FIVE BEAR STORIES

Karen and I have encountered Black and Grizzly Bears occasionally, and these sometimes make for memorable stories. Here are five adventures that we can’t possibly forget, along with assorted bear photographs I’ve taken in recent years.

American Black Bear feeding on Gray’s Lovage in July, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State

WATCHING BEARS AT THE DUMP

Copper Harbor on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, circa 1959

My family used to take camping vacations to state parks back in the 1950s and 1960s. Of those, Fort Wilkins State Park at the tip of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, which sticks up like a long curved finger into Lake Superior, was a favorite. This was an early army outpost established in 1844 to keep order during a copper boom in the region, and there were cannons and a fort that excited the small boy in me.

But the coolest thing we did as a family there was to drive the ’57 Chevrolet station wagon to the dump and wait until dark, lined up with all the other classic Detroit cars. At deep dusk the bears arrived one by one, until there were five. They poked their snouts into the fresh garbage and turned over cardboard boxes with their powerful legs and claws, each working independently of the others. I remember one was a big cinnamon-colored bear, while the others had black hair. I’m sure the dump smell and flies were awful, but it was thrilling to see bears up close for the first time in my life.

Dumps used to be a special way for families to experience bears outside each small town in the Upper Peninsula. Those days are long gone, but those of us who experienced bears at the night dumps will never forget the adventure. Here is a sampling of memories of that time by many people: https://www.pasty.com/discuss/messages/313/617.html

American Black Bear traversing in an alpine meadow on Sahale Arm, North Cascades National Park
American Black Bear foraging in a Ponderosa Pine forest near the ghost town of Garnet, Montana, USA

SLEEPING WITH A BEAR

1982 in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks 

We were camped in a dense stand of Red Spruce high in the mountains. We knew that there were bears in the mountains, so we hung our food, but we didn’t have the mental acuity or experience to hang the food correctly in a tight grove of toothpick trees.

An hour later, in the tent, we heard a dreaded sound outside. I opened the zipper, and of course it was a big American Black Bear of the bad boy kind. I startled it by poking my head out the opening, and the bear responded by immediately climbing a tall spruce within five feet of our tent. So, it was a standoff, with me looking nervously up at the bear and it looking nervously down at me, occasionally clacking its teeth to warn me how fierce he was.

The standoff lasted all night. I had finally fallen asleep and didn’t wake up until we heard the sound of claws descending on bark. We quickly got dressed and I assumed the bear had skedaddled away, but instead it went directed to our hanging food bag. I think the bear had gotten into the food before coming close to the tent the night before, and the torn bag waving in the breeze and a pile of plastic bags below told the story. We finally chased the bear away, but we were short on food the rest of the weekend trip. My morning ration of instant coffee had bear saliva on its torn plastic container, and we never did find the peanut butter.

In the years since then we have learned to engineer a relatively bear-proof hanging bag under most circumstances, but it is often a challenge that most hikers don’t master, based upon most of the hanging food bags we see. Bear spray is also a good idea, though I don’t normally carry it in Black Bear country.

Grizzly Bear searching for food, accompanied by a scavenging Coyote, in Yellowstone National Park

FENDING OFF A BLACK BEAR WITH STONES

1989 in the Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington State

We left our rental car in the parking lot at the trail leading to Hannegan Pass to begin a backpacking adventure in North Cascades National Park. At the trailhead we had an unusual siting of a Black Bear wandering around, and in the trail register comments someone wrote “pesky bear!” We set out on our ten day backpack into lowering clouds.

We set up camp among blueberry bushes and conifers, cooked dinner and hung our food in two heavy bags from a tree branch, then retired to our tiny tent. The next morning, we got up and immediately found a Black Bear under our food hang, trying to get at it. I yelled at it and threw some stones to try and chase it away, and it left, But I had a feeling that it wasn’t done with harassing us, so I went to where I anticipated it might approach the bag next, and lo and behold, there it was! So I threw more stones, hoping to discourage it. After a couple more parries, the bear finally left us alone. 

Later in the day however, as we were hiking, a bear descended a mountainside at an angle that would intersect with us, causing us to be really apprehensive about its intent. It came within 20 yards of us, and I suspect it was the same pesky bear, but we hiked beyond without incident. The rest of the trip was bear-free, but those first two days were more than a bit unnerving.

Tracks of Grizzly Bear 399, who was accompanied by her two cubs of that year in snow in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. She had been seen here five minutes before we came on the scene.

BEING BLUFF-CHARGED BY A BLACK BEAR

1991 in Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park

We hiked the 13+ mile trail to Enchanted Valley on a spring day, early in the season when Red Alder leaves were emerging. It is a long hike but the setting in the valley was worth it, with waterfalls cascading off the gray cliffs. We set up camp and talked to a national park ranger about a murder mystery we were reading called The Dark Place, by Aaron Elkins, which was set in that very part of Olympic National Park. We hung our food from a tree, then soothed our hike-weary bodies in our warm sleeping bags.

The next morning we awoke to see a bear foraging in the hummocky gravel of the Quinault River’s flood plain. I went out with my camera on a tripod and got too close to the bear; I knew that when it bluff-charged me and I hurriedly backed up, even with my long telephoto lens.

Then the ranger came out of the old hotel building, converted to a ranger station, and also saw the bear. He thought it was an opportunity for a photo, just like I had. He was wearing a wife beater undershirt instead of his uniform at that early hour, and he also had a camera. Only his was a point-and-shoot camera without a telephoto, so he had to get much closer to the bear than I did. It then bluff-charged him! It was really funny to watch a ranger–who knew better–get so close to a bear!

Evidence of an American Black Bear feeding on the cambium of a Subalpine Fir using claws and teeth, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State

SURPRISING GRIZZLIES ON THE TRAIL

2010 Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

We were high in the Canadian Rockies, staying in log huts with hobbit-height doors during a snowy September. This park is known for its Grizzly Bears, and we had to be careful about walking to the outhouse from the cabin. One morning we awoke to Grizzly tracks near the cabin, heading up a nearby trail we were going to walk later in the day. When we did the hike in a group, we came upon big rocks that the bear had turned over and dug around using the enormous strength in its front legs and claws (these huge muscles terminate in the hump on the back that is characteristic of this species). It had been searching for hibernating ground squirrels or marmots and could quickly dig them out of their winter chambers.

One morning our group rose well before the crack of dawn to walk a trail past Lake Magog and the Mount Assiniboine Lodge and into the trail system beyond. We had headlamps on because it was a dark, cloudy morning. The man ahead of me suddenly stopped and said “There is a big mammal in the trail just ahead.” We waited, and a Grizzly cub, hefty after a summer of ground squirrels and berries, crossed the trail. Then there was another, soon followed by mama. We had our bear spray unholstered and at the ready, and Karen began whistling three loud blasts with her whistle to alert another part of our group that had been late in getting started.

Fortunately nothing bad happened, even though we were in extremely close proximity to the mother and cubs. They left the trail area and moved off about two hundred yards, where the mama began furiously digging for ground squirrels, with the two cubs imitating her. She even stood up on her hind legs repeatedly to sniff the air; we think there was probably a big male–dangerous to her cubs–in the area, based upon a guy we met who was camping with his dog in the nearby campground. His bear encounters were scary enough that he rented a cabin for the next night.

Nothing like Grizzly encounters to set the heart racing!

