I squish along on curious boots, tripod balanced on my right shoulder, Nikon and extra lenses strapped in a pack on my back. The hot dusty smell I remember from my visit a year earlier is replaced with a damp perfume of penstemon and lupine, lush with unseasonable rain on this sacred ground once home to the Nez Pearce. Out here on the Zumwalt Prairie, where scientists count and plant and monitor, there are mysteries that cannot be explained.
It is clear by their synchronized stott that four mule deer high on the grassy ridge did not lure me here. In Pepe le Pew leaps they put distance between us and slip one by one over the western rim. No matter, curiosity is tireless, I remember, like Daddy's leather-encased Argos C-3 box camera--one of two of his things I am left after his death on Thanksgiving when I was 5. The other is a plump houndstooth suitcase full of 35 mm slides--small pieces of cardboard-encased acetate that record his history before my birth, and his death. Here I see portraits of him motoring a small boat from the throttle at the rear with a serious brow, intent on a distant fishing hole. I find images of him and my uncle, his best friend and fishing buddy, and joyous gatherings, many around picnic tables and campsites in their plaid shirts tucked into dungarees. Even though I have only recently found words to say it, I believe he left me something to be curious about, a reason to be outside, and his photographer's eye.
My Mom turned over the Argos to me while we were cleaning before I left for college. Boxed and forgotten it traveled with me untouched through several moves. For the next decade I primed my photographer pump . . . as a fishing phenom. Turns out curiosity, patience and playfulness is required for both fishing and photography, and I started my love of photography with a love of fishing. Another gift from Daddy. From the first worm I was hooked, tireless and dogged when I held a fishing rod. I became the annoying one who always caught fish, even if you traded sides of the boat with me.
Over the years, though, killing fish grew to be too painful, and I never got the hang of catch and release. It was during one of those student-inspired moves I unpacked the Argos. It was love at first smell, first twist of a dial, first mechanical click. I replaced fishing with the curious, patient equivalent found in a legacy camera.
My Dad's spirit is with me in this aurora canyon charged by hide-and-seek glimpses of the rising sun casting its Midas touch top to bottom beginning with the highest grassy knolls and ridge rock outcroppings, descending to the wetlands fastening the creek to the canyon floor. I unfold and clamp down the tripod, causing a stir of clicking.
Across the creek a pair of cooing, chirping sharp-tailed grouse, likely tending their brood in the brush, explode into the air in parallel, about a foot apart. They fly into another stand of brush and disappear. I figure they aren't expecting me.
But the reason I stop to assemble the tripod is because two chickadees are buzzing my head, in my face, then on a branch nearby trying to tell me something. "Chickadee, chickadee!" they announce.
"Are you the ones who called me?" I ask the one facing me on a nearby branch.
"Twir, twir, twir," the little bird urges and then flies off across the creek, a sentry leading the way . . . to a young black bear lumbering along the sunlit hillside.
"Ah, it's you who called, Bear," I whisper. I adjust the ball head, change lenses and bring him into focus with my long one (70x300). "You must be the little bear Gary is so worried about, the one he thought too friendly yesterday." Bear forages bush to bush. He lands in a stand of wild currant and attaches himself to branches too weak to hold his weight, bending him back to the ground.
You can tell a young bear by the size of its ears. Until their growing head catches up, the ears look big. This little one is likely a yearling, with the grace of a lumber jack on a balance beam, at least while he plows around looking for something to eat. Mother bears care for children for a little more than a year and a half and then one day chase them away, though it's common for her children to live nearby.
Digital photography allows a nut like me to shoot an obscene number of images, especially called for in instances like this. Wild animals do not pose, are often hidden in the landscape, move and move more, and must be shot under pressure. There is only so much time to get the shot. "The" shot is the best of a series, the most perfect moment you capture. There are extra points if the creature is looking directly at the camera. The fisherman in me is ready to wait for the perfect shot.
I check my lighting, adjust for brightness and focus on Bear again. He's given up on the current and starts walking into the canyon, meandering toward me. I follow him through the lens, snapping as he appears and disappears in the weeds. When he comes out in a clearing he pauses, sits down, and for at least a minute just stares back at me. Click, click, click. "Caught ya little guy!"
I know now I am there to carry word back to the Outpost, news of the happy bear so Gary can stop worrying. Bear is capable, healthy and learning everyday. Bear breaks gaze with me, turns and walks away nose in the air.
"Thank you Bear. Thank you Pachamama. Thank you Daddy."