City Wilds

Shield bug on snow.





During my first seven decades, it’s been suggested from time to time that I have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). One former girlfriend was absolutely convinced of my OCD nature, but the possibility also occasionally surfaced during counseling sessions. I think it’s likely true, though I prefer to place my 70-year-old self at the mild end of the spectrum.

Looking back, I can see that OCD became a problem for me in late adolescence and continued into adulthood, though for a long time I kept the symptoms—most notably excessive (or obsessive) worry and getting caught in “loops” of anxious, often self-judging thoughts—largely to myself. Still, I do recall my dad once telling me, “You worry too much, just like your mother.”

Eventually I sought and found help, which started me on the decades-long path of personal and spiritual growth that I still follow.

As I’ve gotten older—and, I like to believe, healthier—I’ve learned to be more playful with my OCD tendencies. My passion for wild nature helps me with this.

Here’s an example: in early January I wrote a City Wilds column about my decision to do at least one hill climb every week of 2019 (“Keeping a Streak Alive: Last Hill Climb of the Year”). This grew out of both my love for the mountains and my late-in-life discovery (as a 60-something adventurer) that I could safely ascend several Chugach Front Range peaks even in the depths of winter, using only my hiking and hill-scrambling skills—no technical climbing expertise required. (Several factors contributed to this new passion, for instance our milder, snow-diminished winters plus the evolution of sturdy ice grippers, my shift to being a dedicated, year-round walker, and the entry into my life of dogs—first Coya, later Denali—that love to roam the mountains.)

But when does a goal become an obsession? There have been times in winter when I’ve pushed my own boundaries to get that weekly hill climb. That can be a good thing, as long as safety isn’t compromised. The point, I suppose, is that I have sometimes felt internally compelled to go ascend a mountain.

Another example, which I’ve also documented in City Wilds (mostly recently in the January 2019 column “Celebrating winter bugs, light pillars, and other forms of wild nature”): my resolution to find some sort of living bug—which I define as an insect or arachnid—during my Anchorage-area outdoor excursions, every month of the year.

This quest involves two sorts of compulsions: the actual search for winter bugs and the ongoing documentation of my discoveries. As of December 2019, I have found at least one living insect or arachnid (usually a spider) in the Anchorage Bowl or neighboring Chugach State Park for 95 consecutive months, a streak of nearly eight full years that began in February 2012. This is by far the longest nature-oriented streak I’ve documented and it’s one that can be viewed as either the accomplishment of a very dedicated naturalist or the effort of someone with OCD. Or both.

Here I’ll introduce two more streaks to which I’ve recently dedicated myself. The first is born in smart-phone technology and again my dedication to walking, whether through city neighborhoods or high in the mountains. It started after I’d discovered the “Health” app on my iPhone.

It wasn’t until sometime in 2018 that I began to regularly check how far I’d walked—or stepped—each day. Once I did, it soon became apparent that 10,000 steps was both something I regularly accomplished and a nice round number.

In short order, I made 10,000 daily steps a new daily goal. From Nov. 12, 2018 through December 27, 2019, I walked at least 10,000 steps (for me, that’s about 3½ miles) every single day, a string of 411 days. But who’s counting?

This stepping streak truly is an obsession; some days I’ll check my phone several times to see how I’m doing. And at least a few times I’ve had to make a special late-in-the-day effort to get those 10,000 steps, maybe take the dog for an extra evening stroll. Still, as obsessions (or compulsions) go, it seems a fun and rather healthy one.

As I’ve confided to my girlfriend Jan, the best part about my stepping streak is that it indicates I didn’t have any serious illnesses that kept me in bed—or even housebound—for more than a year. Alas, the string ended Dec. 28 when some sort of flu or other “bug” knocked me off my feet. That same illness also kept me out of the hills the first week of January, so it was something of a double-whammy, ending two of my streaks. I suppose it was also good medicine for being more humble about my health. There’s one final streak to mention, tied to my love of wildlife and observing wild critters of all kinds: while on a winter hike in the Chugach Front Range late in 2018, I spotted some Dall sheep along the flanks of Wolverine Peak. And that got me thinking: Dall sheep can be difficult, if not impossible, to spot on snow-covered terrain, especially from a distance; wouldn’t it be cool—and perhaps a considerable challenge—to see Chugach Mountains Dall sheep every month of the year? So I made it a new goal. And I did manage to observe Dall sheep every month of 2019.

Jan will tell you that I cheated, because in both January and February I drove the Seward Highway to Windy Corner to find wild sheep on the cliffs above. Still, it wasn’t a sure thing. And to me, hey, that’s dedication, perhaps fed a teensy bit by OCD.

I’ve already seen my January 2020 Dall sheep, a solitary ram observed from a distance while doing my first hill climb of the year. But my streak of monthly bug sightings seems in jeopardy, with all this deep winter cold, days and days of subzero temperatures.

As I write this, there’s still hope the weather will warm enough for bugs to stir before the end of January. And whatever the conditions, you can bet I’ll be closely inspecting the snow for insects or spiders the last few days—or daylight hours—of the month, hoping for some sort of mid-winter miracle. Now that’s commitment, fed by you-know-what.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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