Grizzly Bear mother standing on hind legs after scenting or hearing a possible threat to her cubs at Magog Lake, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada
Karen Rentz showing the depth of a fresh hole dug by a Grizzly Bear into the burrow of a Columbia Ground Squirrel, on the border of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park and Banff National Park, Canada
Grizzly Bear staring with menace at the photographer near Magog Lake, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park
Grizzly Bear sow and cubs digging for Columbian Ground Squirrels near Magog Lake in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park
American Black Bear feeding on Gray’s Lovagein Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State
American Black Bear feeding on Gray’s Lovage in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State

You can see more of the work of photographer Lee Rentz at his website: leerentz.com

Brooks Range Expedition: Alaska 1984

The story of our 1984 journey to Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range of far north Alaska in words and in photographs. Below the story there are many more photographs that you can click on to enlarge and also see photo captions.

“You guys might want to get out of the tent … there’s a Grizzly out here.” Denis Davis startled us out of our perpetual twilight dreams with that simple statement, and we’ve rarely gotten dressed so fast. The Griz was several hundred yards away on the Arctic tundra and was steadily traveling up the treeless valley. If it smelled us–which it probably did given that we had been backpacking for a week–it didn’t stop to check us out or even look our way. For that we were grateful, given that we had no protection in the era before real bear spray.

This two-week backpacking trip in Alaska’s Brooks Range originated in Denis’ Christmas card for 1983, in which he suggested several possible adventure trips for the coming year to a number of his friends. We were the only ones who responded, and we liked the idea of backpacking in Gates of the Arctic National Park, which was at that time a newly minted national park. 

Karen Rentz backpacking in 1984 in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

We began planning for the trip in conjunction with Denis and his wife at the time, Elaine. We needed to carefully consider every aspect of our equipment for weight and usefulness. I needed camera gear, including a 500mm lens for wildlife, a macro lens for wildflowers, and a wide-angle lens for landscapes, plus 25 rolls of Kodachrome film. Tents at the time were limited, and we needed a tent strong enough to withstand possible snow, so we brought the legendary North Face VE-25, a favorite of Mount Everest expeditions, but which weighed 12 pounds! Karen brought a hiking staff that was actually a beaver-chewed stick from the Adirondacks; she had to check it on the cross-country flight because the gate attendant said it looked like a weapon. Our clothing was in the pre-fleece era and included items Karen sewed from Frostline kits. We had jeans, army surplus wool pants, wool shirts and sweaters, long underwear, rain-resistant pants, and Frostline parkas. We also each had an insulated Frostline vest; these would also serve as pillows. Plus stocking caps and Frostline mittens and heavy wool socks for hiking. Water-resistant hiking boots were essential to combat the wet tundra and snow. 

Lee Rentz backpacking in 1984 in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

Considering food, we had to keep it light. Karen used our dehydrator to dry all sorts of precooked meals, not all successfully. Dried shredded cheddar cheese was crunchy and tasty, but melted away needed fats. For lunches we ate Pemmican Bars, which were an early protein bar from the 1980s. For breakfast and dinner we cooked on a Svea stove that ran on white gas. Our simple meals included a commercial beef stroganoff, rice and beans and dried cheese and chocolate. Breakfast always included hot drinks: our standing joke on this mosquitoey trip was that when a mosquito would land in the hot chocolate, we would fish it out, but any leftover mosquito legs would just go down the hatch. We lost weight on this trip because our calorie intake couldn’t possibly keep up with our exertions.

At the start of the trip, Lee’s backpack weighed 78 lbs, with Karen’s about 59. Karen had a full bright orange daypack lashed on top of her backpack; she sewed it from a Frostline kit.

After all our preparations, the time for travel came in late July, 1984. We flew from Syracuse, New York to Anchorage, Alaska. There we boarded a flight to Fairbanks, and then a smaller plane to Bettles, a tiny Alaskan bush town on the Koyukuk River. This is where we did our final planning and packing for the trip, with our gear splayed across the runway’s edge. We talked to some guys who were heading into another part of the Brooks Range who had long rifles with them for protection and hunting; we felt quite naked by comparison. But at the time, it was illegal for hikers to carry a gun in a national park, so that wasn’t even a possibility for us.

With our packs finally stuffed, we walked to the office of the bush plane to give them our final itinerary. We were to be dropped off by float plane at a small lake in the western part of Gates of the Arctic National Park, then we would hike for about two weeks and 50 miles through Arctic tundra, following rivers. Our biggest challenge would be a climb over unnamed mountains, hoping we could get to the crest, then down the steep cliffs on the north side. This was all uncertain, because it was possible no human being had ever traveled this route over the mountains and the available topographic map was not detailed enough to confirm cliff locations. This was real, raw wilderness in the extreme. If all went well, we would follow a drainage from the mountains, hiking north until we reached Kurupa Lake, where we would be picked up by float plane.

Dramatic arctic landscape between the Arctic plain and the high summits of the Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska, USA

We finally shouldered our heavy packs and walked to the Koyukuk River, where our float plane magic carpet awaited. This was a Canadian-made bush plane, a De Havilland Beaver, that was and is the workhorse of the far north. We took off from the river–our first experience on a float plane–and followed the river west for a ways, with us watching for Moose among the Black Spruce trees along the river. Eventually the pilot left the river and turned the plane north, taking us over turquoise tarns and rugged, sharp peaks where the trees eventually dwindled to none, leaving us over a treeless tundra. We came to a broad opening in the mountains where several lakes shimmered, and one of those was our destination. The pilot descended and made a smooth landing on the lake, then taxied over to the shore. We didn’t even get our feet wet while unloading our gear. After confirming our final meeting point for a rendezvous two weeks later, the pilot taxied into the center of the lake, then took off with a roar, leaving us feeling lonely on the vast tundra. The pilot had been instructed to pick us up at Kurupa Lake, but if we weren’t there, then he would look for us at our drop-off lake in case we couldn’t make it over the mountains.

Two things happened within minutes: we found a distinct fresh Gray Wolf track in the wet soil between tussocks, and mosquitoes descended upon us in Biblical multitudes. We were in the Alaska Wilderness!

After a few minutes of gazing out over the lake, we pulled out our mosquito head nets, shouldered our lead-filled packs, and set out on a two-week journey through one of the wildest places in North America. We consulted our topographic maps, then headed over a ridge that looked down over a long valley stretching toward a line of mountains in the distance. Our route would take us down the valley along an unnamed river past unnamed mountains. 

Our trip took place at the warmest time of year in the Brooks Range, with temperatures hovering above 70°F. At our feet, arctic wildflowers bloomed in profusion–most of them hugging the ground to avoid the drying winds–while along the river Arctic Fireweed was vivid. In this warm weather, the clouds of mosquitoes were legendary. To cope we wore head nets, plus applications of DEET-containing Jungle Juice. Karen had sewn the placket gaps above our sleeve cuffs shut to keep the bugs out. But we discovered that they could still bite through our jeans, so we ended up with a lot of itchy welts. During the first two days of hiking along this long valley, we saw no large charismatic wildlife, so we focused upon cool birds we had never before seen, such as a Wandering Tattler on its nest site, an American Golden-Plover, and a Gray-Crowned Rosy Finch.

We set up our first campsite on the lower flanks of a mountain high above the valley. This was northern Alaska during the height of summer, so the sun barely set, making the inside of our yellow tent look like perpetual dim daylight all through the long night. We thought it might be hard to sleep in these conditions, but we were so worn out from hiking with heavy packs that sleep was not a problem. As we gazed up the valley the next morning we could see where we would camp the next night; an expansive view.

Grizzly Bears were always on our minds, but not enough to keep us from sleeping. Without bear spray and without guns, our defense lay in our numbers–with four of us, that should work as a deterrent against daytime attacks. At night, we needed to protect our food supply from bears, but there was no place on the open tundra to hang our food. Each night we took our packs and placed them together about 100 yards downwind from our tents. Atop the packs we placed our cooking pots with stones in them, so a raid on the packs would alert us with noise. We also had little mesh bags made by Karen containing mothballs that we hoped would cover up the scent of food, or at least serve as a repellent. While hiking, the mothballs were triple bagged to contain the strong fumes.

