A sow bear in Alaska wants me. Local fishing guides call her Nasty Pants. I call her something much worse.
Our first encounter was five years ago. I was minding my own business while fishing for trophy trout at Brooks Falls in the Katmai Wilderness. Nasty Pants came barreling around a large willow stand, huffing and teeth-clacking and making a spectacle of herself.
Of course, her spectacle was nothing compared to mine as I splashed through chest-deep water at an all-time high. My wading boots were five sizes too large. Clown shoes.
During our little introduction a 27-inch rainbow took my fly. The line went into the backing as I battled fish and current. Nasty Pants did a territorial-bear dance, marking me as her own. I didn’t know whether to watch the bear, work the fish, or drown. I told the guide to cut the line.
“But that’s a 27-inch bow!”
“I don’t care about the bow. The bears, specifically that one—” I nodded toward Nasty Pants, who was grinning “—are flipping me out. Cut the line!”
“But—” he started.
“Cut it or I drop your rig,” I said, giving him the Mom Look of Death.
He cut the line. I breast-stroked (actually, it was more of a spastic, waving sprint) through the river, then crawled through the mucky wetlands while loudly insulting Nasty Pants’ mother. Then I vowed never to return to Brooks River or Falls.
Two weeks ago I returned to . . . wait for it! . . . Brooks River and Falls. My husband, a very adventurous lunatic, was eager to fish it again. I had caught my trophy trout on the Qvichak River so agreed to accompany him. I would bear watch during the morning and read at the lodge that afternoon. He and the guide could do manly things while holding fly rods and running from bears.
From a viewing platform I watched watched bears eat and fight and loll. A trio of anglers—silly men—downriver were triangulated by the animals, pinned in place for thirty minutes armed with bear spray and eau du fear.
Then a big, ill-tempered blonde bear ambled into view. I looked at her. She looked at me. I recognized her. She thought I was dessert.
She wandered around the viewing platform, planning her menu. A group of bears decided that the end of the bridge was a great spot for a nap. Nasty Pants settled down beneath us, and I pondered my exceptional ability to levitate as the bears blocked the bridge. When they awakened and while Nasty Pants was distracted by a silver salmon, we scooted across the bridge. I glanced over my shoulder several times to ensure that Nast Pants wasn’t faster than me, and then walked faster all the way to the lodge.
Once at the lodge I pulled out my iPad, propped my wading boots (that fit this time) on the lip of the fire pit, and settled in with a good suspense novel. Every once in a while I’d see a park ranger scurry past outside, rushing toward someone have a bear moment. Happily, it wasn’t me.
Just after three, our DeHavilland beaver floatplane lifted off from the smooth surface of Brooks Lake. I know that the big blonde bear standing on the bank was sad to see me go.
It’s that time of year. Summer is fading and the mountains are turning daffodil, pumpkin, and scarlet. Our lows are in the 40s and the light is softening.
The changes on this mountaintop warn us (about as subtly as a clanging gong) that winter is coming. Animals have picked clean the berry brambles and the rose hips are bright red, rich with vitamin C. Mushroom season (see this blog) is winding down as hunting season (elk, deer, bighorn sheep) ratchets up. I marvel, as I do each year, at God’s goodness as He cares for humans and animals alike.
My Harbinger of Doom plant, the one that changes colors before everything else, began to evolve two weeks ago. It’s a currant plant, bountiful with fruit. I purchased another bush (I plant one each year), keeping it on the deck to protect the fruit from chipmunks. The critters have the eyes of an eagle and the speed of Mo Farah.
I baked the last batch of currant scones today, and I’m sharing the recipe here. If you’ve never had fresh, wild currants, you don’t know what you’re missing. When I fly-fish our rivers now, I barely restrain myself from asking the guide to pull over so that I can raid the flaming currant brambles along the banks.
FRESH CURRANT SCONES
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Mix in your food processor 4.5 cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add i teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg. Gently cut in 2 sticks of cold butter.
Mix 2.25 cups of heavy cream with an egg. Add this to the dry ingredients. The batter has the consistency of half-dry cement, so brace yourself to add the currants. Fold in the currants, noting that some will become smashed fatalities.
Roll the dough onto a floured surface and form into a ball. Flatten the ball to about an inch thick, then cut into eight or ten pieces with a sharp knife.
