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The Blue Bear

WASHINGTON: Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Godsend" episode. Today, when you least expect it, expect it 'cause for our next story, we head out to the shores of Alaska. For Lynn Schooler, there is nothing better than being alone in the wilderness.

SCHOOLER: When I was growing up up in Anchorage, you know, back in the late '60s and early '70s, I had heard of blue bears, and you'd hear the stories about them. You know, like, they were these bears that lived up on the glaciers and never came down, and that's why they were this pale gray-blue color. And other people would say how they knew of somebody who knew somebody who shot one. But I certainly never saw one and didn't know anybody who had seen one. It always seemed so elusive and special. It just was below the radar all the time.

I got into the guiding business because shortly after I moved down to southeast Alaska here, through a strange sequence of events, I actually wound up working for a law firm. And I've always played a game with myself where I ask myself what I would do if a doctor told me I only had two years to live. I decided, sitting there at my desk, you know, with a screen in front of me and a suit and tie on, that I would want to spend all of that time outdoors in wild places on my own, answering to nothing social or cultural or none of those expectations of how you should look or be or act.

I went out and got a master mariner's license from the United States Coast Guard and built a boat to do this with and started a - more or less a water charter freight service here in southeast Alaska. I would work 115, 125 days straight, exhaust myself. Winter would come. I'd just kind of hunker down and get through it however best I could and then prepare for the next season. It suited me. I didn't have the latitude, I didn't have the mental playroom to let some very disturbing things from my past that had been eating at me for a long time keep running around and around in my head.

When I was 21 years old, a woman that I was very attached to was - disappeared. You know, of course, after we had searched all the woods around her cabin and done everything we could do to figure out where she went and why she left her dogs alone and why there was food rotting in the refrigerator and what could've happened, turned out that she had been abducted and was murdered. Never knowing exactly who was involved, that cast a very long shadow over everything else. I didn't trust anybody. I didn't want to be close. I was not sure that the general cut of humanity was desirable company.

I was 36 when I started working on getting the boat together and preferred to be alone. One day, the phone rang, and it was Michio Hoshino, a Japanese fellow. I could tell from his accent. And it turned out he was one of the best wildlife photographers in the world - if maybe even the best - and had a huge, rock star following in Japan. He wanted to hire me to take a film crew out for six weeks. And my initial reaction was no way. The thought of having four people in an 8-by-10 area for weeks on end sounded more like - the best analogy was a prison cell. But there was something in his approach that made me consider it. He just wanted to go out in the woods and around the water and see the most beautiful things he could see and try to take good photos of it. So I took the job.

Within a couple of hours of having him on the boat getting ready and everything, I realized that I liked him, which was kind of unusual, you know, to right away just like somebody. He was such a calm presence that you didn't feel like you had to be on your guard at all. I wasn't used to asking anybody for anything. And so I very reluctantly asked him if he would teach me something about photography, and he immediately agreed.

I had taken Michio way up on a hillside where there's a stand of interstadial stumps. And he was setting up taking some photos. And he suddenly - he just stepped aside and motioned at his camera that he had on tripod there and pointed down at a - just a stump and some rocks. And I put my eye up to the viewfinder. There was this beautiful composition - a lot of smooth stones of different colors nestled into the curve of a root. It was like the root and these stones that were millions of years old had this intimacy between them, as if I was looking at a Madonna or a photo of a mother holding a baby. How did he see that in that pile of rubble that I was standing on? And that was fascinating to me. It was kind of an eye-opener about what photography could be like. He told me once that every photo should tell a story. And after he explained that to me, I started recognizing that in his work.

He asked me one day if I thought we could find a blue bear, and I said, not a chance. Going looking for a blue bear is going to be like looking for a yeti or, you know, a snow leopard. But he kept bringing it up. He kept asking me how we could find a blue bear. I started digging into it and gathering up all the information. And we started making trips to some of these areas where there seemed like there might be a chance. He understood that bears can be very dangerous, but he also appreciated living with bears. He was adopted into the bear clan of the Tlingit Indians. One of our trips together, we had been up into a fjord region where I had heard a rumor of a blue bear and spent several days without any success - no sign of it. One of those days where it's just so calm, you could, you know, see seagulls landing on the water half a mile away and no wind at all. And we decided to make a run and see if we could find some humpback whales. This was very late in the autumn. This weather front hit us - went from blowing, maybe five knots to 20, to 40, to 50. And then I don't know how hard it was blowing. It was just blowing like hell. And the seas built up almost faster than I can describe it - like big, gray animals coming at us out of the dark. And my boat, the Wilderness Swift, is only 31 feet long. It was out of control. I did not think we were going to make it.

Michio asked me how it looked. I lied. I said, we'll be OK. The Swift is a good boat, we'll make it. So he said OK, and he laid down. I kept steering the boat and praying and was dry mouth with fear. And I looked back, and Michio was sleeping. He was asleep. And the boat was just being thrown helter-skelter all over the place. Somehow or other we managed to make it and tuck into a little hole I knew about up there and get into shelter. Michio got up and looked around and said, oh, OK. He immediately started making dinner, you know? (Laughter) I was just clammy with sweat and stank from fear and was just so amazed to still be alive. And when I ask him if he wasn't afraid he said, well, you said we'd be all right. And it just struck me how he believed me. He trusted me to be right. I'm glad I didn't make a liar out of myself.