The next day we hiked further along the river, coming upon a spot where there was enough shade from the mountains that river ice several feet thick had not yet melted; it resembled glacial ice, with its aqua-blue color. Later, we were setting up camp when we heard the blowing and galloping of a mammal coming our way. It was our first Caribou, and it appeared to be running in terror. But nothing was chasing it, and it was possible that there was a parasitic larva called a nosebot driving it crazy. Or maybe it was the ever-present mosquitoes.

The third day out, we left our broad, open valley and began ascending a steeper route into the mountains. This was the drainage we hoped to take over a high pass at the northern crest of the range. As the day wore on, the cloud cover increased and there was a noticeable chill in the air. We set up our tents high in a cirque, with sharp peaks rising around us, then finished our camp chores and wriggled into our sleeping bags. A drizzle began, followed by rain, then silence.

When we awoke the next morning, there was about four inches of fresh snow on the tents. It was cold, and we decided it would be too treacherous to make our climb over the pass in these conditions. So we took a snow day, mostly napping and reading inside our tents, waiting for the weather to pass.

We hiked to a snowy, high, unnamed pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park, in the northern part of the Brooks Range, Alaska, USA [No model release; available for editorial licensing only]

The following morning the weather had again changed, with sunny blue skies appearing between clouds still hanging in. We decided this was our day to face the biggest challenge of the trip, so we loaded up and headed straight up the snowy steep and rocky slope toward the pass. When we reached the pass, the view straight north to the Arctic Plain greeted us. The wind was blowing hard over the pass, so we took shelter against a rock buttress and ate lunch. Then Denis and Lee split up to try to find a safe route down from the pass. Denis went to the east and Lee ascended to the west, each looking carefully at our chances. When we got back together, Denis said his side of the pass was not feasible, but Lee decided we had a good chance of making it if we carefully went in his direction. It involved climbing higher, then going sidehill in snow while hugging a cliff above a steep, snow-covered dropoff. If we went far enough, we would reach a scree slope leading all the way down to the valley at a steep angle.

Lee turned to Karen, who gets nervous with exposed heights, and said “You’re going to have to be brave.” She was, and we carefully inched along the cliff face without mishap, then began our steep descent. The scree slope was snow covered, but we forcefully stuck our legs through the snow to the soft rocky debris (almost like a fine gravel dune) and felt almost entirely safe. When we made it to the bottom, it was with a sense of triumph and relief that the most difficult part of the journey was behind us. We celebrated by making a no bake boxed cheesecake chilled in the snow, and all was right with the world.

The bad weather closed in again the next morning, and we hiked down the length of a lake with wet snowflakes steadily falling. Very briefly the mosquitoes were too chilled to move. The mountains were gleaming with their coat of fresh snow. We climbed out of the valley into some foothills. Then, while eating lunch we saw movement in the distance. Binoculars revealed one of the most amazing sights of our lives: thousands of Caribou traveling across the rocky terrain! We changed our route to intercept the herd and over the following days we watched and photographed them extensively, burning the sight into our memories as well as on film.

We camped that night on a ridge in the path of the Caribou, and all night we could hear the clicking of tendons in their ankles as they walked past our tents. It is a fascinating phenomenon, and apparently it serves to keep herds together as they travel–even in the clouds and fog of the mountains they can hear each other enough to stay together. The Caribou traveled well-worn paths along mountain slopes and through wildflower meadows. There were bull Caribou with huge antlers, as well as females with smaller antlers and young of the year racing around. These were part of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which migrates twice yearly between the calving grounds on the Arctic Plain and the wintering grounds south of the Brooks Range. When we saw them, they were gathered together in a huge group, but not yet beginning their fall migration south. Our days among the Caribou were wonderful, as we saw them crossing streams and silhouetted against snowy mountains.

Caribou, Rangifer tarandus, migrating through the mountains of Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

On another morning about this time in the trip we saw our first Grizzly Bear; fortunately it didn’t pay us any attention. It was astounding to see how large it was and how prominent was the hump on its back. One advantage of hiking in the tundra is you can see bears from a long way away. We still remember Denis and Elaine talking about being first on the scene of a near-tragedy in Glacier National Park. A family of four had been hiking together when they surprised a Grizzly in the forest. It attacked, and had one child’s head in its gaping mouth when the father jumped on its back. The bear broke the man’s arms but then called off the attack. But enough about scary bear stories. 

Our packs were now a bit lighter from the food we had consumed, and our still-young bodies gained strength as the days wore on. One day Denis proposed we go off on our own and he and Elaine do the same. That sounded good, and we ventured into the Kurupa Hills. Our highlight was seeing a young Dall Sheep lying on the tundra, and later seeing some adults crossing a talus slope. At our campsite we enjoyed watching an Alaska Marmot, though not-so-much an Arctic Ground Squirrel who chewed through one of our plastic water containers. During the second half of the trip we saw Peregrine Falcons, which were truly rare in the lower 48 during the 1980s because of the effects of DDT, as well as a Long-tailed Duck on a tundra pond, and Long-tailed and Parasitic Jaegers, which flew at us aggressively when we got too close to their nesting grounds.

Hiking further, we approached our destination, Kurupa Lake. Denis didn’t tell us at the time, but later said an early oil prospector’s report described the “herds of Grizzly Bears” at Kurupa Lake. Fortunately, we encountered no herds, but we did see a second Grizzly Bear on the other side of the lake, where it paused to furiously dig up an Arctic Ground Squirrel’s burrow. It is astounding how fast those massive muscles and claws allow a Grizzly to dig. We assumed it got the squirrel. 

We stayed two nights at our last campsite, giving the bush plane plenty of time to retrieve us. While we waited, Karen and Denis both fished, each catching a Lake Trout and observing Arctic Char. Denis released his fish, but Karen was determined to eat ours. So we cleaned the fish and boiled it, tossing the carcass into the lake to reduce the scent. It was good, but the scent from the cooking would have clung to our wool clothing, undoubtedly acting as a lure for a bear. Fortunately we didn’t attract any bears to camp.

There was always a chance the plane would not appear on our pickup date; if fog or other bad weather delayed previous days’ retrievals, people would be picked up in order and they would get to us as soon as possible. We were getting low on white gas and food and speculated that if we were delayed by days we would be eating raw fish.

We were entranced by the whole experience, and Lee could have turned around and stayed in the wilderness for another two weeks if we had the time. Alas, work called and we needed to return. On our last day we needed to pack early and have our gear ready to go. In the afternoon we heard the whine of a plane approaching, and it turned and descended to our lake. The pilot had instructed us to leave a tent up so he could spot us along this large lake. As soon as we knew the pilot had spotted us, the tent was quickly collapsed and we hoisted our packs to trudge down to the shore, then loaded our gear onto the float plane. When we took off, it signaled the end to one of the signature experiences of our lives.

The photographs below show a map of our route, final packing on the runway in Bettles, our flight north through the mountains, and our first moments on the arctic tundra. Click on any of the pictures for a larger view and more information.

As we hiked across the tundra with our heavy packs, the Arctic revealed itself in beautiful wildflowers, distant views, Caribou antlers, fast streams, and campsites with glorious views.

We identified and photographed wildflowers and lichens and ferns that we had never before seen. The tundra plants are short, hugging the ground to stay out of the wind and take advantage of the warmth near the ground; most of the wildflowers are pollinated by flies, since bees are scarce in the Arctic.

