Iceland geyser

by Steve Giordano


     Heard any good Sasquatch stories lately?  Do you wonder where they are when you're hiking in the woods?  Do you keep a camera handy just in case?

     I spent a day with a skier from Chile, the guide for some skiers who were exploring new terrain in the British Columbia mountains. It was somewhat of an adventure to ski down a glacier through thick cloud, trusting our success to the confidence of an experienced guide.

     For a few, getting lost in white out conditions seemed a real possibility. Childhood fears of abandonment came to mind, or possibly getting carried off by bears in the woods below. Unlike Sasquatch, they were seen coming out of
hibernation in a grumpy state a few days earlier. Skiers who had seen them were most anxious to finish the tour.

     The talk, quite logically, was mostly about skiing and other soaring sports, while animal contact lurked in the backs of all our minds. The guide talked at length about a friend of hers who spends a lot of time hang gliding from the ski resort at Portillo, Chile.

Cat with mice on head
Cat with mice on head

     The hang glidist has gotten so accomplished, he actually soars down the eastern side of the Andes and lands in Argentina. That's not as far-fetched as it sounds if you remember your geography. The border between the two countries is the Andes, and it's about 2000 miles long.

     The drifter has no trouble hitch hiking back to Chile: picture a fellow standing by the side of the road in the middle of the Pampas with great bundles of sails and struts. Bored, curious truckers are usually his source of return transportation.

     All that is interesting enough, but think for a moment of the sensation of soaring through the air thousands of feet up, rising on the currents and descending in the pockets. I would call it air surfing.

     But this is South America we were talking about, where the mountains foster animal and bird life such as we've never seen.

Condor soaring
Soaring condor, courtesy

     We have eagles, and they figure big in our national consciousness. Chile and Argentina have condors, and they figure very big indeed in the local lore and mythology. The soaring hang glider flies with the condors; with them, around them and between them. They eye him with curiosity, but otherwise show no sign of being bothered.

     At this point in the story my new Chilean friend said,"Y'know, that's quite a leap of faith for him to fly with the condors. As kids we were scared to death of them." I
wondered what was to be afraid of, thinking of the eagles in this country.

     "When we were little, our parents always threatened that if we didn't behave, a condor would carry us off," she said. Could a condor really do that, I asked. "Well," she continued, "we'd certainly seen them carry off enough sheep."

Condor wingspan
Condor wingspan, courtesy Larry Turner

     The condors, with a wingspan of more than ten feet, would carry up smaller sheep and then drop them. After they were dropped from considerable height, they were no problem to eat. The same thing works on the Pacific Northwest coast with crows and clams.

     So much for visions of soaring.

     Do you remember a childhood fear that kept you on the straight and narrow? Not the "Step on a crack, break your mother's back" variety, but more in the line of "Stay close to the house or the Sasquatch will get you."

     Yesterday's big bad wolf sneaking from the woods becomes today's killer bees migrating ever northward from South America and tomorrow's murder hornets already seen in Washington State.

     Death by animal is the fear that reflects the opposite of our childhood desires to live among them. "Gorillas in the Mist" captured the imagination of a lot of us. The
romance of living with and studying wild animals might be a leftover genetic trait from when some of our ancestors did just that. The successful ones survived, and the ones who couldn't get along with the animals were picked off our family tree.

     Bertrand Russell said, "Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom."

     It's an uneasy peace we keep with the animal kingdom. We keep some in our homes to live with us, but also build fences around our gardens to keep others out.

     Most of us can't soar with the condors and aren't inclined to ski with the bears, but we delight in sightings and enjoy vicariously the animal magnetism of adventurers who defy the laws of nature.

     Even though we chuckle at a good Sasquatch story now and then, we stay alert in the woods just in case.