© WWF-US / Irene Magafan

I am in a river.

IN a river. In Alaska at Brooks Falls, and I can’t go anywhere because a bear has plopped herself down 25 yards away from me, my group, and our guide, with the 40-degree water swirling around our wader-clad knees.

I am on a river walk. Where I come from, in Chicago, a “river walk” is a nice sidewalk next to the river, with wine bars and trendy restaurants and water taxis. All my city life I have lived like this – next to nature.

© Geri Thompson

And I’ve bought into the prevailing concept of nature as unspoiled, pristine, and valuable only when untouched by humans. It has always been separate for me, and separate from me. Beautiful, inspiring, wondrous – and separate.

Then I went to Alaska on a Nat Hab trip with a group of curious explorers who are now my friends, including my precious buddy Irene.

There in the river with the bears, I learned it.

© WWF-US / Irene Magafan

I learned that I am not separate from nature. I am nature, too.

Looking back through trip photos, I see that most of my great wilderness shots have some evidence of a person in them. Not nature alone. Not people alone. Together.

There is something about Alaska; I feel this breathing unity, a oneness, between its nature and its people. Wilderness and humans working together to survive the ridiculous living situation that is the north, northern hemisphere.

But the sheer majesty of those rivers and glaciers and moose and mountains and whales and bears, and my personal favorite, puffins, also makes me feel that I am superfluous.

On a crystal blue morning, measuring my 5-foot self against Denali’s 20,310-foot snowy peak from the back of a 4-seater plane. In that place, feel the supremacy of nature in a deep and abiding way.

Turns out, Irene and I experienced what we thought were different feelings about Alaska. Mine is this feeling of unity and belonging and togetherness. Irene had a deep sense of responsibility to steward this magnificent land for its creatures. But really these are the same.

© Geri Thompson

Our relationship with nature – it is a partnership. You bring your strengths, trust your partner, and, together, make something wonderful that is impossible when separate. Like a dance. Like friendship.

Alaska. Go.

And stay 50 yards away from the bears.

By Mary Kaiser, WWF