Wild Alaska

Published on Thursday, July 26, 2012

Saturday, June 19, 2010 - Nome, Alaska, USA: There’s no place like Nome, or so goes the local saying. It is demonstrably true. For one thing, there is no legitimate reason for the town to have been founded. It has no harbor, no river, and no building materials (the nearest tree is 60 miles away). Behind it is the endless barren tundra of the Seward Peninsula; in front, the oft-frozen Bering Sea. It came into existence for one reason only: gold. Because of the yellow metal, for one brief period in the summer of 1900, there were more than 20,000 men camped on the beaches of Nome, and it was the largest city in Alaska.

As we arrived on our flights from Anchorage, we found the Midnight Sun Folk Fest in full swing, commemorating that bygone era as well as the summer solstice. We panned for our own gold, visited an Iditarod musher, drove out of town to see birds and musk oxen, and took in the parade or the bank robbery—a scheduled bank robbery, mind you. We had such a good time that some might agree with the town’s other slogan: Nome is where the heart is.
Sunday, June 20 - King Island: In Nome they had told us that our day there was the best weather they’d had in weeks—a refrain that was to be repeated often throughout our trip. This was a particular advantage at King Island, where we launched our fleet of watercraft to cruise along the coast. The calm seas enabled us to get eye-to-eye with the nesting seabirds.
The island really has two stories to tell. One is of the lives of the birds, which nest in this harsh place in startling profusion: black and pigeon guillemots; tufted and horned puffins; least, parakeet, and crested auklets; and many more. The other is of the people who had once inhabited the bizarre village that we could see propped up on stilts and lashed to the same cliffs on which the birds nested. They were of the Kawerak group of Inupiaq Eskimos, and were known as the best carvers and craftsmen in Alaska. In the 1960’s they moved to Nome, the better to sell their increasingly-valued wares. Nowadays they only occasionally visit their strange and lonely home island.
Monday, June 21 - Lost due to crossing the International Date Line 
Tuesday, June 22 - Provideniya, Russia: Today was solstice, the longest day of the year, and since we had touched on the Arctic Circle (at the International Date Line) the evening before, undoubtedly it was the longest day most of us ever experienced. Our Daily Programs informed us that the sun rose at about 0500 that morning…and did not set. Not that day, at least.
Another thing that can make a day seem long: waiting for Russian officials to clear your ship so that you can go ashore. Eventually, however, we were admitted to the largest country on earth. Provideniya, like most Siberian towns, was heavily subsidized by the Soviet government, and has suffered since the collapse. It is just starting to find its footing again, at a lower level of population and economic activity. History is unfolding there, and it’s an intriguing place to walk around.
After dinner, our Expedition Leader, John Yersin, sprung a big surprise on us: we had been given permission to make an extra landing at a place called Plover Bay. The spit that creates the bay was the site of whaling operations from ancient times well into the industrial era. It’s also a great place to encounter the natural history of the area, and our ornithologist, Greg Homel, found something truly remarkable, an ivory gull, a bird normally seen only in the High Arctic, and only rarely there. It had indeed been a long, full day…but certainly a good one.
Tuesday, June 22 -  St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, USA: Today we crossed the International Date Line and regained the day we had previously lost. On arrival at St. Lawrence, our first duty was to clear back into the United States—which seems a peculiar ritual when you’re standing in the village of Gambell, because you don’t feel like you’re in America at all. Maybe not even on planet Earth.
The otherworldly feeling derives from several factors; the thick blanket of rounded beach stones that covers every inch of ground, making a street crossing an arduous task; the way the locals (and visitors hitching a ride) rush around everywhere on their ATVs; and the strange sight of the Eskimo whaling culture and their powerful music and dancing. Several butchered bowhead carcasses were on the beach, fresh from the spring hunt, some with the baleen still in place and dripping oil.
