Stalwart, Alaska. Population 301. Haley Walsh laid down her itinerary and looked down from the small plane in which she flew to see its shadow moving over the treetops—a forest of spruce, birch, and alder. Snow melted in puddles and revealed muddy land springing to new life in the lengthening days. Then the shadow caressed Stalwart, a tiny collection of cabins and storefronts. Even though it was April, the temperature wasn't more than forty degrees in this Land of the Midnight Sun, though she'd heard tomorrow would be warmer.
"It says here that Alaska has ten million lakes and a hundred thousand glaciers," Haley's grandmother said. At seventy years of age, Augusta Walsh's blue eyes sparkled with warm liveliness and curiosity. Most people guessed her age to be in the fifties, and her blond pageboy made her look like an older Doris Day, a resemblance she generally played to the hilt. "There are immense areas that have never had a human footprint, and thousands of mountains that have never been climbed."
Augusta's awed pronouncements just served to deepen Haley's fear. She swallowed hard and tried not to look down at the vast wilderness that yawned below her. The plane dipped, the lake below grew closer, and then the tiny craft touched the water. The plane glided to a stop beside a rickety pier that jutted into the water like an accusing finger.
"Let's go, go, go," Kipp Nowak bellowed. Everyone in the plane jumped at the sound of his foghorn voice, but he either didn't notice or didn't care. Only five feet five, his voice was the only large thing about him. Bruno Magli boots encased his small, slender feet, and his dark hair had been spiked into a careless style that would have suited a twenty-year-old but just deepened the lines around his blue eyes. He looked better on film than in real life.
Haley had watched his documentaries on TV for years. His antics with bears in Yellowstone had captured the American imagination for nearly a decade. Now she was going to take pictures of his next adventure herself. He'd maintained his adventurer's image by picking them up in Anchorage and piloting them out here himself. She settled back against the seat and pulled her camera, a Nikon f/5, up to her face. She adjusted the aperture to compensate for the glare of the glass, then snapped a few shots at the wilderness outside the plane. The familiar whir and click of the camera made her feel less out of her element, though her hands were still clammy.
"That's it, boys and girls. Your last glimpse of civilization for now." Kipp rubbed his hands together. "For the next few weeks, bears will be your companions. I've been here for a month with Tank Lassiter to get the lay of the land as the bears emerged from their dens. Now that the wildflowers are ready to bloom, it's time to shoot. There are a couple of bears I'm eager to show you yet today."
No one said anything. They all knew better than to get Kipp started on his hobbyhorse. Haley shivered. Was she strong enough for this? Staring out the window at a wilderness that seemed to go on forever, she struggled not to give in to her doubts. She lifted her chin, then moved to get out of the plane.
Haley had consulted several Web sites before purchasing Seven jeans, a long-sleeved Rebecca Beeson T-shirt, and a Timberland wool shirt and jacket. The layered outfit was supposed to keep her comfortable no matter what the weather might do. She wore rubber Wellington boots, and though they weren't as stylish as she would have liked, they would keep her feet dry. She wore a pair of thin wool socks over her regular socks as well, because a local in Anchorage told her the temperature might well drop to the teens tonight. She liked fashion, but she knew better than to let it dictate her choices totally. Functionality was key in Alaska. She remembered that much.
"I thought we'd land in town," Augusta said. She looked around the clearing. "This is nowhere."
Kipp swung open his door. "We have plenty of supplies, so I didn't want to waste time in town. It's to our north, and the bears are to our south. This area is sheltered, and our plane can float here with no problem. We're in a good central location." He got out of the plane and moored it to the dock.
The rest of the crew began to clamber out of the plane. Haley rubbed slick palms against her jeans. She turned her head and felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her vision swimming. The barren trees were still devoid of leaves, and the starkness struck her with an ominous sense of lifelessness. She clawed at her camera and brought it up to her eyes. Adjust the aperture, focus, center the photo. The familiar tasks gave her perspective. The camera whirred as she snapped too many pictures to count. The action gained her enough emotional distance to ease her ragged breathing.
Augusta touched her hand. "Don't look at it yet," she whispered.
Easier said than done. Her hands shaking, Haley lowered the camera. "I'll be okay in a minute. It just caught me by surprise."
Augusta cupped Haley's face in her hands and looked deep into her eyes. "I'm so proud of you. You're brave enough to face it now."
She was in her Doris Day encouragement mode. Haley was in no mood for it. "I'm not being brave," she said. "I want my movies, my friends, the malls, and especially my powdered donuts. This is not my idea of a good time. I'm only here because my shrink said this would help bring closure, so I'm going to see it through. If I reconnect with Chloe, maybe the nightmares will stop."
