(This is the 2nd excerpt from The Heroic Path: In Search of the Masculine Heart)
Surrounded by ocean, Kodiak Island represents a special sort of wildness even for Alaska. Ringed by active volcanoes, a jagged piece of rugged land. It is foreboding and inhospitable to travelers, photographers, and especially, the flower-shirted Mickey‐Mouse‐Ear‐Wearing Tourist Guy.
Camp was a tangled, overgrown thing. Five-foot-tall ferns. Whale vertebrae strewn along the path. A sun-bleached moose skull. No phone reception. No lights or electricity, save a few brief hours by generator. Kodiak bears strolled through camp, feet from the cabins, to drink from the stream. Because of the tall brush, a bear could be five feet away, lying in the ferns, and you would never know.
Unlike my modern and civilized life, where domestication has pushed the woods to the brink of extinction, Kodiak is the opposite. Wildness keeps civilization at bay; people are secondary. People live on the edges, on the beaches, on cliff faces and fringes of the island. Westward expansion is limited.
The Kodiak bear is the soul of the island.
He lives only on the island, is a distant cousin of the grizzly, and is the largest bear in the world. The first one I met was nearly eleven feet tall, a 1,500-pound brute, standing in the lobby of the lodge. His eyes are keen; nose better than a bloodhound. Arms longer and thicker than my legs, with a fist full of six-inch, hooked claws. He can break an elk’s neck with one swipe.
He is the perfect hunter. Dangerous. Fearless. Unstoppable.
I’m not sure why I was compelled to seek him out. But it was something primal. He is the symbol for the unseen, fearful things of my imagination—the Wild Things. Massive and unyielding, he is bigger than the full moon. Hidden in the shrubs, the tall grass and ferns, he waits—a giant shadow upon the earth.
I wanted to find him and stare him down. To stand with him, face-to-face, and confront him. Maybe all this sounds insane. Maybe it is. But I think seeking him was about me facing my fear. Standing up to Something Awful, without fear, and in some way, bringing it back within me.
Our Master Guide, Mike, was in no hurry. He was calm. Unruffled. He knew the bears would be there, waiting. Mike was born on Kodiak and spent his entire life off the grid. He was counter to the bravado pride found in so many self-proclaimed “tough guys.” Even though he hunts world-record bears for a living, Mike is reserved and humble. He quietly goes about his business.
When I peppered him with hunting questions, he talked about himself for only a bit, then changed the subject, putting the focus back on us. Even though Mike lives off the grid, climbs mountains with a fifty-pound backpack, and stalks record-book bears for a living, he never once bragged or acted like “the expert.”
The first morning, we loaded up the boat and listened to its twin diesel engines churning and humming us down the still river, into the great unseen. White-manned bald eagles dotted the tree line. Watching with keen eyes, spotting his prey up to a mile away. He glides out with his seven-foot wingspan, catching silver salmon and seagull chicks.
We were dropped off on a rocky beach, on the edge of dark woods. We walked single-file behind Mike. He whispered, telling us to keep our voices down and to stay close, not to wander off. It was just us, the eagles and a lonely harbor seal barking off in the distance.
We hunted a few hours, and saw a patch of brown, a huge Kodiak lumbering off into the tree line. He was obscured by the brush, but his bulk was obvious, easily over 1,000 pounds. He slooped off and walked away calmly, vanishing into the shadows and the mist.
A few hours later, a sow and her two cubs worked their way toward us. She was beautiful with a shiny blond coat. Sows can be dangerous and aggressive, especially with cubs in tow. Mike let us know that we could not get too close to her - he was once forced to kill a large sow in the very spot we were standing. Someone accidentally surprised her, lying down in the tall grass, and she attacked without warning. Mike killed her at six feet.
This sow got within fifty yards of us before we slowly stood out from the grass, letting her know we were near. She veered off— kept walking toward us, but angled away slightly. We had several more encounters like this.
