My first Alaska trip, with brown bears and Emma
by Rob Tiller
My Alaska trip in mid-August was fantastic! True, American Airlines lost my bag on the trip home, but they eventually found it. Also, there was a major Covid outbreak at the lodge where I stayed, but I didn’t get it. There were anxious moments, and as with every adventure some minor disappointments. But all told, it was an amazing, life-changing experience.
Alaska is beautiful and really enormous, and impossible to take in all at once. My prime objective for this trip was to photograph brown bears (sometimes called grizzlies). This time of year they normally feast on migrating salmon and get extra fat for their winter hibernation. My small group of photographers stayed at the village of Iliamna and traveled several times by float plane to Katmai National Park. There we saw dozens of bears fishing in the river, playing on the tundra, and living their lives.
For me, it was quite moving to spend time close to these powerful and resourceful creatures. Their lives made a lot of sense. When they felt hungry they waded into the water and went fishing. When they felt sleepy, they lay down and took a nap. Mothers nursed their new cubs. Young ones playfully sparred with each other.
At some point I’d been taught that bears were solitary animals, but this is not how they seemed when I was there. Some of them seemed to be friends, and played together in groups. Occasionally there were disagreements. A massive bear would warn another to back off by growling and shoving, but I didn’t see any fights that involved bloodshed.
It was a big show, slow at times (such as nap times), but even then heart filling, and I could watch a long time without taking pictures. But I also took a lot of pictures. I’m still working my way through the digital trove, but I thought the ones here were worth sharing, and hope to have more next week.
During the trip I had no internet or other news source. As a long-time news junkie, I felt unsettled at first, but soon adjusted. When I finally got back on line in Anchorage, I found that the world was turning pretty much as before.
During the trip I re-read Emma, by Jane Austen, for the first time since my college days. I remember thinking it was wonderful then, but this time it seemed richer. Austen is often treated as a brilliant rom-com miniaturist. But in addition to her polished and gently humorous surfaces, she unveils darker aspects of an intensely social world. Underneath the careful manners there’s an unremitting struggle for dominance.
We know, or at least could know, a lot more than Austen did about the slavery and imperialism that provided funding for her genteel characters. Her degree of complicity is unknown, but even assuming the worst, she bequeathed to her readers a great gift. Somehow, within her narrow confines, she managed to create an absorbing world and at the same time call that world into question. Emma Woodhouse is undeniably marvelous, but addicted to deception, including self deception. Like stage magic, Austen keeps us absorbed and curious by seeming to reveal emotional secrets, and then letting us see that bigger ones may still be hidden.