Alaska with Wings, Inc. (1989)


Eileen L. Keelan


This spring, after much planning and saving, we were excited to have the opportunity to spend three weeks in Alaska. From 29 May through 16 June, we traveled around that beautiful state on our first visit to the high arctic. For this journey, we joined a birding tour led by Wings, Inc. and we enjoyed our trip immensely: seeing new places and beautiful scenery, discovering life birds and mammals, and making new friends.


The tour began on a Monday evening in Anchorage with a gathering of the tour participants to meet one another and the tour leaders. After dinner, and despite the long day of traveling, we went out birding and saw a boreal owl on its nest. Upon return to the hotel, we were surprised to discover how late it was-at this time of year in Alaska, daylight is almost continuous giving very little clue to the actual time of day.


We left Anchorage the following morning and flew to Nome via the Eskimo village of Kotzebue. That trip took us north of the Arctic Circle for which we received a certificate from the airline (Alaska Air). We had time for a hour of birding in Kotzebue and had brief looks at yellow wagtails and hoary redpolls.


The flights to Gambell were very exciting. There were about thirty of us in the tour. Two nine-seat planes made two trips (plus one flight to carry all the luggage) to get all the participants to the island. Though the weather was very good when we left Nome, by the time the hour and a quarter flight was over visibility was almost zero and the ceiling was far lower than the legal limit-which didn't stop the pilot from attempting to land. Both first planes landed successfully and returned to Nome. Only one pilot was daring enough to make a second try and when he broke through the ceiling to discover he was directly over the town and not the runway (there are no navigational aids at Gambell) he made no further attempts to land that day and returned to Nome. Unfortunately, about half the tour members did not arrive at Gambell until the next day and were very disappointed to have missed the chance to see a Eurasian bullfinch. But at least they landed safely.


The runway is the only feature of that facility that, at Gambell bears the lofty name of airport. The gear was unloaded and taken into town via snowmobile (off-road vehicles are used in summer.) The passengers walked. The house here our group stayed was about a mile or so from the airport. Walking was very difficult due to the snow. The island consists mostly of soft gravel so even without snow, walking is not easy. There are several locations at which to bird, all requiring extensive walking to reach. Various groups kept in touch by radio so as to know what birds were where. The weather was extremely cold: everyone was bundled up to the point of being unrecognizable. Most people soon became identified by their most outstanding feature; their hats-visible from a distance. This technique meant that no one knew anyone else when we came inside. (We gradually overcame this difficulty.)


There were two houses for our group. The main house was home to the married couples who slept in the attic-reached by ladder-one couple to a corner. There were two bedrooms downstairs-one for the single women and one for single men. The rest of the single men slept in the other house. There was a small main room furnished with a weird, uncomfortable couch and a few folding chairs. The cooking and meals took place in the main house. Seating was first come, first served as there were not enough chairs for everyone. There was no plumbing in the house; a shower could be had for $1.50 about a mile or so walk away. Though one or two people took advantage of it, most participants settled for getting their hands clean when it was their turn to help with the dishes. The bathroom consisted of a room with a plastic bucket and small, plastic toilet seat balanced on top, emptied, when necessary, by one of the tour leaders. Not one of the tour participants complained that they were not required to help with the latrine chores.


Birding on the island was terrific. In addition to such Asian birds as brambling, wood sandpiper, common sandpiper, slaty-backed gull, rufous-necked stint, and black-backed wagtail, we also saw Asian subspecies of several North American birds: common merganser, merlin (first North American record), whimbrel, herring gull, common tern, and American pipit. Other interesting species seen at Gambell include yellow-billed loon, emperor goose, Steller's and spectacled eiders, bar-tailed godwit, ivory gull, many alcids including dovekie, bluethroat, white wagtail, and McKay's bunting. We also saw many tundra voles and few gray whales, some at very close range.


Our departure from Gambell was almost as exciting as our arrival had been a week earlier. The last of the tour members reached Nome, the next leg of our journey, around 9:30 p.m., about twelve hours later than scheduled. Poor weather kept one of the tour leaders on the island for another three days.