Augusta's brilliant smile faded, and she dropped her hands. "God would help you more than ten shrinks."
They'd been over this a thousand times. Haley decided not to make it one thousand and one. She began to gather up her belongings. She slung her knapsack of photographic equipment over her shoulder, then grabbed her single suitcase and the carrier that held her dapple dachshund, Oscar.
Oscar yelped at the sudden movement and began to bark to be let out. Haley soothed the dog. She was thankful when Augusta grabbed her suitcase and exited onto the weathered pier without saying another word. Haley followed. Uneven ground was difficult for her to navigate, and the mud didn't help as she struggled to exit the plane.
She found her balance, though, and took in the scene. The lake was a surreal blue, as blue as Augusta's eyes. Haley stared at the amazing sight and the stand of spruce on the other side. Such a wild, untamed place. She shivered again. The lake and river drained into Cook Inlet to their south, and this airy forest with new moss and sprouting ferns appeared to be the end of the world. She opened the carrier and let Oscar out to do his business. The miniature dachshund dashed out and went to nose a patch of green breaking through a dwindling patch of snow.
Haley listened. The sound of rushing water and the chatter of birds overhead roared louder than any freeway noise. It pressed down on her like a heavy blanket. Vaguely familiar scents assaulted her as well—the last vestiges of melting snow, mud, wet moss, and the decay of last year's vegetation. It might appeal to some people, but for her, it just drove home the truth that she didn't belong here. She'd rather smell other humans and hear the sounds of civilization. She hurried to join the others among the litter of suitcases and boxes of supplies at the end of the dock.
"Ah, it's good to be back," said the producer-cameraman, Denny Saumik. "I grew up in Alaska, you know." His voice held a trace of Alaskan accent, an almost toneless quality. It looked like someone had put a bowl on his black hair, then cut it with jagged scissors. The small, smile-shaped scar above his left eye made him look like he was on the verge of asking a question at any moment. A tiny bear carved from some kind of bone hung from a rawhide string around his neck.
She hadn't known what to make of Denny at first. He never shut up. Her ears still rang from listening to him all the way from the Anchorage airport. But he was friendly and had immediately made her feel part of the team.
She dared to invite more conversation. "When were you here last?"
"About two months ago. My base is here, but I'm gone much of the year. I pop back now and again."
Haley nodded, then turned to look again at the pristine wilderness, though staring at the place made her feel like a no-see-um caught on flypaper. No place could be this beautiful—and remote. Rugged, snow-covered mountains looked as though they held up a blue sky that stretched to eternity and back. Water gurgled over rocks, a festive marching band of sound as spring thaw began its parade across the land. Timber crowded along the edge of the water and reflected in the broad pool.
It was the familiar place of nightmares.
Kipp clapped his hands. "Leave the stuff here for now, and we'll get camp set up later. The bears should be out feeding, so bring your cameras and come with me." He paused long enough for Denny to pull out his digital video camera and fit Kipp with a wireless mic. "Better leave the dog here."
Haley nodded and put Oscar back in his carrier, much to his displeasure. She gave him his rubber hotdog-and-bun toy for solace. Some people were touched in the head, and Haley was beginning to think she was one of them to have even agreed to come along. She met Augusta's gaze as they followed Denny and Kipp to the river. The roar of the rapids grew louder until the foursome stood on the steep bank looking down onto crystal water rushing over a small waterfall.
"There they are!" Kipp pointed out two forms standing along the shore.
Haley had missed the animals at first. She took a step back. She hadn't expected them to be so big. They were only ten feet away, and both turned at the sound of Kipp's voice. Haley said, "One of them is yellowish. I thought brown bears were brown."
Kipp ignored her comment. "Hello, bears, I'm back." Kipp approached them confidently.
Denny kept the camera running but answered Haley's question. "Brown bears range in color from white to blond to brown to black, and all the shades in between. The tips are lighter in color. That's what give them the grizzled effect." He stepped closer to Kipp.
Kipp spoke in a soft, confident voice. "I'm just going to watch you catch fish for a while. You're doing a great job."
The closest bear, the smaller of the two and the only one she'd really call brown, swung its head around and regarded him curiously, then waded into the rushing water. It ducked its head under the stream and came up with a fish in its mouth, then carried it to the shore. It sat down and held the wiggling fish in its paws and began to eat it.
"Good catch," Kipp said, approaching still closer.
