We’ve had a mild winter on Kodiak Island; a welcome change from last year. Yesterday, the temperature reached 49 degrees, and while I know we will probably still get another dose of winter, I can sense spring right around the corner. The vegetation doesn’t begin to turn green here until mid May, and we don’t see wild flowers or trees full of leaves until sometime in June. Our first signs of spring are marked by changes in animal behavior. Eagle pairs soar high in the sky and engage in their mating aerobatics, oystercatcher males entice females with their elaborate, somewhat comical mating dance, billions of tiny krill-like crustaceans flood the bay, attracting herring and fin and humpback whales that feed on them, and of course, the bears begin leaving their dens. Suddenly the beaches seem alive with foxes feeding on clams and mussels and does and fawns stretching their legs. Some days I can sit on the end of our dock and watch whales roll and feed right in front of me. Spring in Alaska is a wonderful time of year when nature reawakens after the long, dark, cold winter.
Mike and I took a break from winter this year with a trip to Guyana, South America, where we spent ten days exploring the rain forests and savannas in the interior of the country. In many ways, Guyana is the opposite of Kodiak Island. It can be very rainy, but while we were there, most days were dry and hot. From a distance, the rain forest looks similar to our rain forest, but on closer inspection, the tropical hardwood trees are quite different. The animals of course are also different. We saw many species of beautiful birds, four species of monkeys, a capybara and many caimans. We would have loved to have seen some cats, especially a glimpse of a jaguar, but we weren’t that lucky. I meet people who travel with a list of birds or other wildlife they want to see on their vacation, and some are disappointed if they can’t check off every species on their list. We don’t look at it that way. We choose a remote destination and then keep an open mind and experience what that destination has to offer.
In other ways, our experiences in Guyana mirrored our own lives. We originally chose Guyana because we wanted to see the virgin rain forest, the wide-open savannas, and the wildlife that lives there. We weren’t disappointed by any of that, but to our surprise it was the people that most impressed us. Guyana gets very few tourists (somewhere around 2500) a year, and the people we met were welcoming, eager to share their lives and knowledge with us, and curious about us and where we live. We spent most of our time in Guyana staying at small lodges in the interior of the country. Most of these lodges are much like ours and nearly as remote. We sat around the table at dinner talking to the lodge owners about the same challenges we face, and we shared problem-solving ideas. For example, these lodges have no telephone communication with the outside world (ours is very limited), but they all have satellite Internet, just as we do. Along with satellite Internet comes restricted bandwith, and we discussed how in this age of smart phones and ipads it is difficult to impress upon guests that they cannot stream videos or upload large files or our Internet provider will shut us down for several days, and we will have no communication with the outside world. We also discussed how difficult it is to get supplies to such remote locations. They solve this problem, at least in part, by growing much of their own produce and by raising cattle, pigs, chickens, and fish.
The most interesting topic we discussed with the lodge owners and managers in Guyana was how to balance economics and ecology in a nature-based tourism businesses. We all need to make a living, but how far can you expand your business before your impact on the environment is too great? Nature-based tourism is fairly new to Guyana, and we were pleased to see that the people at the forefront of this industry feel a serious responsibility to protect the environment and the animals that live there. Furthermore, most of these lodges are in or near small Amerindian villages, and the villagers told us that they want their lodges to be successful, but they don’t want their lodges to be so large or time-consuming that they interfere with the way of life they know and love. I think that is very wise and insightful.
One other thing our trip to Guyana impressed upon me is how lucky we are. Our vegetation is nearly as thick as the vegetation in the rain forest of Guyana. If a jaguar steps into the jungle, he disappears immediately. Likewise, when a large bear steps into our woods, he’s gone, we can’t see him. The advantage we have with bears is that in the summer, bears are more visible because they leave the woods to come down to the streams or to the beach to chase and eat salmon. We can almost guarantee (I say almost, because nothing is 100% when it comes to wild animals) you will see bears when you come to Munsey’s Bear Camp in the summer. We can’t promise you that you will see as many bears as you hoped to see or that they will be as close as you want, but you will see bears. Being able to assure your guests they will see a large animal such as a bear is a rare luxury in the world of nature-based tourism. Several of our guides in Guyana expressed their frustration with guests who expect to see jaguars and don’t understand why these wild animals aren’t out roaming the trails and roads. When you go wildlife viewing anywhere in the world, you may be lucky, or you may not. We’re just thankful that the bears that live near us make our jobs much easier.