Arrange on a baking sheet, brush with additional melted butter, and sprinkle with Demerara sugar. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. These freeze well, which is a good thing if you have a husband who loves fresh scones as much as mine.
We coast through an intersection, singing Bohemian Rhapsody (all five parts) at the top of our lungs without noticing the other car, the one whose driver looked up just in time to prevent T-boning us. Or we’re in the chair at the dentist, a drill mere inches from our brain, unaware that the dentist is working hard to control a bad case of the hiccups. (You’re welcome for that one.) Sometimes we have a sense of something wrong—an unease, the proverbial hair on our necks standing on end—without fully realizing the danger from which we’ve narrowly escaped.
These moments are brushes with mortality. They remind us that we’re a speck in a much larger universe. We’re just passing through, hopefully living every moment as if it were our last. Because it might be! Consider them a divine thump on the back of the head.
I’ve been outside this summer, which invariably will end too soon. When not writing or working on the platform redesign I’ve been playing golf and fishing and working in my garden. It suffered as I travelled back and forth to do end-of-life care for my parents and settling the estate. Long summer days (usually six hours of weeding and pruning and planting) have been beautifully restorative. Worshipful. Soul-calming.
But last Thursday was a different sort of day. I was jumpy. Dogs were barking a canine version of Handel’s Messiah. Even the birds didn’t seem to chirp with vigor. The entire environment was off, on edge. In a bad mood.
We haven’t seen a bear this year, although last summer’s neighborhood patrol was a four-hundred-pound delight of drooling, stinking, bear fur. Bears normally rest during the day and are active at night, so I wasn’t terribly worried to be clambering up and down my garden berm mid-morning. (To be honest, I’m scared of cougars; you never see them coming.) But something was off that day. Even though I’m at peace with my God and unafraid of eternity, I hope that my departure from this earth doesn’t involve sharp claws and big, pointy teeth.
I finally tugged off my muddy boots, went to my office, and got my bear gun out of the cabinet. I proceeded to garden without mishap until afternoon thunderstorms forced me inside. The last thing I did was to spill DeerOff (as necessary as water in places where deer and rabbit know a gourmet meal when you plant one) on the drive before dousing everything I wanted to keep.
The next morning I glanced out my office window, checking for rain clouds on the horizon. I noticed that FedEx or UPS had driven through the DeerOff, leaving tracks. I would check for a parcel at the pedestrian garage door later, and went to work. Then I ran errands before settling at my desk to write a synopsis. About fifteen minutes into that task, I rocked back in my office chair. How could someone have driven through ONE puddle with both sets of wheels, leaving TWO tracks.
Intrepid suspense writer that I am, I knew that something was up. Deductive reasoning forced me out of my chair. I trotted down the stairs, out to the freshly asphalted driveway. I paced to the street, studying weird markings until I can to a clear set. I paused, and sucked in a deep breath. then I laughed.
I stood, hands on hips, staring at bear prints that were twice as wide as my foot. Big Bear had walked through the DeerOff in broad daylight that morning, moseyed to the street, wandered around, and returned up the drive—creating two sets of near-parallel tracks. I remembered my uneasiness the day before. The Glock .356 Sig was still on the office bookshelf, next to the loaded magazine.
I thought of the Holy Spirit, who guides foolish mortals. I said a prayer of thanksgiving—for this guidance, for my Glock, for the birds and dogs who nudged me into high alert. I thought of all sorts of narrow escapes; not just the physical ones, but the moral and theological ones as well. I wondered if God our father holds His breath when we face a choice between good and evil. As a parent, my blood pressure (notoriously low, thanks to genetics) hums a little higher when my children are at a crossroads.
Even though I’m an insignificant speck in this universe, I am one of God’s children. And at least last week, I was worth saving from a very large bear. Especially in summer—fly-fishing through rapids, gardening on the edge of the boonies, even (or especially) riding my bike on mountain trails—I keep the Holy Spirit busy.
I recently encountered a forlorn-looking older man sitting alone in the hotel lobby at a very secure conference. I did the polite thing and spoke, asking him about his day. His stood, replying, “Not too good.” I offered the proper platitudes—”I’m sorry,” “I hope things aren’t too bad”—as he pondered how to respond. When he shared that he had recently lost several friends, I expressed sorrow for his losses.