Haley wanted to shout at him to stay back, but so far neither of the bears seemed to mind his presence. They were too intent on their breakfast, ignoring both the humans and each other. She finally recovered her wits enough to begin snapping pictures. Augusta sat on the riverbank and began jotting notes for the coffee-table book she had come along to write.
The smaller bear finished its meal. It settled against a tree and began to scratch its back against the rough bark. Haley watched in fascination. The other bear finally caught a fish and lumbered to shore with it. It sat down with its back to them and began to bat the fish around as if it were a toy.
"Bears are the brothers of my soul," Kipp was saying into the camera. "We have no need to fear them. They are benign creatures who wish to live in harmony and peace with us."
She would have laughed at that before today, but watching these bears, she thought he might be right. These two animals showed no signs of aggression. When the bears ambled to a berry patch and began to strip the brambles of fruit, Kipp picked some berries for himself.
"That's a wrap for tonight. Let's get camp set up," Kipp finally said. He strode back to their things, then led the group to a clearing.
"How many adventures have you gone on with Kipp?" Haley asked Denny.
"This will be the fourth. He's quite a ham. The more outrageous the stunt, the more the crowd loves it."
"Has he ever gotten hurt? Every time I watch the show, I hold my breath. Remember that show where he walked up to the buffalo in Yellowstone and jumped on its back? The thing bucked him off and turned to gore him. I thought he'd end up in the hospital at least."
"That one was a close call," Denny admitted. "He had a few stitches. The park rangers weren't happy, and I had to do some talking to get us back into the park to do another show."
"Why does he live on the edge like that?"
"He really believes in letting people know how important it is to connect with animals, for us to realize our spirits are connected and that we aren't so very different."
"Do you really believe that?" Augusta asked.
Haley slanted a don't-get-started glance toward Augusta. She'd heard that too-quiet tone before.
Denny gave a decisive nod. "My people believe everything has a spirit: the wind, the trees, the animals. We believe that animals, like humans, have souls that can think, feel, and interact. Animal spirits are no different from human spirits. We are all one, and sickness and bad fortune come when we disrespect the spirits of the forest or the animals."
Augusta gave her head a gentle shake. "Denny, there is only one God. Man is a custodian of the earth and its creatures. Sometimes we don't do a very good job, but we are the only one created in God's image. It distresses me when I hear us lumped in with every other creature on earth. God loves all his creation, but we're God's beloved children. We're special."
Denny dropped his gaze. "We'd better get moving." Haley sighed. Leave it to her grandmother to offend and alienate the team before they even got started. She had three months of this to look forward to.
They gathered up the luggage. Haley let Oscar out of his carrier to walk, then got her walking stick out of her pack and unfolded it. Denny eyed it but didn't say anything as they started off. She panted as she stumbled over rough ground with her burden. The stick saved her from a fall more than once.
From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the heavy forest and averted her gaze, looking instead toward the lake. She wouldn't look at the forbidding tree line, not yet. They passed Augusta, who paused to take in the scenery, and when she caught up with them moments later, Haley heard her sniffling.
Haley stopped and turned. "Are you okay?"
Mist and memories illuminated Augusta's blue eyes. "I'm fine, darling. It's just hard to be here and know your father won't come striding through the trees with that booming laugh of his."
Haley remembered that laugh. She nodded and moved to catch up with the rest of the group. She staggered several times on the uneven ground, and her thigh began to ache in spite of the walking stick. This was going to be harder than she anticipated.
The ground was beginning to green up. Oscar was distracted by every blade of grass. When Kipp stopped, Haley tossed her burdens on the ground, then dug out her book on Alaska's vegetation. "That's bog star," she said, pointing to a plant growing in a small clump with small, nearly heart-shaped yellowish-green leaves at the base. "And I think that's dwarf dogwood."
Kipp flipped his tent out onto the ground and began to put it together. "We might get some company tonight. This is a fairly well-traveled fishing trail for Natives on their way to Cook Inlet. You'll get a good taste of some of the characters who inhabit the land around here."
Haley wanted to tell him this area wasn't new to her, but it was none of his business. She itched to begin her photographic journey into the past. She watched him a minute, then pulled out her own tent. She had no idea how to put one of these things together. The instructions would surely be clear enough that she could figure it out.
A man stepped into the clearing. "Howdy, you folks must be new."
The man's suspenders curved up over a big belly covered in a wool shirt. The mud that caked his boots was a good inch thick. Twigs and spruce needles stuck out of his gray beard, but the hazel eyes above his bulbous nose twinkled with goodwill. A string of traps dangled from his right shoulder. He looked familiar.