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Where’s Waldo?
By David Anderson, NOLS Instructor
 
© David Anderson

From the start, Waldo didn’t really fit in. He joined our NOLS Alaska Mountaineering course in the eastern Alaska Range in mid-May, and to be truthful I didn’t really pay to much attention to him at first. I had other things on my mind.

“Holy rippin,” yelled my co-instructor Craig, as the wind cranked up another notch.

The tents wouldn’t last in these winds. We frantically dug in like worker bees protecting the hive, hardening the soft snow, cutting blocks and building walls around our flimsy nylon shelters.

As our camp became more connected to the glacier, I began to relax a little. It was then that I first noticed Waldo. With his chest puffed out against the wind, he was strutting around checking out each of the tents, like they were something he had never seen before.

As the storm raged on, Waldo continued to explore camp, examining our packs and poking his head under the tent vestibules. Despite many attempts at conversation, Waldo remained a silent observer. It wasn’t that he was arrogant or unfriendly. He was just different. Waldo belonged to a different family than the rest of us mountaineers. No, I don’t mean he was a boulderer.

Waldo belonged to the family Emberizidae. You see, Waldo was a rusty blackbird. He had spent his winter in the southeastern U.S., perhaps Florida, soaking up the sun, eating grasshoppers and fattening up for his long migration north. Waldo was trying to return to his summer breeding grounds, the wooded swamps and muskegs of Alaska, when he was forced to the glacier by this late spring storm.

© David Anderson

Like Waldo we were also grounded by the storm. Our food and fuel was running low and our bush pilot couldn’t fly in and deliver our much-needed re-supply. I looked into Wado’s unblinking yellow eyes and said, “Well kid, I hope the weather improves, for both our sakes.”

That evening, as the temperature dropped, Waldo’s survival instinct overcame his natural fear of humans. He hopped in our tent and planted himself at the foot of my down sleeping bag. Squatting, feathers ruffled to their maximum insulating extent, he remained there all night, like a content lap dog.

As the next day progressed, the cold fist of the low pressure system slowly loosened its grip on the glacier. Breaks of bright blue sky began to poke through benign cumulus clouds. Waldo flitted around camp, his dark plumage absorbing the warmth of the bright Alaskan sun. Surprisingly, he seemed in no hurry to leave. I would like to think it was because he had formed a bond with us and was grateful for the warmth and kindness we bestowed upon him in his most dire time. But, in reality, he was busy gobbling down crumbs of food my students accidentally dropped on the snow.

By late afternoon, our bush pilot arrived in his tiny super cub airplane packed with white gas, pasta and chocolate. As the pilot did his customary goodbye, a low flyby at full throttle, one of my students asked. “Where’s Waldo?”

We turned and gazed 25 miles down the glacier to where refracted light transformed the taiga into a hazy green mirage. We were too far away to see the individual stands of black spruce, bear flower and cow parsnip, but the up glacier wind told our noses of their existence. We packed up our gear, left the sterile mountains and followed Waldo down to the land of the living.

David Anderson, a NOLS Instructor since 1996, is an avid climber and mountaineer. His climbing expeditions have taken him all over the world, from remote Alaska, to even more remote Pakistan and India.

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