The DVOC in Alaska
by John LaVia – June-July 1974
It all started in June 1973 when Les Thomas roamed up the aisle of the DC-3 proposing a trip to Alaska for the following summer. Although the idea sounded rather far-fetched, no one was in the mood to refuse, not after the total success of the venture from which we were returning. Most of us, however, felt that there probably would never be a trip to match the one to Churchill, Manitoba. We were wrong by a lot.
Les, aided by his daughter-in-law who lives in Fairbanks, started the ball rolling, and then Jim Meritt began pushing, and there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that our “trip-of-a-lifetime” to Alaska would not have materialized without their diligence. Meritt’s employer certainly couldn’t fault him for standing around a drinking fountain; he must have spent every spare minute for most of the winter standing over a Xerox machine copying reams of information that he mailed out to the rest of us in a series of “Alaska communications.” We all owe Jim more than we can easily repay him – he missed the Steller’s Eider while making arrangements for the rest of us (more on that later).
Our winter of anticipation was low-lighted by the Great Gasoline Scare. There were days when the news was so bleak that a bird-watching expedition of 4000 miles to Gambell, Alaska, seemed as unlikely as having your windshield wiped in a gas station. The manner in which that “crisis” disappeared can serve as the model for most of the problems that confronted us in our preparations: for a brief moment they seemed insurmountable, then they were easily solved or suddenly evaporated. First there were no accommodations at Mt. McKinley (we wound up in brand new trailers), then no guide or ground transportation in Nome (Terry Hall met us with a bus), and always the impossibility of limiting ourselves to fifty pounds of luggage (who would want to load and unload more than fifty pounds anyhow?).
The first of our twenty take-offs sent us on our way punctually at 2:30 P. M. on June 25, 1974. The next twenty-four hours were not the best part of the trip. Although only one poor soul (I’ll never say who) had more than a momentary bout of air-sickness, the rest cannot be said to have spent the night in comfort, as we had to put down for varying amounts of time at Thunder Bay, Ontario; Saskatchewan; Edmonton, Alberta; and Fort Nelson, British Columbia. The last stop was in attractive country and was the site of Ambassador Kronschnable presenting his credentials, while everyone else turned his nose in the other direction. The stops were, moreover, not without interesting sightings for eastern birders: Western Meadowlark at Thunder Bay, Franklin Gull at Edmonton, and Brewer’s Blackbird at Fort Nelson. The last leg of the flight to Whitehorse, Yukon, also revealed the glory of the snow-capped Canadian Rocky Mountains to many of us for the first time. There was no one, however, not even the indefatigable bridge players (Steve Wing, Will Middleton, Ernie Choate, Bob Sehl, and Phil Street), who was not delighted to get off the plane at Whitehorse – welcomed by Cliff Swallows. The eagerness to get about the main business was comically evident when about eight of the DVOC’s best went to investigate a chipping noise in a lone tree near the airstrip. Never before has a common Chipping Sparrow received so much expert attention. The bird was fortunate we only looked, as we hadn’t had a real meal for about nineteen hours and were even glad to pay the $30 bus fare to the Whitehorse Inn and some hot food. The loud, lady bus driver interested no one in her pitch for the night life in town, which consisted mostly of a dramatized version of “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
Whitehorse was a pleasant stop. The lodgings (two-man connecting rooms) were comfortable and, unlike every other place except Hooper Bay, quite reasonable. The air was warm and dry and allowed us to wash out our socks and put them away within a few hours. The number of young people walking about gave Whitehorse a sort of Jersey-Shore-in-the-summer feeling and hardly suggested the fabled Yukon of our imagination.
While Meritt and Sehl attempted to make contact with a local birder and to secure ground transportation for some immediate birding, several groups walked the hundred yards to the Yukon River and quickly saw the first of countless Mew Gulls, Ravens, Violet-green, Bank, Cliff, and Tree Swallows. The advantages of traveling with a large group were immediately evident as reports filtered back that somebody had a Bohemian Waxwing across the river, and someone else had an Oranged-crowned Warbler and yet another brave soul called a Glaucous-winged Gull. By exchanging information (“Look sharp, some of them are Bonapartes!”) it was possible to see more birds than one party could ever spot. The large group also allowed us the mobility usually reserved for the wealthy. When the bill can be divided by sixteen (sometimes twenty), the options multiply. How to bird Whitehorse in one hot afternoon: rent an air-conditioned bus for thirty dollars an hour and never fret over the cost (ca. $7/man).
