Sunday, November 9, 2003

On trail of the blue bear in Alaskan wilderness
Rajdeep Bains

The Blue Bear
by Lynn Schooler. Arrow Books. Pages 285. £ 4.55.

For anyone even remotely interested in nature and wildlife, Lynn Schooler has worked a miracle. He has brought Alaska, in all its glory and grandeur, to us. As we read, we live his experiences, see his homeland through his eyes, and feel the immense love he has for it.

Alaska is a land of stark beauty that draws a primeval response from all lucky enough to experience it. The immense open spaces, the snow, the blue-white mountains, the glaciers, the iceberg-encrusted seas, the wildlife — all form the image of a place held special by God. This pristine landscape is home to one of the most elusive animals that ever roamed the earth — the blue bear — a species so rare that it has often been likened to the Abominable Snowman.

The book is as much a celebration of friendship as a chronicle of the search for an evasive animal. Schooler’s career as a wildlife guide leads to his friendship with Michio Hoshino, a renowned Japanese outdoor photographer who comes to Alaska for a shoot. From photographing the feeding frenzy of humpback whales up close, to risking their lives on a crumpling glacier wall; from braving six-foot waves in a small boat, to trudging through muddy terrain for days — the friends go through it all, and take us with them. Although they rejoice in the beauty of their experiences, they yearn for a glimpse of the blue bear.

Michio is a shy, unassuming genius whose innate trust in humanity wins him many a friend. Schooler, on the contrary, is a recluse with a deep-seated mistrust of society. The contrast between the two brings them closer, instead of alienating them. It is a friendship spanning six years and several continents. Michio’s tragic death at the hands of a bear in Russia seems a violation of the trust he showed towards all species and it pains his friend to realise that he died at the hands of the very bears he was trying so hard to save.

At Michio’s memorial service Schooler tries to express in words how he had sensed Michio’s presence in the unexpected beaching of a whale on the evening he learned of his death, but the words wouldn’t come. Instead, he says, "As a photographer`85Michio taught me how to look with my eyes—but as a friend, he taught me how to see with my heart." The description of the whale, beautiful in it poignancy, comes in the book: "By the fifth jump, joy of a bright and tentative sort flooded over me, the flight of the whale reminding me of so many similar moments with Michio, when the ecstasy of nature’s power had lifted us up on adrenaline and awe, and in some way a part of me became convinced that the whale was Michio, come to say good-bye."

Schooler is an amateur writer and, thus, has the advantage of not following any set form. His descriptions are wonderfully detailed, never leaving the reader with the feeling of being talked down to. He is, rather, a friend enthusing about a love. The landscape, the flora and the fauna all come alive in his book until the reader can see each hair on the bear’s fur, can smell the fish on the whale’s breath and can feel the terror of the waves.

The blue bear, when it finally appears, comes too late for Michio. It is an emotional encounter tinged with magic, and "never", says the author, "have I felt the absence of another person as intensely as I felt that of Michio when I reached into my pack for the video camera, zoomed in on the bear, and saw the pale shine of its fur." He is resentful of the fact that "although I was finally seeing a blue bear, I was doing it in the company of people with whom I had no hope of reaching a connection." The bear was gone and Schooler realises that it wouldn’t really have mattered if he had never found it. "What did matter`85 was the experience of the chase and the company I kept during the search. What mattered were the things seen and done on its trail."