I have been putting off writing this final blog entry because… I don’t want the story to end. Once I wrap this up, it all goes back down the memory hole, only to bubble up again from time to time when something reminds me of a moment here or there. Having this blog to record my experiences was a way to keep it alive a little longer, to feel like I’m still there in some way.
But perhaps it is perfect timing that I now write this final entry exactly a year from when it first started, May 2021.
As I look ahead to my path moving forward, it’s hard to see where Alaska, or park ranger life, will fit into the picture once I’m married and have kids–timelines that seem to be all coming to a head at an alarming speed as I get older. To be clear, these are life experiences I’m equally excited about having, but they also preclude the life I have always known, and I continue to do internal work to come to terms with that (because really, things are always changing anyway). Asa and I talk about the possibility sometimes, of what that could look like. But in reality, I have no idea.
Anyway, that’s where my mind is right now. I’ll share a little more of my plans going forward at the end of this post.
Bears moved out to the mouth of the river in September, less concentrated at the falls.
Enduring one particularly cold, wet day out on the trail
My final days in Katmai were something of a blur. There were still a surprising amount of visitors arriving up until the very last day the park was open. Planes landed all morning along the lakeshore. I gave bear orientations and pointed out places on the map. I roved the trails, and photographed the now extremely-rotund bears that had gained hundreds of pounds since June.
The weather got colder and rainier, one day pouring icy sleet for hours while I stood out at the falls with a few very determined visitors. My uniform soaked all the way through to my underwear. I took a hot shower at the end of my shift, feeling like I would never be warm again.
My final day at Brooks Camp was spent helping clean up and prepare the park for winter. It would remain open for a few more weeks to campers and intrepid day trippers, but by now the tour groups were gone and the lodge was closed for the season.
I had one more bear encounter that last day as I was cleaning out the tiny lunch shack by the falls trail. I was just wondering to myself if any bears would be able to smell the old food I was cleaning out of the bear barrels that had been forgotten there for weeks. I was piling smelly trash into a handcart to haul back to the incinerator, when silently, a family of bears lumbered out of the trees right next to me.
My heart leaped out of my chest for a second, but the bears paid me no mind, and ambled straight down into the woods by the main trail. I couldn’t help but laugh. I took my time cleaning up the shack so they could get well ahead of me before I got out to the trail with the trash.
As I was about to head back, I heard a visitor yelling on the trail. I headed down that way to check it out, and the next thing I knew, that same family of bears was walking right passed me again, getting shooed down the trail by some tourist who I couldn’t see around the corner. “Hey bear! Go on bear!” She was yelling and clapping her hands.
“Please stop yelling at the bears!” I called in her direction. “They’re not doing anything to you!”
“They were in the trail and I was trying to go that way,” she snapped at me as she came around the corner.
“Did you get your bear orientation?” I asked innocently (by now, I was so used to this conversation. Always give the benefit of the doubt first.)
“Then you should remember that it’s not our job to scare bears away here in Brooks Camp. We give bears the right of way, and wait for them to get out of the way. You should never be trying to scare them off unless they’re actively coming at you.”
“But I was trying to get back to camp,” she insisted, still feeling fully justified in her behavior.
“Doesn’t matter,” I replied. “Just don’t do it again.”
She huffed and moved along, and I followed some distance behind with my cart of trash, feeling like a walking bear attractant. This should go well, I laughed to myself.
As luck would have it, I encountered yet another bear right before the bridge, so I had to back off the trail and scoot my cart into the woods while I waited to see which way the bear was going to go. It lingered around the bridge gate for a while and eventually I lost sight of it. I waited a few more minutes, and then proceeded cautiously, feeling a wave of relief once I got through the double gates with my smelly haul of trash!
We spent the morning cleaning up around the campground, the ranger station, the break room, and saying our goodbyes to people and places we might never see again.
The rest of the day was spent packing up myself and cleaning out my half of the cabin. It felt surreal. Just like before, I covered all my gear in plastic bags in preparation for the cold, wet boat ride back across Naknek Lake the following morning.
I woke before dawn the next day and waited for the truck to arrive that would take me and the other seasonal rangers down to the lake. It was controlled chaos when it arrived. Bags were thrown in the truck bed, people hugged and cried and poked fun at one another. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with such a closely-bonded team before. Honestly, it was my coworkers at this park that made it such a wonderful experience. I mean, the park itself is great, but it was hands-down the best crew I’ve ever gotten to serve with.
After that, it was a whole lot less fun. My flight home got delayed for three days because the King Salmon airport decided to close its runway for maintenance. I was lucky to be able to stay in park housing during that time, but there wasn’t much to do. I went for walks, and wrote, and slowly became acclimated to civilization again: television and internet and stores (well, a store) and cars.
Long story short, I finally got home three days later. Everything felt a bit weird for a while. I was ecstatic to be with Asa again, to be in my own bed in my own home, to get to wander through a store and try on clothes in a thrift shop. I ate so many salads. And ice cream!
It was also overwhelming. Sounds and traffic and people and marketing and notifications everywhere. I found myself much less addicted to social media than I had been when I left. I was excited to share my photos and stories, but beyond that, I no longer felt the need to scroll through Facebook or Instagram all day long like I used to, and obsessively check on how many “likes” I had gotten on my last post. It just didn’t matter.
It took a few days, or maybe even weeks, for me to find my footing in my life again. I was faced with some harsh realities, some existential crises, some soul searching, before I felt re-aligned.
In the end, I have no doubt that my summer in Katmai was exactly what I needed and came at exactly the right time. I think that it strengthened Asa’s and my relationship. It was a huge confidence boost for me in so many ways. It helped me reconnect with my values and purpose and passions.
This post has become much longer than I intended so if you’re still reading, I will try to wrap up quickly.
Here’s where things are now:
Asa and I are settled in Oregon for the foreseeable future. We’re getting married this summer, and for now, living on his family’s homestead where we’ve resided the last 3 years. I continue to practice my “ranger skills” on our land, tracking wildlife, edible and medicinal plants, the changes in seasons and weather. I also continue to paint and write.
Determined not to return to a desk job, last fall when I got back from Alaska, I registered Trail Mixed Media as a sole proprietorship, and became a full-time freelancer and small business owner. I’m now working with local businesses and organizations, producing films, photography, and graphic design. Although it’s not a big money maker (yet?), I have never felt happier or more fulfilled in my work.
Whatever happens next, I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had that have shaped me into who I am today. The challenges and triumphs we go through prepare us for what is to come. With that, here’s to the next great adventure!