With pleasant, young Wayne Neely to show us the best spots, Whitehorse produced Bohemian Waxwings in several places (the next day I even had them in the airport trees as I was being called for take-off), and a fair sampling of north woods varieties: Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, Western Wood Pewee, Junco, and the ever present White-crowned Sparrow. At the dam on the Yukon River we saw that triumphant monument to man’s recognition of the needs of wildlife in the face of his progress; an elaborate fish ladder. The necessity of a man-made dam need not preclude the successful upstream spawning of fish. I wish we had seen it in operation. It was also at the dam that we had a long, close look at two grandly, yet meticulously colored male Harlequin Ducks.
The next morning (June 27) a few of us were out at 4 A. M. to go back to Robert Service Park and do some of those strange things in the midnight sun; it was a good birding morning: Say’s Phoebe, Mountain Bluebird, Black-billed Magpie, Snipe, Solitary and Spotted Sandpiper, Northern Waterthrush, and most of the previous day’s birds. One of the joys of this trip was the multiple sightings of almost every bird of interest; for example, of my own forty-two lifers only the Yellowbilled Loon, Pomarine Jaeger, and Sabine’s Gull were represented by single birds, and others did spot more than one of the latter two species.
Finally at 7 A. M. we could get breakfast, pack, hustle to the airport (a pattern to be repeated), and be on our way to Alaska by 9:30 A. M. The view out the plane’s windows was enough to distract even the bridge players: a feast of rivers, mountains, and glaciers. We were getting plenty excited about Alaska by now; not even the petty bureaucrats who handled U. S. Customs in Fairbanks could annoy us – it remained for their spiritual brothers in International Falls, Minnesota, to leave us with a sour taste.
The layover in Fairbanks was just long enough for some of us to look over a pond area across from the airport, but outside of the Common Redpolls, there really was nothing as noteworthy as the Pigeon Hawk spotted by Street from the steps of the plane. Dare I mention the first of several general fiascoes? When birding a strange place, some strange blunders have a way of occurring. Among the ducks sighted on the pond, no one questioned the call of Ruddy Duck until Terry Hall heard about it in Nome. You see, there are no Ruddy Ducks around Fairbanks. What could we have seen? Our return to Fairbanks allowed us to correct ourselves. Yes, we know Ruddy Ducks, and, yes, we know Common Goldeneye, but most of us were not familiar with them in their breeding range. Consequently, the young white face patched Goldeneyes were carelessly listed as Ruddy Ducks. Terry made us eat that one, but the frailty of human nature is such that even he stumbled over some “Rocky Dunlins” to be mentioned later .
We arrived in Nome in what must surely have been a heat wave for them. We did not expect to be sunning ourselves on the shore of the Bering Sea, and I guess we never did become that blasé, for there was more to do than sun oneself. Every time we looked up we could see a Black-legged Kittiwake. Other species spotted from the rocky shore included Black Brant, Mew and Glaucous Gulls, and Arctic Terns and Loons. Right from the airport we knew that Nome would be something special when the nuisance bird turned out to be the Lapland Longspur.
Nome is not much of a town, but surely has more going for it than Churchill. It has some traits of both boom town and ghost town. Its streets are busy, but the three roads out of town eventually just end. The various motor vehicles (cars are in the minority, lots of pick-up trucks and land rover types) are in rather battered shape. Throughout Alaska I saw most cars with cracked windshields, and the reason was not difficult to comprehend: the roads are so rough and rocky that I was told that normal insurance coverage will not replace broken glass. Whatever its shortcomings Nome seemed to draw a lot of people, even many non-birding tourists. The two elderly ladies handling the check-in process at our hotel had a difficult time finding enough rooms for us, but not as difficult as they made it. The rooms were not large, but only one person forgot where we were and was ready to complain at the accommodations it seems we were very lucky to get. We were actually short one room, and there was talk of asking our always agreeable pilot Rocky and his wife (Joy) and daughter (Simone) to sleep on the plane. Sehl graciously gave up his room and slept on the floor between Choate and myself. In these intimate surroundings it was a week of jump out of bed and step on Sehl, but as long as we missed his injured leg he didn’t complain.
Our first afternoon in Nome was spent tracking down wagtails. These birds were prominent on everyone’s most wanted list, but were difficult to see only on this first hunt. They seem to prefer nesting in man made objects, with abandoned machinery apparently very high in their estimation. We explored some huge, abandoned gold dredges and were intrigued by these Rube Goldberg contraptions. We eventually got good views of Yellow Wagtail, White Wagtail, Common Redpoll, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Golden Plover, Whimbrel, and the commonest shore-bird of our trip, Western Sandpiper. After dinner we went out in the bus again and incredibly saw all three species of jaegers within ten minutes. When a distinct Pomarine flew in between the many Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers, we were a happy bunch of birdwatchers. Terry was also able to show us many Glacuous-winged Gulls, a bird I saw everyone having trouble distinguishing from the Glaucous Gull at one time or another.