I found myself putting in extra effort to try to hunt down an elusive blue bear - talking to biologists, calling up other naturalists and guides, digging through the records in the library, going through old magazines and just trying to parse up any little reference to the blue bear. It was intense. My intention was to do the very best I could for Michio. It got to where everything else was just filling in the time between our trips.

We would have the kind of conversations I'd never had with anybody before. We were at anchor, you know, in a little cove. And we were in the cabin of the boat. We had coffee after dinner, you know, so fresh smell of coffee and sitting there in the light of a 12-volt white bulb. And the windows were open, and outside there's the darkness, you know. And it's quiet, and there's a sense of a really big world out there waiting, you know. And that's - that was the first time in our conversations, you know, when we were talking about all his successes and, you know - he had a show at the Carnegie Museum. He had a show in Tokyo that 10,000 people attended the opening day. They were doing documentaries of him. His books were selling very well. And then just out of the blue he said, I would trade all of this to have a family. And I realized that he was lonely. And that really hit me. Having those kind of conversations at night became one of the things that I looked forward to the most, you know, and gradually realizing that what I really enjoyed here was this open, intimate connection about what we really thought and felt. Sometimes he would ask my advice, you know, (laughter) on how to get what he wanted which was - I was the last person you ought to be asking how you go about getting married, and it kind of snuck up on me that all of a sudden I had this close, good friend.

And then one day he called me up. And I could tell immediately that he was just vibrating with excitement. Michio had made a trip back to Japan and I ask him what was going on. And he said, I met her. Who? What? Tell me about it? And he said, her name is Naoko. We're going to get married pretty soon. I'm embarrassed to admit that my reaction was, oh, no. Instead of being happy for him, I thought I was afraid it was going to mean the end of our trips, that he was going to disappear, you know, he was going to fade out of my life. And then that passed pretty quickly. His excitement was contagious. And a year or so later, he got married and had a son. But then he came to Juneau with his family, and he still had hopes for finding the blue bear. I was kind of elated that it wasn't going to change that much. And it looked like we were definitely going to be making another trip.

It was some months later that I called Michio up. I was very excited and said, I know where there's a blue bear. We can go to this place. Only Michio couldn't go when I thought we needed to go. We'd put it on hold. And I had another charter. After being out for a week or 10 days with those - that crew, I pulled into a little village named Kake and went to a payphone to call in and get all my messages at home. There were probably half a dozen or more messages from people calling to tell me that Michio was dead.

Michio was working, doing his photography with this film crew in the Kamchatka brown bear preserve. In the middle of night, this bear who had been hanging around too close to camp and breaking into things took Michio out of his tent and killed him. I remember standing in that little restaurant, that cafe on the payphone and this incredible void opened up. I literally don't remember the rest of the day, you know, just get back out on the water, find wildlife for these photographers, you know, set up, wait for the light, pay attention to the weather. But I wasn't present somehow. You know, like I was just watching myself do this stuff, not having any idea of what the future might be or if there was a future - if it was worth thinking about - just loss.

The following spring - I had lined up trips for the spring - and was with a couple of photographers that I wasn't getting along with. You know, looking back on it, I probably was not in the best frame of mind. We were anchored off in a fairly remote area. There was no wind but there was the sound of water, you know, the sea moving - all the thousands of tiny, little bubbles and pops and clicks and all you hear from different bivalves being exposed - the kind of thing where at first it seems silent and quiet and still, but when you really start listening, there is just kind of constant - a little murmuration of movement and life.

A bear walked out onto the beach. Got to looking, and there was something different about it. I put the skiff in the water and got a little closer and it was this husky, well-furred, heavily muscled animal with this kind of smoky gray coat that blended into the - all of the glacial erratic stones and the cobbles and things. It looked like a dark gray stone. Sure enough, it was a blue bear. I broke every rule I had about approaching wildlife. I've always made it a point to try to not bother the animals, not intervene. But I just kept drifting closer and closer and closer. And the skiff was in a couple of inches of water. I might've even stepped out of the skiff and started walking towards it if it hadn't just suddenly spun around and was looking at me. And I just picked up my camera that Michio had talked me into getting and took one shot. And then it just turned and ran off into the woods. And it was gone. And then it was just me sitting there on the beach.

Part of it was very bittersweet. You know, it kind of felt a little bit like something was being put in my face. And I remember thinking, where are you, Michio? Where are you now that I've finally found a blue bear? Took one-sixtieth of a second to take that picture. It's blurry. It's kind of out of focus. You can tell it's a blue bear from the color, but the entire story of my friendship with Michio - all of those remarkable times I had spent with Michio - was wrapped up in that one-sixtieth of a second. And the fact that it's not much of a composition and that it's blurry and, you know, poorly shot doesn't change that.

WASHINGTON: Thank you, Lynn Schooler, for sharing your story. To find out more about Lynn and Michio's adventures, grab a copy of Lynn's book, "The Blue Bear" - have a link at snapjudgment.org. That story was produced by Nancy Lopez with sound design, original sound scoring and original sound playing on instruments by Renzo Gorrio and Davey Kim.

Now, stay tuned 'cause we're about to hear about one person's communion with the divine, and the divine answers back, on the SNAP JUDGMENT "Godsend" episode. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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