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|Seeking the Silence - Page 7|
Slowly—never taking my eyes off my visitor—I reached over and grabbed my canoe paddles. Gripping the shafts with both hands, blades flailed out on either side, I slowly, slowly, trying not to spook my visitor, raised them as high as I could above my head, extending myself to my full six feet, two-and-a-half inches. "Maybe his eyesight is bad enough that he'll think I'm a moose," I told myself.
We stood there, thus linked, for perhaps 15 more seconds. Clearly, he was gauging whether his curiosity was worth the risk of a closer encounter. Finally, he pivoted around on the rock, displaying his hindquarters. It wasn't lost on me that he felt comfortable enough to turn his back on what might have at first seemed to him a potential threat. He casually recrossed the stream, slowly ambling into the woods on the other side. I let out a big sigh of relief, collecting my thoughts, canoe paddles now lowered.
I considered what had just happened. It was a striking reminder that my decision to venture into these wild territories without a weapon and with only my skills to rely on wasn't to be taken lightly. True, this particular encounter had had a happy result, and it confirmed that I was willing to accept the consequences of my decisions. But my wife and kids and friends also had a stake in the outcome of those decisions. Besides, I wasn't a kid seeking new adventures anymore. When I began these trips, part of the appeal was testing my outer limits. And while I still enjoyed these challenges, I was now standing at the boundary of my seventh decade—and my focus had shifted to solitude, beauty, and arriving home safely.
Janet wasn't overjoyed when she heard of this encounter. And as much as my friends may have enjoyed listening to this story, she'd have none of it. Clearly, I'd reached another touchstone moment, and never again would I place myself in a situation fraught with such potential danger.
Later, in my travels down the Kobuk, I came across three Inupiat hunters, who invited me to join them for coffee. They'd just dressed a fresh caribou kill, its bloody scalped antlers lying on the sand to be picked clean in a day or two by the ravens—the river running red from the slaughter. Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the name of their village, Noorvik—about 60 miles downriver—they were harvesting caribou for the coming winter.
We talked about the behavior of the grizzlies that I'd encountered. I described how the bears had displayed such curiosity, choosing to walk away once they'd satisfied themselves that no threat was at hand. This same striking behavior was later exhibited by a wolf as I journeyed along the Kobuk, and even more so by the caribou at Onion Portage. Fascinated with this information, one of the young men remarked, "We're hunters. Animals would never allow us to come that close. The instant they smell us or see us, they run."