By now it was 10:30 P. M. and still broad daylight. Only the mosquitoes encouraged us to call it a day. This day was probably the fullest of our trip; it took a great mental effort to realize that we had started birding in Whitehorse on the morning of this same day. We were ready for bed, with the promise of a crack at St. Lawrence Island tomorrow if the weather held.
We opened the breakfast room (as we did every morning in Nome) at 6 A. M. on a perfectly clear day. Meritt had already sighted Hoary Redpoll and a Pigeon Guillemot and thereby incurred our momentary envy. We rushed to the airport only to sit in the plane while Rocky tried in vain to establish radio contact with Gambell. Finally since it was such a clear day we decided to take a chance and set out for Gambell. We had been warned that clear days were rare on the coast of the Bering Sea, and we didn’t want to lose this prime opportunity. This year’s Bird Bonanza group, for example, never made it to Gambell, and we almost joined them as Gambell turned out to be the only place buried in fog on this glorious day. While circling above the fog we had a council of war with our co-pilot, Mike, and opted to put down in St. Lawrence’s other town, Savoonga. We had seen some bird cliffs from the plane, and decided it was worth a chance, even though no one knew anything about Savoonga. This stop turned out to be the most rewarding of the entire expedition and convinced us that whatever the difficulties, we would land on our feet.
As we peered out the plane’s windows at the deserted airstrip at Savoonga, we wondered why we had put down here, but then good things started to happen. Our plane stirred up some Sandhill Cranes and one enterprising Eskimo in a weird, multi-wheeled vehicle. It seems he was eager to do a little old-fashioned trading: ivory carvings for vodka. Alcohol is prohibited in many of these Eskimo outposts, with good reason from what we saw in the bigger towns where there were always some drunken Eskimos around. Each carving finally sold for $25 (instead of the two fifths of vodka he requested).
As we started the long walk over the wet tundra, we rather carelessly followed Terry’s lead in calling Rock Sandpipers at least as often as we called Dunlin. After some DVOC skepticism and without the preoccupation of rushing to the bird cliffs, the return walk could produce only Dunlin; Terry was embarrassed, and we were forced to work much harder the following day to see authentic Rock Sandpipers. But long, hard walk, Rocky Dunlin fiasco, Gambell disappointment, anxiety that the Gambell fog would trap us in Savoonga – none of these distractions could mar the kind of sensational birding that waited for us on the coastal cliffs. Literally within minutes it was possible to observe ten life birds for some and six to eight for almost all of us. As we jumped from rock to rock to get to the absolute edge, we had Least, Crested, and Parakeet Auklets buzzing about our heads. Pigeon Guillemots were everywhere, and we couldn’t ask for better views of Horned and Tufted Puffins. We had so many close views of Common and Thickbilled Murres that we even began to believe that we could tell them apart. When a Pelagic Cormorant and a Fulmar flew by, there was really nothing else we could ask for. Here was the birder’s paradise: lots of new birds on their nests, long, close views in perfect light. Sky, sea, cliffs, and birds formed a picture that will cheer us some bleak, birdless February day back home.
Although there was barely a cloud in the sky, someone advanced the theory that the fog covering Gambell could soon engulf us. Reluctantly we hurried back towards the plane, taking time to look at the Dunlin and the Snow Buntings. Our lunch outside the plane was decidedly makeshift, but the excitement and exercise combined to make it into triumphant feast. As we flew back to Nome we were thankful that we had been forced to keep our rooms and bus despite our plan – aborted for the moment – of staying over in Gambell. This fabulous day wasn’t over yet. There was to be more birding and even more life birds before we called it quits.
The road to Safety Lagoon – the scene of our afternoon birding – took us across the heights of Cape Nome. With our rattletrap bus and no guard rails, the bumpy ride was a bit more exciting than we would have liked. After the morning’s success we were also becoming harder to please. I was disappointed, for instance, that the Bar-tailed Godwits were not in full color – at least I had expected more. The birding must be spectacular when one becomes critical of the appearance of a life bird. We also good naturedly challenged Terry to find us something good for a change. He played along with us, stopping the bus at a “likely spot for an Aleutian Tern.” The bird immediately flew by; it was that kind of a day.