One thing led to another, and I invited him to join me for dinner in the dining room. I discovered that he was Egyptian, a culture that fascinates me in light of my studies of the ancient world. We had a vigorous discussion about the region. Then he quietly remarked that he was Coptic. Copts are a little-known segment of Christianity, tracing their patrimony to the apostle Mark (or John Mark), who traveled to Egypt on his evangelistic journeys (like those of the apostle Paul). There are few Copts in the US, and I had never met one. He immediately became more fascinating because he is an endangered species.
Copts are a favorite target of ISIS. The tiny Egyptian minority (10 percent of the population) has been suffering brutal persecution under radical Islam. A small group was killed on a pilgrimage to a monastery recently. On Palm Sunday ISIS attacked several Coptic churches in Egypt, killing dozens.
Copts are not alone. Christians throughout the region in which our faith was born are persecuted. Christians who have fled what can be considered no less than a regional genocide are being evicted from the US, returned to the places where their faith endangers them. (That’s not a political statement, BTW.) There is no Mayflower in the bay, waiting to carry them to America as it did many of our ancestors fleeing religious persecution in western Europe.
And here we sit, remembering gender discrimination in our youth and age discrimination in our Boomer and elder years. Comfortable in our pews. (Is the capital campaign for new cushions necessary?) Chatting over coffee after Bible study. (Can we forego breakfast burritos and put that money to better use?) Planning the next men’s or women’s retreat. (Do we really need to pay someone to lead us in guided meditation?) Organizing Vacation Bible School. (Do bounce castles and clowns spread the love of Christ, or are we offering a babysitting service?) Volunteering at YoungLife. (Do teenagers really need another bus trip to another camp?) Blogging about persecution. (Where’s my checkbook?) Have we lost the big-picture view of our faith, the one manifested by the sacrifices of Jesus Christ, exemplified by His ministry to the poor and disenfranchised?
In the larger world the influences that test this Coptic gentlemen’s ability to worship continue to grow while we’re obsessed by Western minutiae. The only way to stem the crippling tide, to protect our religious freedom, is to engage in places and about topics that are uncomfortable. To be informed about persecution—in China and Russia, in Egypt and Syria, even here in the US—while standing solidly with our sisters and brothers in Christ. To show the love of Christ by giving to organizations helping persecuted Christians: Aid to the Church in Need, Christian Aid, Action Aid, Caritas.
To haul our carcasses outside our comfort zone to realize that worship in an isolationist America is no guarantee of future freedom.
Kumbaya around a campfire just isn’t going to cut it any more.
Summer is my favorite time of year on this mountaintop. (Closely followed by autumn because of our Crayola-vibrant colors.) I’ve finally settled in after the back-to-back deaths of Mom and Dad, although my “season of change” didn’t stop with those losses.
My literary agent, Mary G. Keeley, retired this spring from publishing. My heart hammered when I heard the news. Her Herculean efforts on my behalf contributed to my momentum, and I could not appreciate her humor and work ethic more. She’ll remain a part of this team while pursuing the next phase of her life. Meanwhile, I’m excited to be represented by Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary Management. I look forward to the adventures and lessons ahead.
As I worship, fly fish, garden, golf, attend symphonies and concerts, shop farmers markets, and shoo hungry deer out of my flowers, I’m repositioning my social-media brand. All of my trademarks—strong female protagonist, humor, suspense, quirky love of God and family—enrich my latest manuscript, a work of domestic suspense. I take your input too seriously to abandon the story elements that you (and I) love. And I can’t wait to introduce you to my new protagonist. I never thought that a character could compete with archaeologist Grace Madison, but investigative journalist Laura Cummings surprises me by doing just that.
Another surprise made me clamber down a slope this morning, interrupting two peaceful hours of deadheading between daybreak and breakfast. A sport (as in, serendipitously planted by the wind) poppy plant shot a vibrant red bloom skyward, like a flaming bottle rocket. I’ll have these reminders on my desk for weeks, of God’s general revelation of Himself through nature.
Spring is a time of rebirth. I’m being reborn this summer. I pray that your days are filled with His love and joy. Thanks for being here.