With Bonus Feature: A Human Ecological Problem Solving Reader
(footnotes refer to reader problem solving questions at the end of the piece).
I’ve spent a lot of time in Mongolia and have always been fascinated by how Mongolian kids take to horseback riding — they can ride before they can walk. A similar phenomenon occurs in Downeast Maine, but in this part of the world knobby tires substitute for hooves. Four-wheelers are ubiquitous in these parts and kids are accomplished riders very early in life.
The greater environmental community looks down on four-wheelers and, frankly, on those that ride them.(1) I love four-wheelers and look down on those that judge a man or woman’s character based on their choice of recreation or transport. I grew up riding three-wheelers — the less-stable, unruly no-longer-legal four-wheeler cousin — but have made the transition to four-wheelers with only minor complaints.
This is the story of my love affair with a particular Yamaha 4wheeler (note appropriate orthography) named Big Bear.
There are many wild stretches of Maine. One that I like an awful lot is that big block of woods stretching SW to NE between the Penobscot River and the Bay of Fundy, and between Highway 1 and Highway 9, otherwise known as the Airline Road. It’s full of secondary growth and a perplexing thoroughfare of ponds, lakes, rivers and streams.(2)
I’ve got a buddy, we’ll call him Ted to protect his anonymity though I doubt he cares much about remaining anonymous. Ted grew up on MDI, fishes for lobster, is Dad to one of my daughter’s best new school buddies, and is someone I now consider a close buddy myself. We watch our kids swim together, our wives have really hit it off, and I don’t fault him too much for his obsessive admiration of the New England Patriots. He’s also a Sox fan, but I know better than to mock him for that.
To avoid awkward silence or violence around our polarly opposite professional sports interests, Ted and I typically talk fishing. Our discussions a week ago led to an invitation to Ted’s hunting camp on Molasses Pond for some ice fishing and that’s where our story begins.
Molasses Pond can be found on the USGS quadrant of the same name, is 1,252 acres, 47 feet deep and used to be one of the region’s best sport fisheries, chock full of land locked salmon and trout. Someone in the mid-1990s thought it would be a great idea to introduce bass into Molasses Pond. The bass have thrived at the expense of the salmon and trout and there’s now a bounty on that idiot’s head. We will find him.(3)
Though folks curse the bass and their evil salmonid-killing ways, we delight in catching them under the ice and feeding them to bald eagles in something of a “you are not welcome here” ceremony. In the course of so doing, I’m convinced Molasses Pond anglers have single-handedly brought back the bald eagle and, concomitantly, have driven bird biologists close to the brink as those raptors dine on off-island ducks and assorted sea birds.(4)
I’ll come right out and say it: I’m envious of Ted’s camp. It’s perfect. It’s heated by an enormous ancient wood stove in the kitchen and a bigger one in the main room. There’s a loft. There are animal skulls and pelts. There’s a toilet that you have to flush by filling the tank with pond water. There are large piles of cut and stacked wood. There’s a dock and a boat house and in that boat house, adorned with a stolen “HUNTERS WELCOME” Budweiser banner, there is a Yamaha 500cc 4runner appropriately named Big Bear.
Now, although Ted owns Big Bear in the legal sense, Ted’s eight-year-old son Francis owns her in a metaphysical sense. And he can ride. When I couldn’t get Big Bear into neutral I didn’t call for Ted’s help. Francis is a great kid and I live vicariously through him as he blissfully spends hours running Big Bear out onto Molasses Pond and up around the camp, onto the pond, around the camp, onto the pond, etc. As a kid in New Jersey, I never had the space or freedom to develop this kid’s riding chops.
But I tend to make up for a lack of skill with plenty of enthusiasm. So when Francis’ mom called him in for dinner, I saw the hole open and enthusiastically took Big Bear for a ride. With that little fart mowing down on hot dogs and hamburgers I kicked Big Bear into gear and took off. Francis would likely have tackled me if his Mom hadn’t wielded that “stay seated or suffer dire consequences” glance.
Ted had given me some general sense of the landscape and surrounding trails, but the geographic illiteracy added a lot to the general thrill of riding. I made my way onto a marked snowmobile path and found ecstasy in the hum of the engine, the fading light on white birch, and the cold, scathing wind on my face.
“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle (or 4wheeler) in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment … and everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene and not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p. 4.(5)
Don’t get me wrong, I also love that absolute solitude you can get by walking, running, skiing, mountain biking, sailing, kayaking, or otherwise just being in the woods, but there’s an amazing mind meld that occurs when you mix in the movement of pistons, the grip of hard rubber and the growl of internal combustion.
I moved off the snowmobile trail and onto neighboring Scammon Pond. At about 1,100 acres Scammon Pond is smaller than neighboring Molasses Pond and is surrounded by a wildlife management area. There are no camps on shore and it feels worlds away. Stumps pepper the icy surface. It’s colder here. And darker. Crows catch my attention to the south and I make my way in their direction because I love crows more than any other bird.
As the east and west shore of the lake begin to pinch in I see a huge glacial erratic and I’m drawn to it. Moving closer I see a long swath of dark ice just west of that boulder and fifty feet from the color change I discover that the dark ice is actually open water.(6) Before I can react I feel Big Bear plunge and feel the nauseating embrace of almost frozen water. Across this second or two, time slows to a near stop.
I’ve run that event over and over in my mind, poking and prodding it with ‘what ifs’ and ‘why’: what if I hit my head, what if I had one of my girls on the back; why didn’t I react more quickly, why did I go out on a pond I didn’t know? I suppose our lives are full of decision points like that, but not all of them have such devastating potential consequences.(7) I’m hoping that writing will help turn that broken record off.