When we reached the end of a long valley and several days of warm temperatures, our route next led us into the mountains. After setting up camp, rain turned to snow. After a rest day, we climbed steeply up into the mountains, not knowing if we could cross the range here. It turned out that we could, although there were challenges of negotiating ice and snow and a steep scree slope.

After the steep mountain crossing we hiked down a long valley in rain and snow, passing alpine lakes and crossing a stream. Here our wildlife sightings began in earnest, with Grizzly Bears, Caribou, Dall Sheep, and birds we had never seen before. Seeing thousands of Caribou was a highlight of our lives.

After all our time in the wildest wilderness we had ever experienced, it was time for a float plane to pick us up at Kurupa Lake on the north side of Gates of the Arctic National Park. We arrived two days early and spent the extra time fishing and hiking. Alas, we heard the plane overhead and quickly packed up, ending one of the premier adventures of our lives.

Wilderness and adventure in far off places would lure us to distant locations and backpacking trips during the ensuing decades, but nothing would be quite the challenge as this trip to the Brooks Range. Looking back now, nearly four decades later, we both think of it as a highlight of our lives.

To see more of the work of Lee Rentz, go to http://leerentz.com.

APPALACHIAN TRAIL MEMOIR

The Appalachian Trail winds through the lush forest of the Great Smoky Mountains

Memories of our formative years can remain incredibly vivid into old age. This account tells the story about my hiking trip along a section of the Appalachian Trail with Dowell Jennings Howard III after our spring semester concluded in 1970. Back in the University of Michigan dorm that winter, I had talked with my friend for a long time about how America’s young people needed to incorporate more adventure into their lives, so I pumped him up for the possibility of a May hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail where it passed through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We agreed to do it, and set the plan in motion.

I was a forestry student, while Dowell was studying mechanical engineering. He came from a family in the Cincinnati area that had deep roots in America, and his father worked for Procter and Gamble. His personality was a contrast to my shy and introspective traits; he was friendly and outgoing and was the kind of person who would run for office in student government. These traits were good for making connections while traveling.

We planned the trip, divvying up food purchases and making sure we had appropriate gear for a spring trip in the mountains. We purchased dried eggs and dried sausage that had to be rehydrated before cooking. There were dried noodles and beef and chicken, some packaged in cans instead of plastic. We packed socks and long underwear and warm hats and hiking boots and rain ponchos and matches and all the rest of the gear we thought we would need. I’m sure we hiked in jeans, which few would dare to do today because cotton is slow to dry and doesn’t keep a person warm when wet, but we didn’t know better.

After the semester ended, I flew from Detroit to Cincinnati on an old propellor-driven commercial plane, met my friend for a ride to his parents’ house, then we headed out on a Greyhound bus trip to Knoxville, Tennessee. The overnight bus ride was an experience in itself. The bus curved around constant mountains in the dark, stopping for a break in the middle of the night at a diner in Corbin, Kentucky. I still remember the clank of china and the harsh overhead lights and green walls that looked like they could have been the setting for an Edward Hopper painting.

After a transfer at the Greyhound Bus Station in Knoxville, we next rode a bus to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we stayed at a motel overnight and were interviewed on the street by a local television station about what we were doing in Gatlinburg; Dowell was a natural for television interviews with his politician’s aura, while I stayed in the background. The next morning we hitchhiked to a Great Smoky Mountains National Park campground. There we set up a tube tent that I had made, since I didn’t have money to buy a real backpacking tent. My tube tent was made from a sheet of clear plastic sheeting. I took a piece of plastic maybe 18 feet long and 8 feet wide and taped together the ends. When we set it up, we ran a parachute cord through it which was strung between two trees. It gave us shelter from the rain overhead, as well as a floor, but the ends were open to mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

At the campground we set up our tent, had dinner and told stories, then strung up our food to keep it away from bears and raccoons. Alas, we were virgins in the ways of clever bears, and the next morning we awoke to find that a Black Bear had raided our backpacking food before we could even start our hike. The cans of dried meat were opened as if with a can opener by the bear’s teeth and claws and there were tooth puncture marks and bear saliva slime on plastic food pouches. Now we had a dilemma: not enough food for our backpack. A kind man offered us a ride back to Gatlinburg to get a new food supply, but he decided halfway there that a convenience store was good enough. So we shopped there and ended up with a big jar of combined peanut butter and jelly, some canned meats, probably Vienna sausages, and crackers. The meals were going to be a bit more haphazard than we had planned, but we were young and adaptable.

After that we repacked our backpacks and started up a steep and rocky trail to where it intersected with the Appalachian Trail. The pack was heavy and the hiking was really hard after a year of studying at college with not much physical activity. It was a relief when we finally reached our first trail shelter, which was a three-sided structure made of ancient logs that smelled of years of accumulated smoke from wet campfires. One feature of the shelter that we both liked was that the front was closed off by ground-to-ceiling chain-link fence–designed to keep out marauding bears. We cooked over a smoky fire from downed wood gathered in the surrounding forest; most hikers at that time cooked this way because few had lightweight backpacking stoves. The Appalachian trail shelter had two platforms inside that spanned the width of the shelter, one upper and one lower, where quite a few people could sleep side-by-sde. We settled into our flannel-lined sleeping bags early and slept pretty well, considering all the mice scurrying around the shelter in the night.

After another smoky meal the next morning, we started hiking the Appalachian Trail, which would take us some 70 miles through the park, doing about ten miles a day. Painted Trilliums and other wildflowers bloomed along the trail on our May hike, and we had frequent glimpses through the trees of hazy mountains in all directions. We had learned that the blue haze was not smoke or pollution, but instead consisted of vapors given off by the incredible concentration of trees: the Indians called it the “Land of Blue Smoke.”

Memories of the vast forest

One guy we met at a trail shelter said that he had organized the first national Earth Day that spring. I told him that I had worked with the Environmental Teach-In at the University of Michigan earlier that same spring, so we had something in common. He was out for a dose of nature after finishing all that planning and coordination.

Along the trail I found out that my borrowed backpack was too lightweight for the heavy load I carried, and the aluminum support structure bent and broke when I repeatedly set the pack down on the ground when we took a break. To salvage it for the long trail ahead, I borrowed two dead spruce branches from the forest and lashed the broken aluminum to them. A bit crude-looking, but it worked. When in the wilderness, invention and adaptability are crucial. 

On we hiked through a forest of deciduous trees just leafing out. We came to Charlies Bunion, a bare block of rock with steep drop-offs that terrified me, a flatlander. That night we stayed at the Mount LeConte Shelter, with the intent of having dinner at the legendary and rustic LeConte Lodge just a short distance up the trail. We dropped our packs in the shelter. Dowell wondered if we should hang the packs but I was tired and said no; we were just going a short distance to make dinner reservations. We walked up to the lodge and got our reservations, then hiked back to the shelter–just in time to see a mama bear and her two cubs biting into our packs to try to get at the food inside. We chased them away by throwing rocks, but Dowell’s pack was pretty bitten up. I apologized to him for not hanging our packs, but it does give me something to write about 50 years later!

The high ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains seem to go on forever

We had our meal at LeConte Lodge, which was hearty and filling but nothing fancy, then watched a sunset from the mountain, where the legendary blue ridges of the mountains go on and on. It was the best view along the trail, and the light was magical. 

The next day we crossed the only road through the mountains at Newfound Gap, where a woman made up like Dolly Parton, and her husband, offered us beer and took our pictures. By that time on the trail we were a pair of grubby young mountain men on an adventure that seemed exotic to the tourists.

On to another trail shelter, this one occupied by two grad student bear researchers from the University of Tennessee and a troop of Girl Scouts from Knoxville. The scout leader, Mary, was a wonderful young woman who was taking the girls on an adventure of their lives. None of them knew how ugly it would get. 