No roads lead to Nome. A few roads lead out of it but they don't go anywhere. Actually they go for about a hundred miles and are quite scenic. We were able to travel only about twenty-five miles because the spring thaw had washed out the road at that point and the road beyond was still under snow anyway. But we did enjoy our views of the tundra though the late winter kept us from seeing the colorful wildflowers usually common at this time of year. Because of its gold rush background and because it has the honor of being the final destination of the famous Iditarod sled dog race, Nome is a touristy place. There doesn't seem to be much else to recommend it. Except birds. We were treated to: long looks comparing arctic and pacific loons; both subspecies of golden plover; wandering tattler; Aleutian tern; yellow wagtail; breeding northern wheatear; and hoary redpolls. While studying the beautiful hoary redpolls at close range, on of the tour leaders informed us that the little birds weigh only half an ounce. He was quick to point out that, should anyone be so inclined, he or she could mail two of them anywhere in the United States for only twenty-five cents.


While birding was by far the most exciting thing we did in Nome, there were some practical details that needed attention. After a week in close quarters on St. Lawrence Island, most tour members' immediate goal was to spend some quality time in the shower and get into clean clothes. Therefore, one of the first stops was at the laundromat where we dropped off our Gambelled clothes to be cleaned while we were birding. While this route was the most convenient one to take, it was also very expensive. And, when we picked it up at the end of the day we discovered that though it was clean and neatly folded it was also a rather interesting but definitely unattractive shade of gray. All the white and light things had mingled with the dark jeans, rag wool socks, and chamois shirts. Despite extra attention at home after the trip, some of those things have never recovered.


We did not allow these slight laundry setbacks to dampen our enthusiasm however, and, clean and sweet smelling once again, we began to look forward to the Pribilofs.


For some members of the group, Nome was the end of the tour. After picking up a few new members in Anchorage, we headed for St. Paul in the Pribilofs. The flight lasted about two hours and fifteen minutes and we arrived without mishap. (Despite the Wings brochure's assurance that the Reeve Aleutian Airways pilots are legendary, we were glad to note that no legends needed to be established or lived up to that day.)


Once again, weather was cold, wet, and windy. We went by bus to the King Eider Hotel, one of two hotels on the island. After checking in, we re-boarded the bus and took off for a tour of the island. A group of Victor Emanual Nature Tours (VENT) birders was also on the island; our two groups headed in opposite directions so that we could meet and compare notes later. We saw red-legged kittiwake and red-faced cormorant – life birds for most of us, though we had much better views of them the next day at the cliffs – and a few fur seals. It was too early in the season for the seals to be there in the huge numbers for which the Pribilofs are famous but the early bulls were very impressive.


We returned to the hotel. Our dinner shift was after the VENT group's so we had time to watch game two of the NBA championships on the TV in the lounge. The Lakers had already lost game one to the Detroit Pistons. Now, we were not only hungry after a long day of traveling and birding, but we were watching the Lakers lose again.


Meals at the King Eider Restaurant were the most expensive of any that we had in Alaska, not famous for being an economical place to travel. Service was somewhat less than efficient but it was generally friendly.


The next morning, we crowded back onto the bus. (Passenger limits for the buses are obviously not determined by loading the bus with participants who look as though they fell, fully clothed for winter, out of an REI catalog and armed to the hilt with binoculars and telescopes. People thus attired seem to take up two to three times more space than they ordinarily would. Unfortunately, this state of affairs is not taken into consideration at the crucial moment of passenger-limit setting.) We drove to the cliffs for some of the most spectacular birding on this island. We had excellent, close-range looks at some of the birds we had seen the day before and, despite the wind, some opportunity for photographing them. Birds which nested on the cliffs included least, parakeet, and crested auklets; horned and tufted puffins, both murres, both kittiwakes, fulmar, and red-faced cormorant. Few species inhabited the interior of the island, although rock sandpiper and enormous rosy finches were fairly common.


In the afternon, after convincing City Hall to reopen so that a busload of birders could buy souvenir sweatshirts, we hit the birding trails again. A few birders visited the cliffs again, some went hiking, and some remained in the relative comfort of the bus waiting for word of a bird that could entice them back out into the cold and wind.


Our rooms at the King Eider Hotel were fairly comfortable, though temperature regulation apparently was not a feature of this hotel: we heard complaints that the rooms were too hot and that they were too cold. Ours was of the overheated variety, but it sure felt good for the first ten minutes inside after a day of birding. There were no private bathrooms but, remembering Gambell, we were only happy that there was any indoor plumbing at all – and right down the hall too!


