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Of Barnacles and Bears

In the summer of 2020, Ben and I escaped the news for a month of sea kayaking in deserted Glacier Bay National Park. One breakfast, a bear emerged from the brush behind us and sauntered down to the waterline. I realized not only that bears love barnacles, but that in spite of all the terrifying threats looming over the real world, I was still more afraid of bears.

Barnacles’ soft bodies are encircled by a case of hard calcium plates. They attach themselves via an incredibly powerful cement to rocks, pilings, docks — any place where water constantly moves. But the tensile strength of the bond was no obstacle for this bear. Human-like in his beachcombing focus, he simply smashed the barnacles with a forepaw and licked them up like popcorn or chips.

Although I claim to want to sketch brown bears in action, when this bear suddenly appeared, I was too afraid to pull out my art supplies. Thankfully, Ben had the presence of mind to quickly take photos — from which I eventually painted this image.

Bears are iconic in Southeast Alaska. Leave aside their ecological role as a top predator and their financial value as tourist attractions. We need things in nature to be afraid of. That summer, when life seemed upside down, when I felt as though I should be doing something significant to help, the simple fear of something so tangible, so big and toothy, reset my focus — and restored me to my proper insignificant place.

(published in a slightly different form for a social media takeover sponsored by the Sitka Conservation Society @sitkawild, July 2022)


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