Wednesday, June 23 - Hall Island / St. Matthew Island: A recent Graphic Information Survey found that the most remote place in the United States—the spot farthest from the nearest road, structure, or habitation—is St. Matthew Island, in the middle of the Bering Sea. A perfect place for us to visit.
But first we dropped in on its smaller neighbor, Hall Island, entirely ringed by cliffs, pierced by arches and tunnels, and festooned with seabirds. Being amongst them was like being guests at a formal dinner, surrounded by attendees dressed all in black and white: guillemots, puffins, auklets, kittiwakes, and gulls.
Unlike Hall, St. Matthew has beaches—wild, untrammeled, and devoid of footprints. We landed on one and proceeded into the velvety tundra for long hikes and nature walks. St. Matthew has its own special bird, the McKay’s bunting, which breeds nowhere else on earth. It also boasts an endemic rodent, the St. Matthew singing vole. To these creatures, the island isn’t remote at all; it is the center of the universe.
Thursday, June 24 - St. Paul, Pribilof Islands: To most Alaskans, the Pribilofs are near legendary places. Everyone has heard of them, but almost no one ever gets there, even if they live their entire life in the state. If they know anything about the “Pribs,” they probably know that Alaska Natives and a lot of wildlife live there. Both beliefs are correct, though the populations are somewhat out of balance with 800 Unangan Aleuts to about one million northern fur seals, the world’s largest concentration. We set out today to meet both groups.
Like relatives visiting from another island, we made the rounds of the village, stopping at the church, the museum, and the store. It was all quite quiet and orderly. Then we shuttled out to a blind above a fur seal colony, and there witnessed chaos. Beachmasters strove to hold their patch of sand, other big males vied to dethrone them, smaller males waited in the wings to dart in through the back door, and females appeared indifferent to all the macho posturing. Some of us even witnessed a pup being born! Perhaps scenes like these are how a place becomes a legend.
Friday, June 25 - St. George: Old Pribilof hands will tell you that St. Paul is about seals and St. George about birds. It’s not that St. George doesn’t have seals—a quarter million or so show up during the breeding season. It’s just that it really, really has a lot of birds. Probably the largest seabird colony in the Northern Hemisphere, in fact, with over a million thick-billed murres. It also has some 98% of the world’s population of the rare red-legged kittiwake, a bird with just eight breeding sites on earth.
Not surprisingly, as long as humans have lived on this island, their lives have centered on these resources. So did our tour, which stopped at the defunct seal processing plant, a seal blind, and, of course, bird cliffs. The long walkers climbed to the top of the High Bluffs, the high point of the island as well as of the entire Bering Sea, and looked down on, yes, bird cliffs. All of us convened at the community center for a cultural performance and a food tasting. The local cuisine included reindeer stew, sealburgers, cloudberry tarts, and many other delicacies, all demonstrating, in a direct and palpable way, the incredible biological bounty of the Pribilofs.
Saturday, June 26 - Dutch Harbor, Unalaska / Baby Islands: Dutch Harbor might look to you like a small, remote town way out in the Aleutians. But if you saw it in the most practical and realistic way, the way its residents see it—in terms of the tonnage of fish and crab landed and processed here—then you would realize you were standing in a metropolis. It exists solely because of the spectacular productivity of the North Pacific.
There are many attractions here, the old Russian Orthodox church, the very fine Museum of the Aleutians, the excellent World War II Museum, and, for those inclined to walk, glorious mountain scenery and flowers. The nearby Baby Islands are home to peregrine falcons, whole flocks of bald eagles, and scads of rare whiskered auklets (and on our day there, wild winds and crazy currents). But as stirring as all these sights are, none of them is the reason for Dutch Harbor being there. Dutch is, as they say, the Town that Fish Built.
Sunday, June 27 - Unimak Island: The first (or last, depending on the direction you’re coming from) of the Aleutian Islands, Unimak is only separated from the Alaska Peninsula by the narrow strait called False Pass, though which we sailed in the afternoon. Thus the island partakes of the mainland’s complement of wildlife such as caribou, ptarmigan, red foxes…and bears. We saw our first one as we sailed into Unimak Bay and several more were detected by the heightened senses of the long and medium walkers.
