Nerd in the Wild [Single White Nerd]
The small prop plane suddenly drops out of equilibrium, careening sharply into the volcano. It swoops down, losing altitude as it tilts at a nearly 90 degree angle. The three other passengers and I hold on for dear life certain that we’re about to crash into a crater. A moment ago, we were placidly snapping photos of a cool geological feature. Now we’re more or less certain that the volcano is the last thing we’ll ever see. Steam jets from a crevasse that can’t be more than 20 feet away from us. I can almost feel the heat.
I’m one day into my 35th year and I’m about to die. It’ll be like a bad joke: Two Americans, an Australian, an Israeli, and an Austrian crash into a volcano. . .Of course.
Every year, I like to do something interesting for my birthday. I’ve confronted my religious prejudices, gone on the Dr. Phil show, skydiving. All sorts of stuff. This year, I decided to go camping in Alaska. Up until this whole airplane incident, it had been going well. I’d met new friends from England, Australia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Israel. We’d all slogged through the rain to a vast glacier together, cooked together, gone kayaking with porpoises, seals and sea otters. The group had surprised me with a birthday cake on my actual birthday and we’d eaten it on a beach, snowcapped mountains visible through a faint misting rain.
Not bad. Then I went and pushed my luck by signing up for this scenic bear viewing flight.
It all started so promisingly. We arrived at the airfield on time. The pilot outfitted us with hip wading boots that would keep us dry as we tracked bears along a river. We took off into grey, but not particularly menacing skies. And then we hit some turbulence. Turbulence in a 5 seat prop plane feels a bit like being Mike Tyson’s punching bag–the plane just kind of bounces around for a bit until the turbulence subsides. And then we got to the volcano.
The pilot’s voice came on through out headsets. “This is an active volcano, just erupted pretty good about 5 years ago.” We all got out our cameras to capture the majesty. And that’s when the plane went nuts.
Now g-forces are pressing us back against our seats. Cameras are abandoned as we brace ourselves for a collision. Then the plane careens in the opposite direction, the pilot’s voice whoops in exultation through our headsets. We all look at each other in amazement. We’re still alive. And the pilot is possibly insane.
About twenty minutes later, after a harrowing landing on a rocky beach littered with driftwood, the pilot proves his insanity beyond a reasonable doubt. We’re tromping into an area frequented by grizzlies. We can actually see four or five of them ahead of us. “Move slow,” says the pilot with a lopsided grin, “let’s get in the middle and let them surround us.”
Sounds like a good idea. Let’s get in the middle of 5,000+ pounds of hungry bear. We do it.
And it’s awesome.
The bears couldn’t care less about us. They’re there to fish. They do this spectacularly–rearing up and splashing the water to chase their prey into shallow water where they can reach down and pluck the unlucky swimmers up in their jaws. Our group stands on a bluff, eating granola bars and observing. The pilot points out bear after bear, telling us about them. He’s spent time here, camping with the bears. Which is crazy. But, standing watching the bears fish, compete, and growl at each other, it’s also completely understandable.
I find myself grateful for that brief scare in the plane, the dose of crazy. I can now appreciate this whole bear experience even more deeply. I’m not at all sure that this enhanced appreciation for life will extend much beyond the day, but it might. Probably not. It wasn’t THAT scary.
So I’ve survived a few days into my 35th year. And I find that I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had, bears I’ve seen, friends I’ve made. If we had gone down over the volcano, I could have claimed a good life. That said, I’m not planning any prop plane trips over a volcano any time soon.