We decided to turn back when we reached the point where we would have to take a ferry. The birding was steadily exciting with views of jaegers, Common Eider, Red-throated Loons, and the unforgettable sight of a Parasitic Jaeger devouring a chick of some kind in one gulp. We also observed several small native villages with their inevitable shacks, refuse, and racks of what we learned was drying seal meat. No one, except co-pilot Mike, expressed any interest in sampling the black meat, which was always described to us as too gamy for unconditioned tastes. I was more than ready to take someone else’s word for it.
After the two previous days of round-the-clock birding, a slow-down might have been expected. I know of no one who attempted any pre-breakfast birding on June 29. For the first time nearby Sledge Island was obscured by fog; it looked like a slow day. Then the good news: Gambell was clear. The natural question arose: why could we get through on the radio today but not yesterday. The answer I received was that the Eskimos only answered the radio when they could report favorable conditions (could someone be pulling my leg?). Now comes the packing and rushing to the airport, the familiar “Fasten all seatbelts and no smoking,” the fast flight, and before we knew it, the usual smooth landing.
Gambell, Alaska, is part of the United States; we had to keep reminding ourselves, for it seemed more like the end of the world. We were much closer to mainland Russia (45 miles) than to mainland Alaska. Siberia was steadily in view this first day, and for many of us there was a distinct thrill in viewing not only a new country but even a new continent. When the realization came that with the International Dateline a mere 21 miles offshore, we were in fact also looking into tomorrow, we knew we were far from home. The appeal to the imagination was such that we couldn’t resist repeating the phrase: “Today we saw tomorrow.” Gambell was living up to its billing as the highlight of the trip.
We were afraid of all kinds of logistic difficulties in this outpost of civilization, but we were pleasantly surprised by Vernon Slwooko waiting for us in his ORV. There was really nothing but an airstrip here, and we quickly loaded the luggage and the s1ower walkers into Vernon’s cart for the short ride to our lodgings. Those of us who walked soon learned that there are no short walks at Gambell; the loose gravel make every step difficult. We saw almost the entire village on this walk. It was the usual collection of ramshackle huts and trash, with the local specialty being empty and rusting 50 gallon drums. On this walk and throughout our stay we saw very few adults, but an abundance of ORV’s and youngsters barreling around in them. The people we did meet were without exception friendly and in retrospect I wish I had made some attempt to talk to them. I was at the time, however, just too anxious to get out and see all those rare Asiatic species that would surely appear in another 100 yards of diligent plodding over the gravel.
The birding, alas, was disappointing. Yes there was a White Wagtail nest in the pile of garbage closest to our lodgings, and yes we saw most of the alcids of the day before, and yes we even added a few very special life birds, but we had expected more; we had expected all kinds of exotic wanderers. The problem was simple: we were too late in the year. Migration was over. We were like a group of eager, inexperienced birders who make a trip to the Philadelphia area for warblers in June – just a month late!
As soon as we got settled in Vernon’s house, we headed for the mountain in two groups. The “lazy” party had Vernon drive them to the mountain, while Terry, Bob Garner, Joe Jacobs, John Billings, Fran Hubbard, John Sawyer, Sehl, Meritt, and LaVia legged it all the way. Poor Terry watched as Vernon disappeared in the wrong direction. Now how were we even going to link up and comb the mountain together? Terry was quite upset, as he felt that some people were already annoyed with him for setting too swift a pace; he certainly didn’t want to desert the other group. He had to change his plan and hike around the base of the mountain and try to meet them. Several of us broke off and climbed the mountain where we had originally planned. Before we were out of Terry’s range, however, we could hear him shouting. It wasn’t easy to see what he was so excited about until we looked closely at one of the many clumps of snow and discovered a perfectly camouflaged Snowy Owl. What I thought was the conspicuous whiteness of the bird helped conceal it even in the summer, illustrating once again the value of seeing a bird in its natural habitat.
The exertion from this difficult climb left us sweating profusely, and yet the wind at the top was cold. This common discomfort of our trip was compensated for in this case by a spectacular view of Gambell perched precariously on the edge of the island, with the Bering Sea and snowy Siberian cliffs in the background. We also stumbled upon some wooden boxes that proved to be coffins. They were just lying there, many of them broken open.
At the tip of the mountain we found a grassy area with authentic Rock Sandpipers, Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstones, Western Sandpipers, Lapland Longspurs, and many Snow Buntings. The integrity and frustration of the DVOC reached new heights, as no one thought he saw even a “possible” McKay’s Bunting. They are supposed to nest on St. Lawrence, and we were certainly in the right habitat, but no luck. We also worked hard for a possible nesting Dotteral, but again we felt that, given the thoroughness of our search, the bird just wasn’t there. When we finally reached the seaside edge of the cliffs, we found ourselves so far above the alcids that we realized how lucky we were to have stopped at Savoonga where the cliffs were much lower and thus allowed a much closer observation of the birds. Any energy we had left after the treacherous, bone-jarring descent was exhausted by the last mile of level walking over the hateful gravel.
