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|Seeking the Silence - Page 5|
The Aging Kid
The year 2004 brought an abrupt, if temporary, halt to my expeditions. In the spring of that year, I received a diagnosis of late-stage prostate cancer. This news wasn't easy to accept. I remember asking the doctor, much to Janet's consternation, if there was any chance I could postpone treatment until after my annual fall pilgrimage to the wilds. With remarkable forbearance, he informed me in no uncertain terms that this wasn't an option. And so, ending my dance of denial, I traded my sojourn in the wilderness for a radical prostectomy.
I've been cancer-free since that time, and at my annual PSA checkup, I thank my doctor that his skill has helped make it possible for me to enjoy the adventure of life for yet another year. But make no mistake—the cancer is, for me, a vivid reminder of the vicissitudes of age. Each year, I return to the wilds keenly aware that there's no guarantee that I'll enjoy this privilege another season.
Close Encounter of the First Kind
Each year's trip is an adventure into the unknown. But, of course, the problem with the unknown is that, in addition to the prospect of excitement and renewal, it can contain dangers that you don't bargain for.
One bright Alaskan summer evening, I was about to prepare dinner when I saw them. About 50 yards upriver, two grizzlies—one a "blondie" with dark-brown legs and the other a chocolate silvertip—ambled toward me, as if they were pals out for a stroll on the riverbank in the late afternoon arctic sun. "Oh, my god!" I thought. Though I'd always realized that I could meet up with a grizzly out here in the middle of nowhere, somehow I'd never considered confronting two at once.
A few days before, a bush pilot had dropped me off at Walker Lake, an emerald jewel set in the tundra about a 100 miles or so north of the arctic circle. After negotiating the rapids of Kobuk Canyon, I proceeded downriver some 200 miles to the ancient Eskimo hunting ground of Onion Portage. My goal was to witness the caribou as they made their way across the wide shallows of the Kobuk on their yearly migration to their winter feeding grounds. During this entire journey, I'd spotted only three of the big bears.
In fact, in all my years of paddling and trekking the wilds of bear country, I could count on one hand all the grizzlies I've seen. Why are there so few? My best guess is that when you're moving through truly remote territory, where the animals aren't nearly so used to seeing a human presence, they'll respect and avoid you in much the same way you should respect and avoid them.