A much rarer sighting also greeted us, the towering, snow-covered volcanoes of the island, which are normally hidden by fog and low cloud. It was a brilliant day to be out on the broad beaches and flower-filled tundra of Unimak. And it was made even brighter by the presence of the bears. Because when you walk in bear country, perforce, you stay a little more alert, you scan the country, you look and listen, and consequently you see more. If you’re smart, you treat the bears, and their country, with respect.
Monday, June 28 - Unga Island: On Unga we made two landings, each of which was completely different from any we had done thus far. The first was near Unga Spit, on a long rocky beach. Among the ordinary beach rocks were many that were special—because they used to be wood. We were in the midst of a petrified forest. These rocks, like highly detailed sculptures, were each a perfect representation of the wood they had replaced, down to the smallest detail—growth rings, grain, knotholes, everything. I don’t think any of us had ever seen anything quite like this desolate beach, virtually unknown to the outside world.
The other was at the abandoned village of Unga, where a group of colonists, largely Norwegian, had built a substantial town around the turn of the century. For a few decades it flourished, and then, with the demise of cod fishing and of canning, withered and died. The colonists moved away, leaving a stand of Norway spruce (the first trees we’d seen in more than a week) like a group of dark green tombstones. We would remember these forgotten places.
Tuesday, June 29 - Chignik Bay / Aghiyuk Island: When the Harriman Expedition stopped at Chignik in 1899, the canneries were in full operation, fish stocks were being rapidly depleted, minority workers were ruthlessly exploited, the bay was full of rotting fish, and the place reeked. None of those things is true today, but cannery towns are an important part of Alaska’s history and make for an interesting place to visit.
When the Expedition visited the Semidi Islands, they found them uninhabited…and so did we. The cliffs of Aghiyuk soar skyward and its hillsides are coated with some of the plushest tundra we’d seen. It was carpeted with flowers, the prize of the day being a stunning lady’s slipper orchid. In a world where everything is changing, it’s nice to know some good places have remained the same, and some bad ones have changed for the better.
Wednesday, June 30 - Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park: At first, we weren’t sure how our day in Geographic Harbor was going to go. We cruised into the bay in the early morning without seeing any bears. It was only after breakfast, as we were putting the boats into the water, that a mother and yearling cub showed up on the shore. Then, farther up the same bay, a huge lone male, and then a mother and three spring cubs. And then bears were everywhere. Every boat had different sightings, as we found out at recap that night, and all of them were top notch. Everyone who went out saw lots and lots of bears, big males, cubs, interactions, behaviors, everything, all right up-close and personal. It was the best morning I’ve ever had here, and one of my best wildlife experiences ever in Alaska. I guess you just never know how a day will turn out.
Thursday, July 1 - Kodiak: Kodiak was once the Northwest’s largest city, the headquarters of the Russian American Company, the regional center of commerce, and the de facto capital of Alaska. It’s now a backwater fishing town. History has passed it by. There’s little doubt that those of us who visited today would’ve considered the change an improvement.
Kodiak is a mixture of the old days and the new. We visited the Baranov and Aluttiq Museums, the old Orthodox Church, the Fisheries Research Center with its wonderful touch tank, and the forest of Fort Abercrombie State Park. Then we did something you certainly couldn’t have done in Alexander Baranov’s time, we went and watched sea otters. In the days of the Russian conquest, all the otters along that coast had been slaughtered. But now they’re back, and we put in the boats at an offshore island group called the Triplets to see them.
Looking back at the voyage, and all the remote and pristine places we had visited, it’s clear that much of Alaska is like Kodiak—history has passed it by. And that’s really the reason all those remote places are still so pristine; history, progress, development, modernization, and the benefits of civilizations have largely missed these parts of the Great Land. May it ever be so.