After canceling many trips due to the risks of travel during COVID-19 pandemic, Michelle Theall was able to lead a trip to Katmai National Park. The group saw a “pool party” of bears. Photo by Michelle Theall.
Is it safe to travel? Am I okay? Will my guests be okay? How can I lead a trip during a pandemic? Should I? Questions. So many of them. As a woman running wildlife viewing tours in Alaska and beyond, I embarked on 2020 full of optimism about tours I’d been offering for years and a few new ones I planned to introduce or scout for launching in 2021.
My polar bear trip to Kaktovik had been sold out for over a year, as had Katmai, Africa, and Svalbard. Then, a deadly virus hit China, one that didn’t even have a name yet. Returning from the Africa trip in January, I sat on a Delta flight next to a woman from China for 10 hours. I went through airports in Nairobi, Arusha, Amsterdam, Detroit, and Denver. I ran across a few individuals wearing masks, but it had yet to become a prevalent practice.
In February, I went through LAX to Baja, Mexico, to try a whale-viewing camp at Magdalena Bay. Rumors swirled about COVID-19, but no one took precautions. Mexico remained open for business as usual. By early March, it was obvious that the disease had arrived in the U.S., and cases began rising. As I packed for a business meeting in Alaska from my winter home in Colorado, I became worried about catching the virus. I wasn’t afraid of feeling bad or even dying. I was concerned about missing out on traveling to the places I loved if I were to get sick with an illness that might sideline me for weeks or even months.
The day before I left for Alaska, Michael, my best friend and a father figure to my son, showed up unannounced and wearing a mask. He wore it because he had just been to urgent care, and he worried he might infect us with whatever he had, though he didn’t think it was COVID-19. Knowing I would be traveling, I kept my distance, giving him “air hugs” when he left. Though I spoke to him several times after that, including two weeks later on the morning he died, I never saw him again.
He was my age. He built my son a swing set in the backyard, took him to his first baseball game, and taught him to shave. I spoke to him or saw him every week of our lives for 26 years. We bantered about love and politics, world events, family, aging parents, and travel. We talked about traveling to Australia and Greece. And then, he was gone. Losing him made the world stop, and for a while, I wanted to curl up into a ball and stay that way. But that lack of inertia only made me feel worse, and I needed to get moving again.
I know the reality and impact of this pandemic, which is still raging as I type these words. But I also know that travel and the Great Land of Alaska have made my life worth living—have saved me in more ways than I can truly articulate. The kindred spirits who fill my trips feel the same way. And the more hopeless the future seemed, with insurmountable economic losses and isolation, the more travel became a necessary antidote for them and for me. We all live to reach the same end. The time in between birth and death, how we spend it, is perhaps what matters most. Was there a responsible way to travel? Michael’s mask had saved us, and it was such a simple and selfless thing for him to do at a time when the real dangers of COVID-19 were just taking shape. Still, too little was known. I didn’t want to die or risk killing someone else. So, I canceled any excursions taking place in the next few months.
One of the trips I kept on the books was to Kaktovik in October. I reasoned that things might resolve in the seven months prior to departure. Then Ravn, the only airline to serve rural areas of Alaska, including Kaktovik, declared Chapter 11. I held out hope. Perhaps another airline would step forward and take over those routes. As I worried about that, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge made the decision for me: Because of the pandemic, ANWR canceled polar bear season for tourists, revoking permits for the commercial boat drivers in Kaktovik. A good call, since the small whaling village comprised primarily of Native Inupiat lacked emergency services or hospitals. COVID-19 could wipe out an entire community in one fell swoop.
I handed out refunds, renegotiated dates for 2021, moved deposits to the next year, and tried to recoup lost money from pre-purchased flights on Ravn. Likewise, my permits for a wild mustang tour on BLM land and reservations for a Svalbard cruise moved and shifted to later dates. Guests understood. I held onto hope that my Alaska late summer trip to Katmai would run as planned. In the meantime, I had long stopped promoting any of my tours for 2020. I didn’t want to dash hopes or deal with cancelations, rebookings, or refunds, even as I lost money on non-refundable purchases made on my clients’ behalves. Most of my clients were repeat customers, and I felt like I owed them something for this loyalty over years and miles.
I kept in touch with my vendors as the dates to the Alaska trip approached. A month prior to our departure, Katmai National Park decided to close to overnight lodging at Brooks Falls, opening only for day trips until August 10. I rearranged flights and got our group a day trip to the falls on August 9, with overnight lodging at King Salmon Lodge, before flying back to Katmai to spend the next two nights as planned. Our group wouldn’t miss a day at the falls. And yet, I worried.
As a few cases emerged in Alaska, the Anchorage airport instituted a COVID-testing stipulation, requiring all out-of-state arrivals to have a pending five-day or three-day test or negative one in hand to enter the city without quarantine. Those without proof of a negative test within 72-hours would be retested at the airport. Most of my out-of-state guests came from cities that couldn’t turn around a test that quickly. Would the state require them to quarantine for 14 days on their own dime prior to releasing them for further travel? And how did a negative test in hand, taken before departure, ensure that exposure on the flight over hadn’t infected the travelers? Despite the extra requirements, I appreciated the safety protocol. We would all be tested. Everyone coming into the state would be tested. It was an additional safeguard. My guests seemed okay with the requirement and the risks of travel. I helped them research rapid-testing facilities in their areas. We agreed to wear masks when not in our own group.
All seemed to be going according to plan, and then an asymptomatic Katmai ranger tested positive for coronavirus. The park was immediately closed until further notice, with an update scheduled for August 10. I panicked. I got a plan A, B, and C in place. Katmailand, a tour company operating in the park, refused to issue refunds, since the possibility still existed for a reopening. I debated how long to wait before telling my guests. Rumors swirled of a possible reopening to day trips on August 8, but as of August 4, no official announcement had been made. I called the superintendent of Katmai. I finally received verification of the reopening two days prior to our scheduled dates and breathed a sigh of relief.
When my guests arrived, freshly tested and COVID-negative, they donned masks and sanitized hands and kept a six-foot distance from other travelers we encountered beyond our group. We spent most of our time outside, which was deemed safer than indoors. Our first day in Katmai, our small group was rewarded by having the entire viewing platform to ourselves, enjoying the presence of 17 coastal grizzlies fishing at the waterfall. As our cabins had not been occupied for the entire season, we enjoyed germ-free accommodations. The journey to Alaska this year, for all of us, was made much sweeter by what it took to get there, and the knowledge that certain risks were worth taking in order to truly live. My friend Michael, somewhere watching over us and teasing me gently about not getting eaten by a bear, would whole-heartedly agree—and encourage me to keep wearing a mask.