A few minutes after we arrived, half-a-dozen men in their 20s walked up to the shelter. They had been drinking heavily on the trail, with at least one of them carrying a gallon jug of Gallo red wine with his finger curled through the loop on the jug’s neck. Almost immediately, this guy and others started making sexual comments to the young girls, which was among the most inappropriate scenes I’ve ever experienced. It looked like these guys were going to spend the night at the shelter, but the shelter was already full. Were they going to physically kick us out?

These guys, one of them explained to us, had just returned from Vietnam where they had been involved in combat in the jungle. They were tough, and big, and dangerous, and they didn’t like college students, who they would have thought of as protestors with deferments (which we were!). Combined with the alcohol, the discussion among them got ugly. Fortunately, one cooler head among them convinced them to hike on to the next trail shelter, so they left. Crisis averted. 

We made friends with Mary, and agreed to look her up when we passed through Knoxville on the return (which we did, and stopped at her apartment for a nice candlelight spaghetti dinner on her kitchen table–which was one of those wooden cable spools popular among college students at the time). We were impressed by her leadership of the Girl Scout group and how she believed in mentoring girls in outdoor experiences.

On we hiked along ridges with stunning views of the great Appalachian forest, lush with growth. We stayed at the Silers Bald shelter, high along the trail, which gave us a view of dark and ominous clouds. At this shelter we talked for a long time with an old and grizzled mountain man from nearby Bryson City who had hiked up with three young men. Actually we had seen the young men earlier, and one was pulling a two-wheel golf bag cart up the trail–filled with bottles of beer! That explained all the hootin’ and hollerin’ from their campsite during the night. They had a big and blazing campfire that I’m sure was set in the traditional Appalachian manner: dousing the wet wood with gasoline, standing back, and tossing a match at it to watch it explode!

The next morning, a wet fog had settled over Silers Bald and we couldn’t see a thing through the thick sky soup. Another hiker came up to us while we were on the rock; he was thin and maybe 40 years old. He asked us how much we hiked in a day and we responded that we hiked about eight to ten miles a day. He wasn’t impressed. He said that he averaged over thirty miles a day and that his best day was 43 miles. I’ve never had the ability or the body type to do that kind of hiking, and it wouldn’t work with all the times I stop to take photographs, so in retrospect I’m not impressed, though at the time I thought he was superhuman.

By that time on the trail my feet were sore. Even though we washed our socks and dried them by the nightly fires, the trail had done its job on my tender feet. I had a blood-filled blister the size of a half-dollar on one heel, so I limped my way along the trail to the trailhead. We hitched a ride to a campground, where Dowell made friends with an older woman (she was probably 25) who was a teacher, and she took us the next day to go for a hike to a waterfall. That was fun, and this was a more trusting time in America, when people weren’t as afraid of each other. She drove us to the Gatlinburg bus station the next day, where we caught the bus to Knoxville. I distinctly remember the fat bus driver telling us and a couple of other hikers that he didn’t think backpacking was very sporting, so he wasn’t very impressed by us. Oh well.

In Knoxville we had just enough time to walk to Mary’s apartment for a meal, then walk back to the bus station where we boarded the overnight bus to Cincinnati. The atmosphere on the bus was electric, because many of the rural Kentucky and Tennessee passengers had just come off an experience attending a Billy Graham crusade that took place on May 28, 1970, in Knoxville. They felt inspired and chatty, talking about their churches and children and chickens.

We arrived in Cincinnati the next morning, where Dowell’s mother fussed over and treated my blood-filled blister, then we drove out to the family cabin in rural Ohio, which was a rustic place done in the Appalachian style with a long covered front and back porch. Dowell took me fossil-hunting in the nearby creek. In his high school years, he had been an avid fossil-hunter and actually had at least one scientific paper to his credit. The next day I flew home and began preparing for a summer semester in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Epilogue: I just finished writing this a bit over 50 years after the experience, surprised at how much of it still felt fresh in my mind. Early experiences can be like that, imprinting themselves on a still-impressionable young person. I lost track of Dowell a year or two later; I only know that he graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I went on to get my degree in Natural Resources, and later worked in that field and in photography for the rest of my adult life.

To see the photography of Lee Rentz, go to leerentz.com and follow his work at Lee Rentz Photography on Facebook.

ADVENTURING TO A NEWFOUNDLAND OUTPORT

Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Fishing stages and colorful homes in Francois during a snowstorm

The first leg of the journey was the drive to Burgeo, a fishing village accessed by Route 480 from the Trans-Canada Highway near Stephenville. The wild and beautiful landscape was covered with deep snow, and the conifers were magically encrusted with a thick layer of hard snow so that, in places, they looked like snow elves. We kept our eyes alert for Woodland Caribou, but didn’t see any on the drive. When we reached Burgeo, we stayed at a small motel that would be convenient for catching a ferry the next morning.

View of Bay In Burgeo, Newfoundland
View of colorful houses across rocky bay from Sandbanks Provincial Park in Burgeo, Newfoundland

We packed what we would need for the trip in two suitcases and left the rest in the car, since we couldn’t take a car on the Marine Voyager ferry. These communities have no roads and no cars, so all that is needed is a foot ferry, albeit one that can carry enough cargo to meet a small community’s daily needs. We walked up the ramp on the ice-covered boat, then descended into a room for the passengers. Comfortable seats, round portholes, and a soap opera on the television – what more could we hope for? We paid our fee of $6 per passenger, which was clearly subsidized by the government, and settled in for our sailing along the coast.

Karen Rentz on Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoundland
Karen Rentz on ferry Marine Voyager, which takes foot passengers and cargo between Burgeo and the outports of Grey River and Francois, leaving the dock in Burgeo, Newfoundland, Canada

Captain on Bridge of the Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoun
Captain steering Ferry Marine Voyager, which takes foot passengers and cargo between Burgeo and the outports of Grey River and Francois, leaving the dock in Burgeo

Passenger Cabin on Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoundland
Passenger cabin interior on ferry Marine Voyager

There were only a couple of other passengers, and they lived in the villages of Grey River and Francois (a French name Newfoundlandized to “Fran-Sway.”) We were invited up to the bridge for a front-row seat and visit with the captain, who was a lifelong resident of Francois. One of the other passengers, a younger man named Cody who owned a fishing boat, introduced himself to us as well. He was also a lifelong resident of Francois and he told us about the community and what he liked about living there. 

Hesitantly we asked the captain if he thought the ferry would be running two days later when we wanted to make our return trip, which would give us enough time to drive back to St. John’s and catch our flight back to the USA. He said this was the first time the boat had sailed for a week because of storms but that the weather looked good for our return trip. We had two nights at Francois and could enjoy ourselves. We had been watching the marine forecast every day for the past two weeks of our trip, trying to find a three-day window of weather when the ferry would be running; there were high winds and high seas every day and then finally the forecast looked good.

Houses in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundland
Waterfront with floating pancake ice at the outport of Grey River, which is snuggled along a fjord, viewed from the ferry Marine Voyager

The south coast of Newfoundland has a series of fjords, which provide sheltered locations and harbors for fishing communities. The village of Grey River was the first village we came to, and was located partway up a fjord. We motored through pancake ice and past colorful houses to the dock, where about ten people were waiting for the boat. All these people helped unload bread and beer and Amazon boxes full of the stuff a small community needs. Snowmobiles and ATVs were the transportation in town.

