Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North
Edited by Michael Engelhard
University of Alaska Press, 237 pages, $21.95
Most people who spend a significant amount of time in the wilderness emerge with a story of an animal sighting that was particularly vivid for them, whether it’s a glimpse of a pine martin in the forest, a close scrape with a bear or mountain lion, or an afternoon spent watching birds. Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North, edited by Michael Engelhard, collects the best animal stories of over two-dozen writers who live, work, and adventure in the wilderness of northwest America. Some of them write of their experiences with a certain species over time, such as Nancy Lord’s meditation on the beluga whale, and others share one specific story, such as Daniel Henry’s unforgettable account of a crow massacre. The stories are divided into three sections: “Fur,” “Feathers,” and “Fins, Flukes & Flippers,” and they demonstrate how encounters with animals in the wild can give meaning to people’s lives.
Daniel Henry’s story, “A Murder of Crows,” sticks out because it’s so bizarre and violent. Henry was working at retreat for the Young Adult Conservation Corps on False Island, “forty miles north of Sitka, Alaska, as the crow flies.” Like something out of Hitchcock, crows begin to gather near the camp, until their “raucous symphony builds to a stadium roar on the third day.” No one can sleep through the cacophony, and everything is covered in bird droppings. Suddenly, after an inexplicable hush falls over the crows, “Pandemonium roars from the stand of old trees,” and when Henry and others investigate, they find “a hell-fight beyond our imagination.” Here’s how he describes the apocalyptic scene:
“Bodies rain from the trees. Dying birds hit the forest floor screaming…Their black breasts’ normal gloss fades under blood and duff, pierced to the heart by beaks bearing ancient regards. We watch with grotesque fascination as silent cries issue from the twisting jaws of birds whose heads are attached to their bodies only by a strand of sinew. Many of the feathered shadows writhing on the ground are composed of two or three crows pinned to each other by their beaks and claws.”
The carnage stops eventually, leaving bird carcasses piled two feet deep. By a few days after the crow massacre, other animals have cleaned up the scene. The only thing missing from Henry’s riveting account was a little scientific background information—do crows normally do this sort of thing? And why? But “Murder of Crows” is a great story that should earn Henry free beers for life at any bar he tells it in.
Another harrowing story is Ned Rozell’s “Things That Go Bump.” He’s excited to be left alone to spend eight days in a cabin in the Yukon, until a grizzly gets a little too familiar. Rozell sets out in a canoe to scout for moose for his hunting clients, and the grizzly begins to chase him. “I was motoring upstream in a seventeen-foot canoe, losing a race to a bear galloping through cottongrass like a thoroughbred. Twisting the throttle, I looked to my left and watched the bear, all rolling muscle and determination, with just five yards of muddy water between us.” The bear eventually ends the chase, but Rozell must spend the night clutching his gun inside the cabin that the bear has entered before.
Most of the stories in Wild Moments offer more contemplative experiences with nature. I especially enjoyed Nancy Lord’s “Watching,” her reflections on beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. She can’t get a complete glimpse of the whales as they travel through the water, each on looking like “a wheel, a round white disk churning the sea.” She tries to learn more about them, but belugas haven’t been studied much, and Lord decides, “I liked that I lived with mystery whales.”
Sometimes animal encounters offer people the inspiration that they need to go on living, as in Jo-Ann Mapson’s “Gandalf the Great Gray.” Mapson became interested in the owls of Alaska just as the autoimmune disease she’s suffering from flares up. She wanted to volunteer at a bird rehabilitation center, but her condition makes it too painful. Mapson still manages to teach a writing course, and decides a visit with an owl from the rehabilitation center is just what she and the students need for inspiration. A volunteer brings Gandalf the Great Gray owl into the classroom, and though his wingspan and bearing are initially impressive, Mapson notices that “beaneath the plumage and talons and brilliant yellow eyes” the owl’s body is actually quite small. “It reminded me that in small things, we often find our deepest lessons…Flight, I realized, is as much a feat of the mind as it is of the body.”
The stories about whales especially convey the magic of encounters with animals, such as in Loretto Jones’ “Once Upon a Whale,” and James Michael Dorsey’s “Eye of the Storm.” Jones is diving for abalone in Alaskan waters when she gets a radio call about a humpback whale caught in a net nearby. At first she is reluctant to risk her own life to save the whale, but then she recalls a near-drowning experience she had and resolves to try to save the whale from that fate. She cuts a cork out of the whale’s blowhole and with difficulty, frees it from the nets. James Michael Dorsey writes of his encounter with killer whales when he was paddling in Alaska’s Inside Passage. He becomes caught up in a killer whale pod’s salmon-eating feeding frenzy, and at the end the enormous leader of the pod meets his gaze and swims alongside him until Dorsey tires of paddling, realizing, “I am still alive not by accident.”
The stories in Wild Moments convey the wonder, beauty, drama, and peril that encounters with animals in the wild can bring.