We had finally met the “lost” passengers of Vernon and discovered that all had once again worked out for the best. If they had walked with the rest of us, Vernon would not have had a chance to drop them off at the wrong place, and they would not have discovered one of the best birds of the trip, Rufous-necked Sandpiper. When Middleton and Street even offered to take us back to the same spot, and Vernon agreed to transport us, yet another lifer was well seen by all. This after supper trip was quite an adventure, as Vernon’s CRV kept lurching drunkenly, making our uncomfortable seats downright painful. We also experienced the descent of a sudden fog, in which one minute we were cheering a Ruddy Turnstone as he bravely drove off a Parasitic Jaeger, and the next we couldn’t see the mountain let alone any birds. With zero visibility we had nothing to concentrate on except our own exhaustion; it had been another long day. There remained, however, one more great discovery: I found a jar of peanut butter and some stale bread in Vernon’s kitchen – this warrants an explanation.
When we returned from the mountain, we all brought ravenous appetites with us. Vernon’s kitchen was too small to accommodate all of us, so Terry, Street, Meritt, Kronschnable, Sawyer, Rocky, Mike and LaVia were asked to remove to Timmy Slwooko’s cafe for supper. I was handed the pot of beans first and very carefully spooned some into a corner of my plate so as not to place them in the way of the main course. Kronschnable knew better: Eskimos make one pot meals; the beans were the main course. The other group had beef stew and didn’t have to walk back through the gravel either. The only consolation was that since we were all sleeping together, we might yet get our revenge on the well-fed group. Yes, the peanut butter ranked high on the day’s discoveries.
We were prepared for primitive conditions at Gambell but actually slept in reasonable comfort. We all could have had cots (Meritt and Sawyer sacked out on the floor), and the bitter cold we prepared for was eased by Vernon’s belated lighting of a stove that made my bed at least too warm. The plumbing, however, existed only in someone’s dreams. All the fixtures were there; they just lacked one thing – running water. I watched as Krony emptied a pot of water in the sink and then did a double take as he heard the water flow out the disconnected pipe into nothing but another pot. His comment was to the effect that here surely was the original German (I think that was the nationality he mentioned) sink. The toilet facilities are better forgotten, though they did lead to several patriotic acts on the beach in the general direction of Russia. Let me not create the impression that Gambell did not have any modern touches: Timmy’s cafe advertised X-rated movies on Sunday.
Meritt and I were up and out at about 3 A. M. the next morning (June 30). After all it was always light and we could sleep anytime, but we’d never be in Gambell again – that’s for sure. The weather had nothing good about it: rain, fog, wind, and cold (under 40ºF). We wanted to explore the area (“Boneyard”) where so many exotic birds had previously been sighted. Nothing. There was a steady stream of alcids off the point, but nothing new. My memory of this day is a series of uncomfortable hikes through the gravel from Vernon’s to Timmy’s to the lake to the Boneyard and always back to the point. Breakfast at Timmy’s was good once we managed to wake him up more than an hour after the time we had agreed upon. Mike and Rocky didn’t show for the excellent hotcakes; I guess they were still digesting the feast of the night before. When the word finally reached us that the Eskimos would not take us out in the boats because of the foul weather, we decided to head back to Nome for dinner. While some of the group were hiding from the weather and Meritt was making arrangements for leaving, a few of us kept up an uncomfortable vigil at the point. The steady stream of alcids continued all day. At one time or another both Murres, Puffin, Least and Crested Auklets, and a Red Phalarope sat in the sea close to us. Sehl and Wing got a quick look at some female Spectacled Eider, and Jacobs had an Emperor Goose, but the best bird had to be the male Steller’s Eider that flew by the point only a few feet from us and received a spontaneous round of applause from the fortunate half dozen of us who had searched the longest. Meritt deserved to be there.
Finally it was time to take the last walk through the gravel and rush to the plane once again. We had some extra passengers for this flight, as Timmy and his wife decided to take advantage of a free ride to Nome for a little holiday, and I suppose Nome can look pretty good to a native of St. Lawrence Island. With Joy and Simone having skipped this excursion, there was also room for a young white couple who rode with us not quite for free, as they contributed something to our general fund. They were friendly and talkative but always remained somewhat mysterious to me. You see, they had been to Gambell before, and I cannot imagine what could draw them back. I have a personal theory that they were some kind of missionaries; they had the look of church people, though I admit that it may just have been that they were cleaner than the rest of us.
