Remembering Al Baer

This fall I attended the Yukon Biodiversity Forum, a yearly round-up of biology goings-on in

the territory. I reunited with old friends and met new ones, and was overjoyed to hear that an old mentor of mine was planning on coming back to the territory. Alan Baer had taught me the art of strapping antennae to the wings of a plane and flying about the countryside in search of collared animals — aerial telemetry — but we lost touch since he retired and headed south. I sent off a letter, expressing my eagerness to see him and welcome him home.

He never opened it.

A week later I picked up a paper after a self-imposed news-hiatus, and read the notice — Al had passed away at the end of October. I missed the memorial service, but I think he would have understood; he was sympathetic to my efforts to step out from time to time. So instead, I composed these lines in his memory, while gazing out at the mountains from the Canada Games Centre.

The view took me squarely back into another time, flying low over the Pelly Mountains. Names like Livingstone and Hootalinqua jumped off the too-large map folded on my knees and took life in the landscape below, as we scooted up steep draws and skimmed treetops.

I was working for the Teslin Tlingit Council, and was under Al’s tutelage — who worked for Environment Yukon. Together we were borne aloft in a tiny plane piloted by Gerd Mannsperger. While I sometimes felt extraneous in light of their combined experience and skill, I couldn’t have been happier.

Al was quick to hand over the telemetry box to his acolyte and take up his post, scrunched in the narrow rear seat, from where he would share jokes with Gerd, and holler numbers at me from his GPS. The two of them would chow down on sandwiches from Tim Hortons, and shake their heads despairingly at this new generation of biologists, whose stomachs didn’t allow them to enjoy the fast-moving scenery and delightfully dizzying spins Gerd orchestrated. I focused on the sublime landscape and by sheer willpower resolved not to fall into that lamentable category. It didn’t always work, but when I did succumb to motion sickness Al was always kind, and the comments would shift to the redeeming qualities of those who were able to continue to work even after turning to the sickbag. I looked forward to the camaraderie of those times, and would pepper Al with questions — he was a wealth of information and generous with stories and insights.

Once training was complete and I was sent off solo with Gerd, I would seek out Al whenever I made a trip to the Environment Yukon office, just to chat. We bonded over a shared love of wild places, of getting out into the bush.

Then I left my job, and he retired, and our contact diminished over time. The last time we spoke, in 2011, he talked about the dreamweaver, and wished me a brightly coloured thread.

I miss your presence Al, and though I am saddened to know you won’t be coming home to this land that you loved so much, I am heartened when I look out at those mountains, because I know that a large part of you never left. 

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