After the excitement of the Pribilofs, we returned to Anchorage and prepared for the journey to Denali National Park. We traveled in two vans and maintained communication with a very weak CB radio system. Since it didn't transmit much over one hundred yards, and since the wires tended to disconnect every time someone opened the door, maintaining contact wasn't easy. It sort of disintegrated to just having one van stop whenever it noticed that the other one had. A vehicle stopped by the side of the road, with all its doors open and people ranging along the shoulder of the road generally means one thing-a GOOD BIRD. We had several of them near Cantwell, east of Denali, such as the three-toed woodpeckers at a nest and hunting, calling northern hawk owls, the latter described by one participant, who was from Scotland, as a "bloody marvelous bird." We were fortunate enough to find blooming calypso orchids here as well, which one of the leaders put in a Questar scope so we wouldn't have to bend over to look at them!


The only way to visit Denali National Park (besides hiking) is by tour bus; privately owned vehicles are not allowed beyond the road to the campground. A three-dollar ticket enables one to board a bus at a specified time (the earliest leaves at 6:30 a.m.) for a round-trip tour that takes ten and half hours-if the passenger remains with his original bus for the entire journey. Although the buses make several rest stops throughout the day and a thirty-minute lunch break is scheduled, the remainder off the time is spent on the bus. Remember those yellow school buses that jolted your bones and rattled your teeth? Well, they aren't any more comfortable to ride in for ten and half hours on a bumpy dirt road than they were for twenty minutes to school! Once disembarked from his bus, a passenger may re-board any bus that has room but he is only guaranteed a seat on his original bus. The park service does promise not to leave anyone stranded in the park overnight!


Because we spent extra time at the lunch stop, studying arctic warblers, we missed our bus and had to wait – and wait – for another one; our total time in the park was twelve and half hours. We were rewarded with excellent views of several mammals: grizzly bears, including mothers with cubs; Dall sheep; and caribou were the most impressive. Others that were fun to see were red fox and arctic ground squirrel. The mammal we were most excited about and that we were most fortunate to see was a timber wolf.


We saw both willow and rock ptarmigan at random spots along the road and occasional long-tailed jaegers overhead. The gyrfalcon we saw sitting on some rocks at Polychrome Pass was a life bird for many people in our group and the only one we spotted on the entire trip. East of the park, we had a rather damp hike over uneven ground on our search for Smith's longspur but we saw and heard well both male (at least three) and female (one) birds.


The scenery at Denali was some of the most spectacular of the trip. Even Mt. McKinley came out from behind its clouds while we were there.


We returned to Anchorage from Denali and spent one night there getting ready for the trip to Homer and the ferry (the Lakers lost again that night). Birding in Homer was interesting –breeding colonies of Aleutian Terns, many Northwestern Crows, large flocks of scoters at the spit. There were fair views of Kittlitz's Murrelet at the Land's End restaurant, where we ate an excellent meal before boarding the ferry.


Since we boarded the ferry after dark, very little birding was done until the next day. We slept in very small but fairly comfortable cabins that contained two berths – an upper and a lower – and a sink. The ferry arrived at Kodiak Island around eight o'clock in the morning and after breakfast on board we spent a few hours touring the island. We did not see any of the famous Kodiak bears but we did see nesting Aleutian terns. The ferry took off again shortly after lunch and by now most of our group was outside, well dressed in both rain and cold-weather gear and armed with binoculars. We had some nice views in the harbor of Steller's sea lions and good comparisons of mew gulls and black-legged kittiwakes. Because of the bad weather, viewing conditions were not optimal. However, the most common birds we saw on our way to Seward were fulmars, short-tailed shearwaters and fork-tailed storm petrels. We also had fleeting glimpses of marbled and Kittlitz's murrelets.


We had to roll out of our berths in time for a three A.M. arrival at Seward. The rest of the night was spent in a hotel with fine rooms on the inside but still under construction on the outside. On the bus from the ferry to the hotel were two non-tour travelers. They made their presence known when, in the grab for luggage, it began to look as though they might not get their own bags. One tour member informed them that it was too late – they were now part of the group. They said they would be happy to become members of the group as long as they could eat breakfast with us. Another tour member said they were more than welcome to join us for breakfast and that it was their turn to pay. We never did see them again.


The drive back to Anchorage from Seward was much calmer than the ferry ride (which is more a comment on the rough seas we had than on any special talent birders have for driving – passengers tend to be glad seatbelts were invented when they see their birder/driver guiding the steering wheel with a knee and hanging out the window with a pair of binoculars).


The trip ended in Anchorage. After nineteen days of birding, beautiful scenery, exciting mammals and seemingly endless airplane flights, it was time to head back to Rochester. Of course, those good times aren't over; they will be relived every time we look at the photographs and every time we run into a fellow birder who asks, "Have you ever been to Alaska?"