Wild Alaska, Conserved
In Alaska, there is rain.
And not rain like you all have in the continental US. Not rain that sweeps through with a ferocious thunder and lightning display, crashing down in buckets and then dissipating into soft sunlight. The rain here is passive, dully drizzling for hours, days, and weeks on end, until you forget that the sky was once blue. It’s steady, a constant reminder that you have no control over your barbeque or campout.
This was the rain that we contended with on the day we set out for the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. As we pulled in, our car slid around in the deep puddles of mud that had formed. I’d foolishly worn tennis shoes, and my feet and legs were soaked through up to my knees. A cold wind bit through my raincoat, nipping at my skin.
Even the animals had reached a certain level of “fuck this,” and most of them retreated to their dens to escape it. Only the bigger, heartier beasts of wild Alaska remained out in the open, braving the chill. Incidentally, those were the ones I had come for.
The conservation center, whose mission is to protect displaced animals in their natural landscape, has lengthy summer hours from May to late September. During these months, you can watch foxes scamper through the grass, see a reindeer get a daily walk, or hang out with porcupines and moose.
But I was here for one reason, and one reason only.
The brown bears.
I’ve loved these guys since I was a kid. Unable to stomach the tiny, depressing enclosures at zoos, Tiny Abby could only get her wildlife enjoyment at the conservation center, where the bears were free to roam and play. I could stand there for hours, watching them splash around in the lake.
It’s been over a decade since I’d last gone, which meant that I was long overdue for a visit.
A part of me felt like nothing had changed, as if the same brown bears from before had never left. I knew that this was silly, but I couldn’t stop hoping that they were the same ones, still here after all these years.
The best part about the conservation center has got to be the viewing decks that allow you unobstructed vision of the animals. Bring along a telephoto lens and you can have a field day. Or, bring a cup of hot coffee and stay warm while you just watch them run around and do silly animal stuff.
I adored the bears, and we labored over the photos of them for a long time. I wanted to do their playfulness and their size justice.
But eventually, we did have to move on. And since the elk were the only other animals out, they seemed like the obvious choice. They were herded together, shivering and drenched and looking pretty miserable. I felt bad for them, but we soon found that even elk have a sense of humor. In each photo, we discovered one of them consistently photobombing, sneaking into shots to nibble on his buddies’ ears or make a silly face.
We decided to call him “Joe.”
What I love about the conservation center is that you can see wild Alaska. And you can do it up close and in an ethical environment. Zoos are just sad, and I never go to them for that reason. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see two bears play-slap each other in a lake.
And if you go on a rainy day, and you’re drenched to the bone, and you smell like an ox, you can take solace in unwinding the Alaskan way.
With a beer, and a greasy burger, and a good night’s sleep.
Until next time, stay wild.