After Gambell, Nome seemed a little nicer to us. We all wore out the showers in our rooms and put on some clean or at least different clothes for dinner across the street at the main section of the Nugget Inn at the tables looking out on Norton Sound. The pace was beginning to get to us by now; we were tired and somewhat cantankerous. Dinner was usually a lot of fun as we compared notes and treated our abused stomachs to the buffet option on the menu (and did we get our money’s worth!) Dr. Choate also came into his own at the table as he reminded the rest of us how uncouth we were. Dazzled by his elegant example – or was it by the drinks he bought us? – we acquiesced in his opinion. Those drinks were expected from Choate, after all with every lifer he moved closer to the magic 600 AOU birds, a goal he reached before we left Nome. This evening, however, everything was a bit strained, and when Street looked out the window and announced an Emperor Goose, we jumped on him. He wouldn’t back down even though Garner, the only one with his field glasses, couldn’t confirm his call. We all saw Street’s flock, but the distance and glare simply made it impossible for a certain sighting – but Street was certain and becoming more certain every minute. Terry was openly skeptical and probably wondering about all DVOC lists. The argument was silly and only proved that we had been seeing too much of each other for the last six days, and we had ten to go! I found the discussion particularly distasteful and finally could only explain my annoyance in terms of the general let-down after Gambell, including the disappointment of having missed several of my personal target birds: Spectacled Eider, Emperor Goose, and all those “wonders” around Gambell. I also had been up for about 18 hours, and so to bed.
Terry proved to be a good psychologist as well as good bird finder; he saved the best area in Nome until this time (July 1) when we needed a boost. We followed the road north of Nome 38 miles, or until we reached the Yellow-billed Loon, then we turned around and returned to Nome – sounds simple enough. The complications consisted of the usua1, rough, dusty roads and a tired bus. None of us will ever forget our lunch way out in the boondocks using the hood of the bus for our table. At least the bus was good for something; we were having lunch here only because the bus had decided we should and had refused to start. Krony, Mike , and Terry were playing with carburetors and things, but nothing seemed to work, and we began to worry that the bus would be our home until they missed us back in Nome and sent out a rescue party. Finally a land rover came by (from where?) and agreed to take Mike and Ernie back to Nome for help. Meanwhile we tried to jump start the bus by pushing it. I can only hope that one of our camera nuts got a picture of eight to ten of us – several stripped down to T-shirts because of the heat – swarming all over the bus in an attempt to push it fast enough to turn the motor over. I can clearly recall my own feelings of surprise and relief when that old engine sputtered into life.
I was pushing only to assuage my feeling of helplessness; I never expected success, nor did I expect Jim West the renter of the bus, owner of the auto service center and of the infamous Board of Trade Bar , and surely (from the prices he charged us!) one of Nome’s wealthiest citizens – to make a trip to bail us out until he had nothing else to do. I really thought we’d have to spend the night-light though it be-in the broken down bus, but not only did we get it started, West himself showed up several hours later after Ernie told him of our plight. We were promised a new bus for the next day. It’s difficult to convey the potential awkwardness of our situation: we were a considerable distance from even the minimal civilization of Nome; a breakdown here can be a serious, time-consuming affair. We were fortunate to lose only a couple hours, and in fact they can hardly be called lost, as once again our luck held, land we broke down in a pretty good birding area; we could even watch salmon swimming under the bridge a few yards from the bus.
All along this road we had near total success. We didn’t even have to leave the road to see some of the best birds of all: Willow Ptarmigan, Hoary Redpoll, Arctic Warb1er, Wandering Tat1er, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Northern Shrike, Orangecrowned Warbler, Rough-legged Hawk, Golden Eagle, and Gyrfalcon. When we bothered to climb into the mountains, we got much closer to the raptors on their nests and added Water Pipit and one of my own favorite lifers of the trip – Wheatear. The rare Yellow-Billed Loon was the only less than satisfactory viewing. It was far out on the lake, and only by peering through a telescope could we catch fleeting glimpses of its diagnostic whitish bill. The different birders’ personalities were revealed in this instance, as some were immediately ready to check off a new bird merely on Terry’s assurance that the distant dot on the water was indeed the bird, while at the other extreme Jacobs, for instance, never was satisfied that he saw the bird. Most of us – knowing just what to look for and aided by near perfect lighting were confident that we saw this classic bird of bird watching. Some excellent field men refuse to do their homework for a new area and are not prepared to make the quick identification so often forded upon us. I felt rather proud on the bird cliffs of Savoonga, for example, when neophyte that I am, I knew just what alcids had to be around us and could even help far better, more experienced birders identify these easily observed birds: “The black-bellied one is the Tufted Puffin, etc. etc. ” Only guys like Sehl and Meritt seem to carry their expertise everywhere with them.
