NEAR LE CONTE GLACIER — The students recline in a half circle of camp chairs facing the scalloped bay, afraid to miss out on the scenery. By week three of this 30-day ed-venture, companionship, paddling skills and new landscapes have begun to fill any void the absence of TV or video games may have caused. Our surroundings help translate the course curriculum — politics and ecology of the Tongass National Forest — into realities that will become ingrained as memories.
Luckily, no timber clear-cuts dissect today's view. In this part of Southeast Alaska's archipelago, hills dark with yellow cedar, hemlock and Sitka spruce wrap around the bases of sudden massifs, part of the nation's largest public forest. Along the shore's scrawl, a dozen sea kayaks lie where we landed, beached like crayon-colored pilot whales. Gulls shriek in a winged blizzard near the high-water mark, pecking at dead things between the rocks.
Mediterranean afternoons too rarely grace Alaska's Inside Passage; before we even pitch tents we take advantage of this one, teaching a lesson on glacial morphology. Lulled by the warmth and my co-instructor's voice, my concentration keeps slipping. A different, animal form of attentiveness takes over as I scan the beach for bears on the prowl.
Some bright, medium-sized creature does register in my field of vision, on an island afloat in the bay. Pacing from one end to the other, it appears to be testing the perimeter of its confinement. Could it be a wolf? I reach for my field glasses, tense enough to alert the group.
A head too small, and angular as slab marble, offsets a boulder-shaped body. Shag fluffs the creature's fore and hindquarters into ridiculous bloomers. A mountain goat. At sea level. The incoming tide has barred its retreat, stranding it like an ice chest washed off some tour boat or a bergy bit gone astray. At first glance it could be a billy or nanny. Both sexes sport jet-black spikes, which local Tlingit carve into potlatch spoons — curved, functional keratin art.
The students are standing now, firn lines and medial moraines temporarily consigned to their minds' garrets. Our intern, Neil, sprints to his kayak, slides into the cockpit, and, pushing with his knuckles, seal-launches from the beach.
"What are you going to do?" someone shouts. "Drape it across your bow?"
"Don't know," he replies. "Just taking a closer look, I guess."
Why not leave it be? I wonder. What feeds this need for proximity, this urge to interfere?
"To cherish," Aldo Leopold mourned in his book, "A Sand County Almanac," "we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish."
Regardless of motivation, the reaching-out of a species that exiled itself behind barriers of artifice can be a bleak and beautiful thing. I only hope nobody will suffer injury or indignity on this occasion.
While Neil disembarks, the goat gallops up and over a rise. Neil walks to the top of the rise, paddle in hand, to see what we have already seen from shore: the goat swimming toward an outcrop, muzzle pointed skyward, cutting a wake through the straits like a chunky retriever.
By the time Neil has inserted himself in the kayak again, the billy has climbed this miniature Ararat doomed to submerge. Against the sea's backdrop, the animal seems out of its element but still more of this place than we Gore-Tex-clad visitors from afar. Possessed of a mineral quality, a poise and resilience older than flesh, it stands riveted to rock — an extension of sweeping summits, hewn from Le Conte Glacier's trunk, hefty and blunt as winter itself. Its stubborn form embodies the land's pluck and fiber. Like snowfields crisp in the distance or the void on explorers' charts, the goat not only invites speculation but also the projection of desires.
I would trade with this bearded recluse in an instant. I'd travel unburdened by gear. I'd grow hairy and hunchbacked and rank, sniffing competitors and mates. I'd become agile enough to dodge grizzlies and wolves, fearless enough to bed down on vertiginous ledges — and smart enough to avoid our kind.
With a lapse into pastoral metaphor excusable in a Scotsman, wilderness sage John Muir compared this breed to others, considering them, "nature's cattle," better fed and protected from the cold. But he also acknowledged the grit in their existence.
During a sledding trip above Glacier Bay, on the ice floe that still bears his name, Muir found bones cast about in an ancient blood ritual. Their configuration spelled out the death of a frail or sick or unlucky one. Presumably, wolves had caught up with a wild goat 2 miles from safer ground, where breakneck terrain matched with ballerina grace would have given it the advantage.
Pulling away from those sobering thoughts, I watch Neil bump the outcrop with the bow of his kayak. He waves a paddle blade in the animal's face. What is he doing? Trying to save a goat by making it dive? It's unlikely to drown, even if it gets flooded out. But Neil might yet discover the flip side of hands-on approaches to learning. If the goat chooses to answer intrusion with uncivil disobedience, our rookie instructor will have a hard time explaining hoof scratches on his kayak deck back at the warehouse.
Clearly annoyed with being crowded, the billy indeed takes him on, defending its shrinking domain. It jerks horn daggers into Neil's direction, hooking the air, unwilling to yield as much as an inch.
On shore, the students holler and cheer — for whom, I cannot tell.
Eventually, the goat's aversion to humans overcomes any fear of tide rips, reefs, orcas or the unfamiliar. With shoulders tucked in like a boxer's, it pivots and leaps high and wide, charging its mirror-twin in the burnished sea. Who would have thought goat-paddling to be as effective as dog-paddling? Our natural history books stay mum on the topic.
Before long we lose sight of the animal as it churns across the bay, into Muir's "endless combinations of water and land," to be culled from the gene pool or to sire a feisty clan somewhere in the high country.
Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, "American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean," and of "Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon". He lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.