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
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