Structures in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundland
Unloading and transporting cargo at the outport of Grey River, which is snuggled along a fjord, viewed from the ferry Marine Voyager

ATV Transporting Cargo from Ferry to Store in the Outport of Gre
Transporting cargo from dock to store by ATV at the outport of Grey River

Waterfront and Sea Ice in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundlan
Waterfront with glaze of sea ice at the outport of Grey River

We soon set sail again, with no new passengers – after all, who would go from Grey River to Francois in the middle of winter? The sea was rough and it started to snow, and was just about dark when we carefully navigated the narrow fjord that ends at Francois. By this time the wind was howling and the driven snow stung our exposed faces. We didn’t know where our rental place was, but the captain and another man showed us the way and took our bags for us on a snowmobile. We settled into our place for two nights, and ventured outside briefly to get a feeling for the town.

Snowstorm Hitting Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm at night when the ferry Marine Voyager reached the outport village of Francois

Snowstorm Hitting Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm when ferry Marine Voyager reached the public dock in the outport village of Francois, transportation of cargo by snowmobile and ATV

Karen Rentz in Snowstorm in Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Karen Rentz in snowstorm at night when the ferry Marine Voyager reached Francois

Snowstorm and Ferry in Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm when ferry Marine Voyager reached the public dock in Francois

We spent the next day wandering the village along its boardwalks and pathways – remember, there are no roads needed in a town with no cars or trucks. All the houses are connected by these paths. The town is small, but has Sharon’s Place, a grocery and liquor store that is open morning, afternoon, and evening, with breaks for lunch and supper. There is a church that sits above the rest of town, and a large school that currently has six students and one-and-a-half teachers. This must be one of the smallest schools in the world in terms of the number of students! But education also arrives by computer, with courses available to older students online. There is a medical clinic, but no permanent doctor in town. There is a helipad used during emergencies.

Colorful Houses and Fishing Stages in Francois Outport in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois

Wooden Sidewalk in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Wooden community sidewalk in Francois, a place with no roads

Colorful houses are a feature of the town, with red and purple and turquoise tones mixed together in a delightful jumble. In winter some are occupied and some are not, with some people leaving for part of the year for jobs. There are stages along the waterfront: small buildings on stilts where fishermen stored gear and later processed the catch. These are a distinctive and wonderful feature of all the Newfoundland coastal towns.

Colorful Houses and Fishing Stages in Francois Outport in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois

Colorful Houses and Stages in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Colorful houses and stages along the fjord containing Francois

Public Outhouse in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Public outhouse in Francois, with the slogan “I take crap from everyone!”

Shed with Moose Antlers in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Shed with Moose and Caribou antlers in Francois

FIshing Stage in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing stage window with fishing ropes coiled inside along waterfront in Francois

Cleat and Rope for Docking in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Cleat and rope for docking in Francois

We walked past one house just as a lady in perhaps her late 70s was leaving the house on this snowy morning to meet for morning coffee with two other ladies who were 84 and 85 years old. We spoke with her briefly, and she told us she had lived her entire life in Francois. There were 89 people living in this little town in 2016, and we met perhaps eight of them – all of whom had lived here nearly their entire lives, except for time spent in the military or going to school. This lady was really concerned about the dwindling population of Francois.

As the snow continued to fall, we met up again with Cody from yesterday’s boat ride when he drove up on his Ski-Doo (the Newfoundland name for all snow machines) and chatted with him about the town. After graduating from the town’s school, the St. Simon & St. Jude Academy, he went to work on his father’s fishing boat. Later, he bought his own boat and now fishes for crabs, lobster, scallops, and sea cucumbers with his wife and up to five crew members.

Fisherman in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundland
Cody, a fisherman who has lived his whole life in Francois, and now owns his own boat harvesting scallops, lobster, crabs, and sea cucumbers

Fishing Boat in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing boat along colorful waterfront in Francois

Fishing Gear in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundl
Fishing gear on a boat in Francois

Fishing Boat in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing boat along colorful waterfront in Francois

Fishing Boat in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundl
Red building with firewood, crab traps, and a high birdhouse

Colorful Houses in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois

Colorful Houses in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois during a heavy snowstorm

Snowmobiles are a Great Way to get around Francois Outport in Wi
Ski-Doo operator transporting stuff on a trailer on the wooden sidewalk in Francois

Fishing Stages in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoun
Fishing stages in Francois

Fishing Stage in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Old fishing stage in Francois, where gear is kept, bait prepared, and fish cleaned

 Cody’s diverse fishing activity is a big change from the past, when the fishery was based upon the seemingly never-ending cod supplies. Alas, every time people think that a natural resource is unlimited, they use it up, and Newfoundland’s fishery was no exception. It was devastated by overfishing of the once common cod, a harvest made possible by technological advances utilized by both Canadian and foreign companies. In July 1992, with cod stocks down to less than 1% of historic levels, the Canadian government abruptly shut down the 500-year old cod fishery in order to try and save the fish. This instantly put 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of work and devastated local communities. In the years since some, like Cody, were able to diversify and found a path to the future. Others found a future in tourism, which is starting to take off in Newfoundland. The cod has since rebounded but the fishery is extremely small and limited compared to the good old days. Just try to get fresh cod in Newfoundland most of the year! 

A bit later we ran into another man on the boardwalk who was driving his Ski-Doo. He stopped to talk and told us that he was also a lifelong resident, but he didn’t make his living on the open ocean. He was a helicopter pilot who had worked for the Canadian Coast Guard, but now owns his own company and ferries a lot of people on remote hunting trips, mostly for Moose.

Snowmobiles are a Great Way to get around Francois Outport in Wi
Ski-Doo operators meeting on the wooden sidewalk in Francois

Sharons Place and Snowmobiles in Francois Outport during a Snows
Sharon’s Place, a general store, liquor store, and gathering place, with snowmobiles in Francois

Sign on Public School in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Sign on St. Simon-St. Jude Academy, the public school, saying “A Clean Town is a Happy Town”

As I mentioned, the houses are scattered all around town seemingly randomly, with no clear lot boundaries. We asked one man about this, and he said that all the houses are built on Crown land, which is government land. People own their houses, but not the land under them.

We met another man driving his Ski-Doo who we had seen shoveling snow off a boat, which turned out to be his uncle’s boat. He works fishing for herring, crabs, lobster, and sea cucumbers. He was also a lifelong resident … are we beginning to see a pattern here? People are born here and live their whole lives here, though with a strong tether by ferry and by the internet and television to the larger world. When we asked Cody about his fellow citizens, he said that most everyone gets along well in town, but over time some people are moving away and the population is getting smaller.

Fishing Stages in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoun
Fishing stages in Francois during a heavy snowstorm

Fishing Stage and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a Sn
Fishing stage and colorful homes in Francois during a snowstorm

Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Fishing stages and colorful homes in Francois

Fishing Stage in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Fishing stage, where gear is kept and equipment maintained and bait prepared

Fishing Boats in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Fishing boat in Francois during a snowstorm

Crab Post and Stage  in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Crab pots and boat on a dock in Francois

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has had a decades-long effort to move people away from the outports, which require huge government subsidies for ferry and helicopter transportation and education and medical care. By now, most Newfoundland outports have been abandoned, with the people voting to disband their towns and move elsewhere, but Grey River and Francois have been exceptions. In Francois, the question has come up for a vote twice over the years, but both times it was defeated (the latest in 2013) and the people remained. I understood that if the people voted to move out, the government would pay each homeowner $250,000 to compensate for the abandoned homes. It still could happen, but it is wonderful to see a few of the outports still hanging on against the tide of modernization.

I continued to photograph the buildings and waterfront and falling snow to my heart’s content on this wonderful day, when we talked to more strangers than we usually talk to in a week. Newfoundlanders are like that … they go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome, and we did.

Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois at blue hour twilight

Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois at blue hour twilight along a fjord with mountain towering above

Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois, at blue hour twilight with lights reflecting off the fjord

Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Colorful homes in Francois

There is even a good story that might be mostly true or wholly true about a German submarine that entered the fjord containing Francois during World War II. It came to quietly get fresh water for its tanks at a waterfall entering the sea. It was on a Saturday night and there was a dance at the community center in town; some handsome but unknown young men showed up who knew little English and who danced the night away with the local girls. The young women apparently thought that these might be Basque fishermen who often fished nearby, and didn’t realize that the men were German sailors.

Francois Bay in Early Morning from the Ferry Marine Voyager in N
Francois Bay in early morning from the ferry Marine Voyager, after leaving the quaint outport of Francois in Newfoundland

Newfoundland, Canada
Francois Bay in morning light

West Point Light Tower at Mouth of Francois Bay in Newfoundland
West Point Light Tower at mouth of Francois Bay viewed in winter morning light from the ferry Marine Voyager

Ferry Smashing into Waves along South Coast of Newfoundland
Ferry Marine Voyager smashing into waves on the open ocean between the outports of Francois and Grey River in Newfoundland

Ferry Smashing into Waves along South Coast of Newfoundland
Ferry Marine Voyager smashing into waves on the open ocean between the outports of Francois and Grey River in Newfoundland

Waves from Ferry in Fjord Leading to Grey River Outport in Newfo
Waves from ferry Marine Voyager distorting mountain reflections in the fjord leading to the outport of Grey River

Colorful Houses and Sea Ice at the Grey River Outport in Newfoun
Ferry Marine Voyager passing the colorful houses and sea ice at the outport of Grey River

Ferry at Entrance to Fjord Leading to Grey River Outport in Newf
Ferry Marine Voyager passing mouth of the fjord leading to the outport of Grey River

Bridge of Ferry Marine Voyager Plying South Coast of Newfoundlan
Bridge and wheel on Ferry Marine Voyager near Burgeo

The next morning we prepared to leave Francois for the voyage back, and the ferry Captain came to retrieve us. The morning showed a bit of sun and good weather for an ocean trip, so we went down to the dock and prepared to leave. The trip back was stunningly beautiful, with morning sun kissing the snow-covered headlands. And we got back in time to make the long drive to St. John’s to catch our flight.

Ferry Passing Colorful Houses at Burgeo, Newfoundland
Arriving in Burgeo from Francois and Grey River outports in Newfoundland, Canada

To view more of the photographic work by Lee Rentz, go to leerentz.com, where you can see thousands of photographs and purchase a special one for your walls.

ROUND ISLAND: Walrus Sanctuary in Peril

Pacific Walrus male portrait showing tusks and nodulesPacific Walrus male

Horned Puffin on cliffHorned Puffin near our campsite

There are times that remain hazy and golden in my memories; times when life came to a peak of wonder that is only rarely experienced. Five days on Round Island was one of those defining times in my life.

In 2009 my wife and I flew to Alaska, then took a second flight to Dillingham on the west coast, then boarded a beat-up puddle jumper to the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Togiak, then sped by tiny boat, piloted by a man of that Eskimo village, across part of Bristol Bay to Round Island, where we were greeted by Alaska Fish and Game staff. We set up camp on the small island, on platforms erected atop campsites used by ancient peoples, then set off exploring the island. Within a minute we were watching a Horned Puffin about 50 feet away standing atop a rock jutting out over the ocean. Later that day we watched half a dozen Pacific Walrus stretched out, resting atop a flat rock near shore.

Walruses and Dragon's Tail on Round IslandFlat Rock with first view of walruses, with Dragon’s Tail in the distance

Windy day in camp, Round Island, AlaskaOur expedition tent enduring high winds

Headlands Trail on Round Island on windy dayTrail along the grassy headlands near camp

Sanctuary Office on Round IslandStaff quarters and sanctuary headquarters

As the days went by, we listened to giant blubbery walruses singing sweetly. Endangered Steller Sea Lions performed synchronized swimming as their “Jabba the Hutt” harem defender gazed out imperiously. Wildflowers were at their peak, including the bright yellow Alaska Poppy. Red Foxes trotted around the island unseen by us, like ghosts of the landscape. Beaches were entirely filled with pink walruses resting after days of diving deep into the ocean. A high wind came up and rattled the tent with its terror all night. Parakeet Auklets gossiped constantly on the rocks below. A Tufted Puffin watched us watching him, and only snuck into his burrow when we glanced away briefly.

Pacific Walrus haulout along Dragon's TailDragon’s Tail and its walruses from the top of the island

Pacific Walrus males on haulout at Dragon's TailTide’s coming in!

Castle-like formation on Round IslandJagged rock formations atop Round Island’s peak

As I said, it was a peak experience, but those of you who are long-time readers of my blog know that I have already written at length about our Round Island experiences in these blogs:

Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

I Am the Walrus

Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

So, why am I returning to Round Island in this blog? Because I passionately love this place and I believe that it is in danger.

Pacific Walrus threat postures in a haulout

Pacific Walrus tusk and shadow

Pacific Walruses sparring in the waters off Round Island

Pacific Walrus male pale from deep ocean diveWatching the walruses basking and sparring and emerging from the depths is always entertaining

Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, in a misguided attempt to save a few bucks, has decided to close the camp on Round Island after this year. There will be no seasonal staff to serve as island stewards, and the important work they’ve done in scientifically monitoring walrus and sea lion numbers will be abandoned. The campsites will be abandoned, and tourism to Togiak and Round Island will become a distant memory.

Why do I care? Because this is one of the greatest places in the world to experience wildlife that is not behind bars. Yes, there are a few walruses protected in zoos. After returning from Round Island, we went to see walruses in the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washingon. It was a profoundly sad experience. The walruses had lost their tusks completely, as they often do in captivity. They were trained to open their mouths to have their teeth brushed and to take a fish on command, then they would swim a pattern back and forth, back and forth, in the big tank lined with fake rock. This is not how sentient creatures should live.

Swimming Steller Sea LionsSteller Sea Lion harem and young out for a swim

Pacific Walrus exhalingWe could often hear the walruses coming up for a deep breath

Pacific Walrus portrait

People need to see wild creatures in wild places, and that’s where Round Island shines. After we left the island, the next visitors coming were high school students from all over Alaska, camping on the island for days to study the wildlife of that magnificent place. The memories of that experience will remain with them for their entire lives. When we were there, the other visitors were two men from Manhattan, making their second trip to Round Island. Photographers and videographers from all over the world have come here to create a record of walrus behavior. Including me.

Alaska PoppyDelicate Alaska Poppies, one of scores of kinds of wildflowers at the height of summer blooming during our visit

Tufted Puffin at burrow entranceWary Tufted Puffin

Pacific Walrus exhaling with a cloud of sprayBlowing bubbles while surfacing

Cook tent on Round IslandShelter provided for campers to eat and hang out during times of high winds and rain

Dramatic clouds over Round Island summitLooking up at the top of the mountain during a morning of unsettled weather

Alaska Fish and Game claims that they might still issue some permits to visit the island, but I suspect those will be few and far between. Instead, we are more likely to have surreptitious visitors shooting walruses for the ivory, and boats and planes buzzing the walruses and creating panicked stampedes that will trample and kill individuals. People will be able to land on the island with nobody knowing, and will undoubtedly force walruses away from the beaches. The island will no longer be a sanctuary.

Is this speculation on my part? Of course, but it is informed speculation based upon my experience on the island. When we were there, we felt that the two staff members were extremely serious about their jobs, and that their first priority was to protect the walruses. When we were seen by the refuge manager watching walruses from atop a cliff, we were told in no uncertain terms to crouch down so that our silhouettes wouldn’t scare the walruses off their rock. I felt bad at violating the rules, and in retrospect I’m glad that someone was there to keep protection of the walruses as top priority.

