Today's nature lover was yesterday's exhausted teen

I used not to care. Now I care a lot. My kids care, and so does my wife. She always has. If I cared then the way I do now, how much more I would have remembered! All the details of seeing wild animals these days are so vivid to me. But some years ago, when I lived in places full of wildlife, I hardly noticed.

The whole thing kind of came to a head the first summer I worked on a commercial fishing boat in southeast Alaska. That's when I forced myself to care because I knew that someday I would. Uncle Bill pushed me along.

Bill's boat, a soggy 45 footer, was built in the early teens. Although it had seen many, many better days, it was still usable. Maybe it wasn't too safe, but it was basically a good tool. The Sokol was outfitted for halibut long-lining that summer, but it had been used in many other fisheries as well over the years.

I can't decide if I regret not being a keen observer of my surroundings that summer. I had my hands full, at 15, pretending to be a man and trying to stay in one piece. I was trying so hard to remember all my duties; do a good job; and to walk, talk, and dress just right. I run into young people today and see them missing out on half of what's around them. It's easier for me to understand that, having done it some myself.

The work days are long in fishing. I was a "bunk rat": I didn't tell stories or read or stare off into space when I wasn't working; I slept. But Uncle Bill knew that a young man should take in the sights, so he forced me to set out in the canoe one night after we'd dropped anchor. Eighteen hours of tough work, and he thought I should paddle around the cove and watch humpback whales.

What an opportunity it would be now; what a pain it was then.

So I hauled the canoe down, put it in the water, and paddled around. I could hear the whales surfacing, blowing, splashing. We were in a narrow, deep fjord. High cliffs covered with trees came right down to the water. I'm sure the place had a name, but there were so many big islands with so many fjords and inlets and coves that it was all kind of a blur to me then.

That evening was gray; there was nothing to break the visual monotony of untouched wilderness.

Except for the whales, it was absolutely silent if I held still in the aluminum canoe.

The whales didn't seem to care much that I was there. They went about their whale business and let me go about my teenager- wondering-about-nature business. I had read Thoreau; I'd seen Ansel Adams books on coffee tables. I knew that nature and the experience I was having at that moment were important.

Good people, I knew, respected the beauty of their natural surroundings, and I was determined to "get it." I wanted so badly to understand the thoughts and feelings that I knew nature could inspire.

But I didn't get it.

I decided to get closer. I paddled to where I suspected the whales would surface next. It wasn't hard to get close - really close. As I said, the whales didn't seem to mind. I don't remember being scared at all, which seems odd to me now. Along with my not knowing how to appreciate that kind of beauty came an inability to comprehend the basic physics of the situation: big whales, little canoe.

I quit before they did. I had weeks of long days behind me, and ahead of me, too. Today I would stay until the show was over and trust the inspiration of the scene to afford me the rest I need. But at the time I just felt something was getting in the way of sleep.

That wasn't my only unwilling encounter with wildlife that summer. We saw orca whales at Snow Pass. Twice. When the tide was moving quickly the water would boil and stir up all the edibles. You could see all kinds of nifty currents colliding and mixing things up. They were fertile feeding grounds for hungry whales.

We regularly had dolphins sporting in our bow wake when we were under way. I'd go and look, dutifully. I knew they were having fun - that was obvious - and their levity contributed somewhat to my appreciation of the day. We saw seals, too, but usually not very close. Also puffins, bears, sea lions, bald eagles, sea otters, and everything else that Alaska is full of.

My kids care, though! We go out and do cool things and they totally get it. Last week they were swimming in the Florida surf and dolphins came right up to them and they thought it was great. They talked about it, couldn't get enough of it, and I loved the whole thing so much I couldn't stand it.

Fortunately the outdoors is still around, and so am I. Watching my kids explore it is giving me another chance to "get it." A missed opportunity the first time around has hardened my resolve to make sure I don't miss a thing this time. Work is still pressing, has always pressed.

But now I understand why Uncle Bill forced me into the canoe that night, and I'm grateful for the memories.

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