This story might be more interesting if I went under the ice completely and managed some heroics to extricate myself from beneath the ice. But I was out of that water as quickly as I was in it. When Big Bear dove, she pitched me to the other side of the open water and I bet my last touch on her foot peg was what gave me the needed leverage to go from being arm-pit deep in ice water to eye-ball deep in shit laying on the ice worrying about what to do next.
I turned, watched her bob for a second, and started to run. Well, run isn’t quite right. My boots weighed close to ten pounds a piece and my body went pretty stiff. Something closer to a Big Foot shuffle might describe it better. I’m guessing it was about three miles from the water back to camp and, again, this act in the play could have been full of much more adventure and hi-jinx: lost in the woods, night shelter lean-to construction, wolves, etc. But the run back was only mind numbing. As I shuffled along the pond shore, the snowmobile trail and eventually the driveway to camp, all I could think about was how in the hell am I going to tell Ted — and, worse, Francis — about Big Bear.
Of course they were worried about me and not Big Bear, though I slept with one eye open that night half expecting Francis to seek some kind of devious revenge. After some color returned to my skin, the conversation quickly turned to extraction. And, in my mind, here’s where our story gets really interesting.
We woke up the warden down in Gouldsboro. I have to think he hates getting these kinds of calls at these strange hours. Maine has lost several folks going through thin ice or open water this year. Pulling a frozen corpse out of a muddy pond must rank right down there as the worst part of any natural resource management position with the state. But once he was assured that no one was killed or hurt in the accident his attention also turned to Big Bear. “You’ve got 30 days to get her out of there else the DEP gets involved with a law suit.”
Not that I would ever think about slashing the tires, removing the tags and hoping that Big Bear would find a deep watery grave and never resurface, but we weren’t too enthused by the prospects of getting her out of the drink. Ted’s buddies from the backside of the Island, however, were very much enthused by the idea of trying and by daybreak they were en route from Bass Harbor outfitted with come-alongs, another 4wheeler (that I was not allowed to go near or even look at), alarmingly long lengths of chain, chain saws, python-thick rope, a brainstorm of ideas that would make any McKinsey consultant’s head spin, and an impressive cache of Bud Light (in bottles).(8)
Now here you have a college president, a college president from away, a college president from New Jersey of all places, and a New Jersey native college president who just drove a 4wheeler right into open water. I don’t have to tell you the razzing that went on when the crew arrived. It was an ego beat-down I well deserved, but I can honestly say the gang of four (Ted and his three buddies) razzed me just enough to let me know how bad this could have been, but never enough to make me feel stupid (that might come later I suppose). The added case of Bud Light I brought to the extraction event also may have helped smooth things out some.
We were a team on a mission and there was never a pessimistic moment – that girl was coming out of that icy inferno no mater what. Verde, the biggest guy in the bunch, also happened to be the least fearful on the ice edge. A polar bear clawing for seal, he managed to hook the rear axel with a chain. Ted and his brother Ned got to working on the leverage point — big timbers set at an angle in the ice to provide the necessary upward pull, rather than straight horizontal which would have just dragged her against the ice edge. The contraption looked like a cult cross and we prayed to it. KC, who seemed like the ring leader, strung the line and manned the rescue 4wheeler.
With far less drama than I had imagined, Big Bear was pulled up onto the ice.(8) Water flowed from every orifice as she stood their shivering in the fading light — a reminder that though we may have rescued her from her aqueous grave, the chances of her running again were slim. We shook our heads, saddened a bit by that thought, and then broke into the case of Bud Light. Our gear gathered, our libations consumed, we pulled Big Bear to camp hooting and hollering the whole way home.
I just got off the phone with Ted. Big Bear was brought right from Scammon Pond to the best ATV guy in Downeast Maine. I was really hoping for some good news — not just because it wouldn’t cost me as much, but because I’d started to develop that same relationship to her that Ted and certainly Francis had. But it doesn’t look good. Her innards would have to be stripped and rebuilt. The consensus: let the shop class have at her. Big Bear served Ted for 13 years and Francis for his seven; she would leave this world a working corpse, shedding light on the mysteries of internal combustion. God bless her.
Lesson learned: In all seriousness – never be so stupid as to take a 4wheeler on ice you don’t know.
For the many book clubs that might gather to discuss the human ecological implications within this story, I provide some guiding questions as end notes.
1 What are the economic and ecological implications of 4wheeler use in Downeast Maine? What are some of the cultural origins of the bias toward or against 4wheeler use?
2 Why do you suppose that Hwy 9 is called the “Airline” Road? What are the unique geological conditions that have given this region its shape and context? How have human communities been influenced by that geological context?
3 Are bass an invasive species, a successful species or both? How would you design a plan to eradicate bass in order to re-establish the salmonids? How might you prevent bass from being re-introduced if you were successful? What are the biological and economic implications of the bass/salmonid dichotomy? What does it mean to hold a vendetta against someone?
4 How might you go about measuring the impact the bass fishery has had on the recovery of bald eagles in Maine? Can you imagine a scenario where there might be other win-win situations involving invasive species eradication and endangered species recovery?
5 In the text Robert Pirsig also says “The Buddha resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.” Do you agree?
6 Why do you think I found open water where I did?
7 How do you evaluate risk in your daily life?
8 Think about altruism, gift giving and reciprocal altruism. How are peoples’ lives tied together by favors and gifts? Is gift giving more or less common in urban or rural environments?
9 Imagine you have to design a sign warning people of thin ice and the dangers of vehicular traffic on thinning ice and imagine you have to incorporate a message about “changing climatic conditions” on that sign? What images or messages do you use to ensure the sign is useful as a warning rather than as target practice for a shotgun?