On the last day, we got close to a massive bear. We saw it in the tall grass, so we circled downwind, trying to intercept. The grass was taller than we were so we were walking blindly, but carefully, in its direction. I saw it on the edge of a creek, about fifty yards away. We bowed our heads below the grass and inched forward. Slowly.
We crawled on hands and knees the last twenty yards. The bear was in the act of catching a salmon. Like a huge brown cat jumping on a yarn ball, it pounced, thrusting its front arms and head underwater. Seconds later, it scooped the ten pound fish up with two massive paws, clamped down on it, and then proudly carried it to the bank.
We sat there motionless, listening to it crunch salmon bones. Nothing between us and the bear but a few blades of grass. The bear was so close I could smell it—it stank, like a wet dog, with dank, muddy fur.
Suddenly, the bear stood up—a full nine feet tall—and looked right at us.
We froze. I met its gaze. And smiled. After a tense few moments, the bear dropped down and went back to eating. We watched her a bit longer and then slipped away.
Something mystical happens in those moments: Your breathing gets shallow. Adrenaline. You feel a heightened sense of things. Vision and hearing become more acute. You feel stronger. Then, an internal fortitude comes. A stillness. A slowing down. A welcoming.
When Death smiles at you and you smile back, something changes.
This is an explosive moment. A threshold moment. This moment can anchor your soul when the locusts come, or when the plague claims your livestock. It will tether you to the masts, bracing you against the sirens.
For the rest of your life, you will draw water from the well of this moment. Once you face Something Awful, other problems don’t matter as much. The cold rain no longer affects you—now you welcome the weather on your face. Everything else in your life feels smaller. Challenges sure, but ones you can deal with:
The baby that needs a diaper change or a milk bottle. The lady that cuts you off in the grocery line. The bicyclist that gives you the finger. These things now seem trivial. Before, they got you irritated, ruffled, and upset, but they don’t matter anymore. Sure, they make you raise your eyebrows, but now they’re just pesky flies on the back of the bear.
The day I left Kodiak, I asked Mike what it meant to be a man. We crawled through mud together. Stalked bears in the long grass—got so close that I could smell them. We hiked miles inland to fish for salmon and Dolly Varden. We caught and fried halibut and drank local cider together. Mike’s life matched the wild rhythm of the island. So when he told me what a man was, I listened.
“To me, being a man means being kind, generous, and a good provider. It is being strong. Having the self-confidence to handle any situation you face, whether you live in the city and face traffic, congestion, and crowds, or you live in remote areas with wild animals and inclement weather. And quiet self-confidence. A strong, self-confident man doesn’t announce his strength to the world. He leads by example. He’s the guy who steps up and takes charge when a challenge is faced, and then quietly fades into the background when the issue is resolved.”
Once you face the bear, you no longer have anything to prove. You relax and ease into quiet confidence. You’re not worried about your gear, your hairstyle, or the posers in the softball league. You no longer feel like a poser. And you don’t even judge those poser guys anymore; you’re just quiet around them. You now welcome obstacles as challenges. The Kodiak is your opportunity.
You are changed. Your knuckles are hardened. A quiet fire burns somewhere deep within—an inner ferocity waiting, ready to rise up against the dark things. You are calmer now, but more dangerous. Grim, but with a greater capacity for joy.
Your senses are now honed razors, sharpened by Arkansas black whetstone. Your once-boyish eyes have turned gray—and hawkish. The air tastes cleaner. You are no longer afraid to cry. Or roar. Or dance in the streets. The Hairy Man no longer dwells deep at the bottom of a pond, he is right under your skin.
“Wildness,” according to Martin Shaw, “is a form of sophistication, because it carries a true knowledge of our place in the world. It doesn’t exclude civilization, but prowls through it. It knows when to attend to the needs of the committee, and when to drink from the moonlit lake. It wears a suit when it has to, but refuses to trim its talons or whiskers. It is not afraid of emotion, of grief forests and triumphant returns.”
Something Awful is still out there. But he doesn’t dominate your life anymore.