing-camping-fishing trips to Maine’s Allagash Wilderness Waterway. We have backpacked and camped on several peaks in Vermont and Maine, and done a number of Boy Scouts outdoor adventures together including canoeing, summer camping and winter camping. Cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing have also been favorite family activities. In addition to reading, spending time outdoors was our quality family time together.
So, given that I now have a brother, sister-in-law, and two nephews just a bit older than Thomas living in Anchorage, a little outdoor adventure to the Last Frontier seemed a good way to spend my accumulated frequent flyer miles and celebrate Thomas’ graduation, his engagement, and his soon-to-be independence.
Sea-kayaking was not the only activity on our Alaska trip, though it was perhaps our favorite. We also went salmon fishing twice, biked and hiked and berry-picked in various state and local parks, and ended our 12-day trip with an overnight backpacking adventure into a lovely tarn in the mountainous Chugach State Park. We saw more bald eagles in a week than I see in New England in a year. While salmon fishing, I had the adrenaline rush of watching a grizzly approach much closer than I would have liked — and rip apart the backpack of one of the anglers standing downstream of me (fortunately not while it was on his back). Thomas and his cousin Brad also watched a black bear chase two bald eagles off a coastal ledge just a dozen feet above their kayak. We had close encounters also with sea otters, seals and even one American marten, along with a slightly less close view of a flock of seven wild Dall sheep. On the hike, a bull moose (missing half its antler) popped out of the brush between my brother and nephew and started right down a narrow trail toward us, approaching to within 10 feet before turning back into the trees.
And we found and ate seven varieties of wild berries including trailing black currants, crow berries, watermelon berries and countless wild blueberries. (Wild berries proved to be a part of everything we did.) We also caught and ate fresh wild salmon, along with wild peas gathered from along the beaches.
For me, however, the defining moment was when Thomas decided to ascend one of the impressive ridgelines towering above our tarn-side tent site so he could take in the panoramic view from above. I was down casting for rainbow trout by the lake so Thomas let his cousin Michael know he was heading up the hillside.
One amazing thing about the vastness of Alaska is that one can disappear remarkable quickly — even in a dead-end valley above timberline where nothing grows taller than a few inches. Despite how carefully we scanned the lichen-covered rock bowl around us, we could catch no sight of him. We didn’t see Thomas again for almost four hours.
And, yes, I admit I worried as the long Alaskan day began to wind down and clouds poured over the high peaks down into our valley. But just about supper time, when I was ready to call 911 — except there was no cell phone service in the middle of the mountains — Thomas appeared high up on the slope above our tent, working his way back down into the valley. Despite my fears, he was fine. Perfectly safe, in fact, though somewhat tired and hungry. He’d had a grand time, and wanted to do it again the next day with me.
And so it is. I am, I admit, somewhat frightened by the thought that I can no longer protect my son, but also relieved that I no longer need to. And I’m very encouraged to think that we might have many years left of enjoying that outdoors together. Except after this trip, I might not have to pay for all of it and plan it all.
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