On the next day (July 2) in a newer, bigger, and faster bus, we attempted to correct our one failure of the previous day: Where were the Rock Ptarmigans ? It’s curious the way one bird can become a crusade. We climbed several mountains outside of Nome, Fairbanks, and in Mt. McKinley Park all in search of this glorified chicken. We made the hot, exhausting climb at mile sixteen on the Taylor road north of Nome with really only this one bird in mind. We saw many of the previous day’s birds, but no Rock Ptarmigans, even though Terry had seen several at this spot only a few weeks earlier. We spread out over the top of the mountain, and when I was quite alone and so tired from the climb that I was resting and eating snow, I saw a bird duck behind a rock. Surely this was the bird, and my hard work was being rewarded with a private sighting that would be the envy of all. It was not to be, and I almost stoned the poor Robin that hopped out from behind the rock. After feeling rather silly for a moment, I was able to enjoy this Robin – no backyard domestic but a wild mountain-top creature. He was natural here, and I was the intruder though it wasn’t the Robin who made me feel alien; he didn’t even notice me. The Roughlegged Hawk, however, noticed me and let me know that I was not welcomed in his territory as he screamed at me for daring to come within a hundred yards of his aerie. This was fine wild country, and I cannot fully describe the thrill of sharing mountain tops with such symbols of wildness as the Gyrfalcon and Golden Eagle.
It was now time to leave Nome. We had covered so much territory in such good time that we had what amounted to an extra day to try our luck elsewhere. The runway at Cape Prince of Wales could not accommodate us, and Terry insisted that a stop at Kotzebue would only allow us to boast that we had crossed the Arctic Circle. To the south, however, Hooper Bay might produce the eider and geese that we had so far missed as a group. The flexibility of having our own plane and a crew so agreeable and knowledgeable as Rocky and Mike allowed us to try the unknown.
When we put down at Hooper Bay we thought our luck had finally run out. Our greeting party consisted of various Eskimos all carrying guns, no doubt to shoot the birds we had come nearly 4,000 miles to see. With no accommodations or means of ground transportation, we figured we’d never be able to get far enough from the plane to reach an area that had not already been hunted out. In our usual independent way, however, we started fanning out in small groups. I was pretty much alone when I spotted a bird that I had never satisfactorily identified in the East: my first Long-billed Dowitcher flying above me in full plumage made the stop an immediate success for me. Northern Phalarope were everywhere and down on the beach – our first sandy beach in Alaska – while I was explaining to Sehl how I thought I had seen a Black Turnstone in the air, he ended the discussion by finding one along the surf. Meritt joined us in time to see a full plumaged Spectacled Eider fly by; Hooper Bay was looking better every minute. When Middleton called out that a Bonaparte’s Gull was flying over, Sehl almost attacked him in an effort to spot the bird, for he knew the black-headed gull of this area would almost certainly be the long sought Sabine’s Gull. Sure enough Bob started jumping up and down and screaming with delight in a performance that could only mean Sabine’s Gull. I made one of those split-second decisions that I could still be regretting when I opted not to use my binoculars to see this bird but to get it in my telescope for a perfect viewing and to live up to John Evans’ nickname for me of “Johnny Scope”. I couldn’t find it though I stood in the middle of three or four birders singing their approval of the bird. Just before it dipped below some distant dunes it appeared in my field of vision, and for two seconds 1 saw my one and only Sabine’s Gull. I’ll never forget it:
Back at the plane we saw Arctic Loons flying over and learned from other groups that Spectacted Eider, Red Phalarope, and Sabine’s Gull had been seen. Everyone was in love with Hooper Bay even though supper consisted of some ham sandwiches a la Kronschnabel and even though we still had no place to sleep except on the plane. While a few of us decided to sleep on the sand dunes of the Bering Sea – romantically appealing prospect – some wiser heads bargained with the one Eskimo who paid us any attention, and for the promise of a free ride with us to Fairbanks, he opened up the one inhabitable hut at the airstrip. The fear of mosquitoes descending upon us in the night caused all but a couple to sack out under a roof. Jacobs and Sawyer slept outside and were not bothered by the cold or bugs; they were however, completely soaked by a heavy dew. I slept soundly on the floor on my air mattress until awakened by the soon-to-be-patented Gene Stern alarm clock. Gene is generally a thoughtful person – he lugged a first-aid kit all through Alaska in case anyone got hurt – but in the early hours of July 3rd he grabbed his pants upside down and set free at least three dollars worth of nickels, dimes, and quarters in a tinkling cascade most of which landed about six inches from my head. Several people were already up and out, so I merely echoed Krony’s opinions of Gene’s dexterity and emerged into yet another glorious day; the Bering Sea did not live up to its foul weather reputation.
