(Photo by Joshua Pak)


Column: A COVID-19 summer in bear country

On a hot summer day, you stand waiting in a seemingly endless line of people for a scoop of ice cream at a local’s favorite. But wait, they aren’t 6-feet apart? You sneak a look behind you and find yourself staring bug-eyed at a blaring rock concert that’s packed with people to the edges. You…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/joshpakemail1101/" target="_self">Joshua Pak</a>

Joshua Pak

August 13, 2021

On a hot summer day, you stand waiting in a seemingly endless line of people for a scoop of ice cream at a local’s favorite. But wait, they aren’t 6-feet apart?

You sneak a look behind you and find yourself staring bug-eyed at a blaring rock concert that’s packed with people to the edges. You feel a sudden urge to join in the fun but, the realization climbs up your back, no one’s wearing a mask.

Up here in Alaska, this is a very familiar scene, it’s like this virtually anywhere you go now. With mask mandates particularly relaxed here, COVID-19 seems to be a distant bad dream. Walking into any given Walmart, I can only count one or two people wearing a mask, including myself. And though masks aren’t mandatory for those vaccinated, I’d like to keep mine on for just a little longer, because my face feels a little naked without it.

The state of the virus here nowadays is very different compared to somewhere else like California. With less than 730,000 residents in a state bigger than most countries, it’s no surprise that it’s very different up here.

However, in the beginning, Alaska was no big exception, as the global pandemic hit hard like everywhere else. I remember hearing on the news about the virus devastating rural native villages so remote, you have to take several hour-long floatplane trips just to get there.  

During the peak of the pandemic, when masks were mandatory by law, there was a lot of controversy about mask-wearing. While mostly everyone else wore masks, there were still people who kept them off for political reasons.

On the other hand, I felt strongly passionate about mask-wearing as my 102-year-old great-grandma passed away with COVID in LA in May 2020. I thought if I could do my part, other elderly people like my great-grandma would have a better chance. 

Since I felt mask-wearing was very important, whenever I saw anyone with their masks not properly on or completely without one, I would provide them tips to fix it or offer them one.

But one particular time, I was about to offer a mask to an elderly white man with a cap, when I noticed a huge bulge in his pants in the shape of a large pistol. I instantly backed away with my heart pounding like crazy as I didn’t want to risk my life offering up a mask. This is also very familiar, as concealed weapons are very much legal around here. 

Though admittedly, as an Alaskan, I think I was able to cope with the virus much better than others. I’m fortunate enough, that if I drive about 10 minutes out of Anchorage, I have the privilege to watch beluga whales socializing and herds of mountain goats licking the rocks on the mountains when driving through the highway.

And due to this, I’ve gained experiences in the wilderness that would’ve never happened if it wasn’t for the pandemic. For instance, I was able to have a once-in-a-lifetime encounter on camera.

It started off as a regular day of fishing on the Russian River when a loud grunt followed by the rustling of leaves came from right behind me. My instincts kicked in and I started walking back slowly, careful of each step and trying to look as innocuous as possible. I looked up and I saw a huge male Grizzly bear that came in for an easy meal of the salmon I had caught, and as I and a few other fishermen stood frozen watching it wide-eyed, the bear ripped my salmon off my stringer and left as quickly as it came.

I moved my jaw back into its place and after my adrenaline slowed down, I realized how lucky I was to have my body in one piece and a picture of the encounter. 

On a much, much calmer note, taking an evening stroll in my backyard (where bears and moose roam alike) and taking a nibble at the abundant wild raspberries or watching the everlasting sun finally setting down into the horizon really stand as memories to last a lifetime.

As mentioned, during the summer the sun is almost really endless. During the summer solstice (around June), daylight lasts for almost 24 hours up in the north and around 20 hours down here in Anchorage. With plenty of daylight to burn, Alaska has a myriad of activities to pass the time.

I’m able to catch fish from the Copper River that the president eats and ride four-wheelers as an easy-to-do pastime. People like me up here party until the sun goes down and save the sleeping for the winter. And before I know it, summer is already over.

But like the calm before a storm, winter here is the inevitable opposite of summer. During the winter solstice, the sun only rises for about 4 hours during the whole day and I feel trapped inside my house due to the below 0° temperatures like my friends, the bears. Normally there are short reliefs during the winter like hanging out with my friends or skiing but these were obviously closed last winter. So, I was stuck at home with my incredibly annoying little brother.

The lack of sun exposure due to the prolonged isolation during the winter contributes to the lack of vitamin D and consequently is the main reason for widespread SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) in Alaska. If it wasn’t for the Vitamin D supplements my mom earnestly nagged me to eat daily, I fear I may have gotten it too.

But after the very long, isolated winter, our school board decided to open the last quarter of school for in-person learning. Everyone was anxious and ecstatic about going back and I could feel the change of tone of the students and teachers in our online class.

There was a happy buzz through the electronic air. And then there was me, the new kid at a school who is only known by the upper half of my body through zoom. I mean 8th grade is hard enough being new, but in a school where basically everyone knows each other since kindergarten (it’s a K-12), it seemed pretty hard to make friends.

Many kids barely turned their camera’s on and so during the first week of school, I was busy matching people to their zoom names like a puzzle and would feel a little bit of self-satisfaction each time I figured one out.

Thankfully, later throughout the quarter, I made some really good friends and soon got invited to a friend’s birthday party, a slumber party at a hotel. I was in dread because I was in a state where I would hesitate requests to hang out even with my old friends because of all the months of piled-up social anxiety and fear of COVID.

So imagine my response when my friend asked if I could come. “Mmmm, I don’t know” followed by a shrug was my usual response and I tried quickly to change the subject. So all I could do was wish him a happy birthday and a little gift. 

Before I knew it, the school was already over again and I was in for a summer that feels like the total opposite of the year before, so I felt like a frog. In life, there are certain stages with abrupt, unexpected changes like COVID-19 that jump out of nowhere and resemble the conspicuous transformations of a frog, like an egg to a tadpole, whereas certain stages smoothly transition through like the numerous phases of a tadpole. And with each change would come different experiences and perspectives on life.

With easing restrictions, I’m excited to hang out with friends though admittedly, there’s a sense of wistfulness to it all.

I would think back to the year 2020 knowing that though COVID-19 put the world on hold, I was able to find respite in the hectic current of life. Knowing that the time I was able to find a special connection with Alaska’s nature will never come back is a feeling of gratitude towards the time the virus tried to steal from me.

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