Abandoning the camp on Round Island would save $95,000 per year, which I think is a drop in the bucket compared to the lost opportunities for environmental education and tourism in the region, which bring far more dollars than that to the Alaskan economy (our trip alone added $5,000 to the Alaska economy–it isn’t cheap to get to remote places!).

Can this decision be modified or reversed? Who knows? All we can do is try. If Alaska Fish and Game is adamant that they are going to save money this way, perhaps they could come up with a Memorandum of Understanding with The Nature Conservancy or another not-for-profit to operate the island as a sanctuary with a provision for allowing visitors to come and camp. Perhaps the National Park Service should buy it from Alaska and operate it as a national park unit, similar to the manner in which Channel Islands National Park off the California coast in operated. Perhaps an Eskimo corporation could run it. Maybe volunteers could assist a paid staff member. Perhaps the University of Alaska could run the visitor operations in conjunction with research. Since the infrastructure is already there, it would be obscene to just abandon it, and it seems that the state has not explored these and other avenues for protecting the sanctuary.

In the meantime, if you would like to write a rational and passionate letter supporting the continued use of Round Island as a place to view Alaska’s native wildlife, please contact:

Alaska Department of

Fish and Game

P.O. Box 115526

1255 W. 8th Street

Juneau, AK 99811-5526

Or email them from their website: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=contacts.emailus

Leaving Round Island, AlaskaSadly leaving the island

Charter boat loading passengers for trip back to TogiakFerrying gear to the small boat just prior to departure

Karen Rentz and PiperThe small plane we arrived on in the Eskimo village of Togiak

Laundry on the line, Togiak, AlaskaDaily scene in Togiak

Air drying Sockeye SalmonSome of the Sockeye Salmon from Bristol Bay smoking at an Eskimo smokehouse in Togiak; the Sockeye Salmon fishery here is called the most sustainable fishery in the world, but the Pebble Mine proposed in the watershed could change that. That is another important environmental issue facing the region (see below for a link to more information).

 

For what could be your last chance to visit this enchanting isle, go to http://www.wildlife.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=refuge.rnd_is

To read the article that announced the closure of Round Island, go to Round Island Closure

To read what Trout Unlimited has to say about the Pebble Mine, go to Save Bristol Bay

To see my photography, go to Lee Rentz Photography

 

 

 

HAWAII MANTA RAY ADVENTURE: Night Snorkeling with Huge Winged Fish

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-129A Manta Ray glides toward us in the Pacific Ocean, lit by the lights of divers and snorkelers

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-77A magical view of fish gathering in the lights

The idea was intriguing. We would go out at night in the Pacific Ocean and snorkel with huge Manta Rays with 15′ wide wingspans that would come within inches of us. Or maybe the idea was just plain scary! Anyway, we decided to do it.

One key thing to realize is that Mantas are not carnivores who would eat people. That helped. Yes, their mouths gape wide and could swallow Jonah or Karen, but that has never happened (to the best of our knowledge!). They eat the ocean’s small stuff, such as shrimp and plankton and small fish, much as many kinds of whales eat small krill and some Grizzly Bears eat moth larvae (oops, not a good example, because they eat much bigger stuff too!).

We checked in at a dive shop at a strip mall in Kona. The enthusiastic staff outfitted us with wetsuits and prepared us for the experience. They had us sign the waiver form, and told us to meet at a marina at 5:30 p.m. We drove there and met up with our group, and with the staff who would be guiding us.

We signed up to go out on a tiny boat with three crew members. Our group had ten snorkelers and two scuba divers: four Swiss, two French, two Canadians, and four Americans. All of us had some previous experience in the ocean, though in the case of Karen and I it was just a few hours previous snorkeling, and that was in shallow waters.

When the boat was ready, we climbed aboard and motored out of the marina and into the choppy Pacific Ocean. We surged north along the coast, bouncing along the waves in the early evening. When we reached our destination, we set anchor and wriggled into our wetsuits, enjoying and enduring all the joking of the crew. The staff really went out of their way to make us feel at ease in what was a really alien experience for all of us. However, we were there long enough, bobbing in the ocean, that Karen grew queasy with the motion; we should have taken two tablets of Bonine.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-4Preparing for the experience, putting on wetsuits and checking our gear

One guide asked the divers if they were sure they could handle the idea of a huge Manta brushing right by their heads; one tiny young woman from Switzerland looked scared to death, but she decided to do it anyway. The divers were told not to wear snorkels attached to their masks, because the Mantas can sense the electrical fields of the human body and not touch living flesh, but the snorkel projecting above the head wouldn’t be sensed, and they could collide with it, ripping off a diver’s mask. I don’t even want to think about that possiblity, but I suspect it happened once upon a time.

Viewing Manta Rays is a surprisingly social experience. Several companies take out clients to one spot in the ocean, near the Kona airport, where the Mantas are known to feed. The people who want to scuba dive go down to the ocean bottom with bright dive lights. They are spaced out by the boat crews so that they cover perhaps a 100 x 100′ area of the ocean floor, and they project their dive lights upward. Those who want to snorkel grab onto a floating square made of PVC pipe with their two arms, and look downward. Each boat has its own floating square, and each square is equipped with lights projected downward. The night we went there may have been about 100 people participating, with perhaps twice as many snorkeling as diving.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-52Snorkelers holding onto a square assembly of PVC pipes that holds lights (looking up toward the ocean surface)

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-53Self portrait at night, using a noodle float to help stabilize me and my big camera housing

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-73Bubbles rise from the scuba divers below; Karen was wearing a shorty wetsuit and said that the bubbles uncomfortably tickled her arms and legs

The whole experience hinges upon the lights, so the more lights the better. With all the lights in the ocean, plankton and other small prey creatures swim toward the lights, which concentrates this source of food for the Manta Rays. The rays have come to expect this, so they come to feed near the lights. Which is why we get to see these otherwise hidden creatures of the deep. Over two hundred different Mantas have come to feed here; the staff can identify them by the markings on their bodies.

We climbed down into the dark water and swam over to the floating square. As a group, we moved out away from the boat and began peering down into the water, at once seeing the magic of all the lights projected up from the ocean bottom. I felt like I was in a spaceport, expecting the alien Manta spacecraft to arrive any second. By this point on our Hawaii trip, breathing through a snorkel became almost second nature, so we were able to relax in the ocean. The ocean was warm enough that we felt entirely comfortable in our wetsuits.

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Manta_Ray_Snorkel-89Hawaiian Flagtails gathered in the lights to feed, attracted to the concentration of plankton

Actually, it took some time for the Manta Rays to arrive. In the meantime, fish swirling in the lights kept us entertained and gave my itchy shutter finger something to do (I can’t stand it if I can’t take pictures!). Eventually, two Mantas swam gracefully into view, and I discovered that my alien spacecraft vision was not very far off. They truly do look alien.

At one point, a big Manta swung up from the ocean bottom and came directly toward us, with its gaping mouth open, and circled within perhaps a foot of us–not touching any of us. It was a thrill beyond belief for this landlubber from the great Midwest.

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Manta_Ray_Snorkel-130

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-131The huge mantas wheeled gracefully in the ocean

Eventually, the lights on the ocean bottom switched off as the divers started ascending, and we kicked our way back to the boat and climbed aboard, adrenaline and endorphins coursing through our thrilled bodies and minds.

That night we only saw two Mantas, but some nights they see about 25. It was such a profound experience that I would love to do it again.

Video by Karen Rentz of the experience

The company we used for this trip was Big Island Divers, and we were extremely pleased with their competence in dealing with all of us novices.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.