The only person I found outside was Will Middleton; the earlier risers had disappeared. One of the nicest features of this group was that no cliques developed. At one time or another almost everyone birded with everyone else in a small sub-group; we all got along remarkably well, and I believe were better friends at the end of the trip than we had been at the beginning.
This morning Will and I walked several miles up the shore together and never saw another person; we had an unforgettable time, as we no more reached the beach than we saw four Emperor Geese standing in front of us. With Aleutian and Arctic Terns keeping us company, we came across several flocks of eider, mostly common but with several more Spectacled Eider thrown in. We thought everyone e1se had gone the same route and had seen the same birds, but when I returned for breakfast somewhat after Will, I was greeted with the derision that is the surest sign of success in birding circles: “Who the hell ever said you could tell an Emperor Goose from a seal LaVia?” No one else had seen Emperor Geese! Now I have to admit to that strange mixture of feelings that every bird watcher must know. I really wanted my friends to get a chance to see this coveted lifer, yet 1 hated to relinquish the exclusiveness of my position. My quandary was resolved at breakfast (corn flakes and delicious fresh canned milk) when a flock of fifteen Emperor Geese flew overhead. Before the morning was over, I had seen sixty-six Emperor Geese and so had everyone else, but Will and I had our moment in the sun, and we enjoyed it.
It was time to leave Hooper Bay, though we had to drag Kronschnabel off the dunes – he missed the Sabine’s Gull. Our Eskimo passenger never did show up for his free ride even though we left more than an hour after the time we had agreed upon. I probably shouldn’t mention why we were an hour late, but since I wasn’t in the group that got a free drink in atonement, I might as well tattle on my morning comrade: Middleton wandered off by himself and never looked back. We yelled and waved but not until Meritt tracked him down did Will ever remember the rest of us. All things considered I’m surprised this kind of difficulty didn’t arise more often. Birders are an independent lot; we like to go our own way usually down the road less traveled by.
Finally we took-off for Fairbanks and had our only view of Mt. McKinley. After passing over a forest fire, Terry even showed us a lifer from the plane that I hope and trust no one counted. He assured us that the white dots we could just barely make out on some ponds a good ways outside of Fairbanks were Trumpeter Swans. We had a good laugh at this ultimate “cheapy” for someone’s list, but not ours – after the serendipity of our unscheduled stops at Savoonga and Hooper Bay, we could afford to be idealists. Our arrival in Fairbanks pretty much marked the end of our high adventure, as the rest of the time would be spent in the relative comfort of civilization: cars, motel with TV, showers, a steak dinner and would you believe, lunch at MacDonalds!
Big city (by Alaskan standards, 27,000) or not, the birding remained sensational around Fairbanks. Our July 4th start at 5:30 A. M. was pretty late by our usual standards, but for the very first time on the trip, I had difficulty getting up in the morning. Terry had lived in Fairbanks for years, so he could really lead us to the best spots. Near the University of Alaska we quickly heard and saw Hammond’s Flycatcher, Boreal Chickadee, Alder Flycatcher, and Lincoln Sparrow. We also got to see the first of many Harlan Hawks, a bird recently reduced to a sub-species of the Red-tailed Hawk. The DVOC has some pretensions as a scientific body, and I notice that most of the members like to keep up with the latest ornithological decisions even to the extent of referring to that poor frigid creature, the Northern Oriole. I suppose because I’m associated with a university, I have a little less respect for some of the revisions. I know all about forced doctoral dissertations that are produced one year only to be refuted the next. Besides I’m a bird watcher not an ornithologist; I feel no need to excuse what I most enjoy doing by trying to find a utilitarian basis for it. I may not contribute to the forward march of science, but if I can distinguish a bird in the field, I like to have a record of it. Why this diatribe? Harlan’s Hawk is down on my life list, and Alder Flycatcher probably would have been even before they finally decided to make it a full species.
We had a lot of rewarding birding remaining this day, with a Great-horned Owl posing for everyone to snap its picture, Red-necked Grebes with young on their back, and finally (for me) a clear view of the first of many Varied Thrushes. We did not find – though we searched and searched – that bird I remember beating the woods for back in Churchill a year ago, namely, the elusive Northern Three-toed Woodpecker. Obviously we were trying too hard; let the bird find us (see how easy it is after the fact!). Terry tried his best for us, and we wished him well, as he had to leave us and return to his job in Anchorage.
The prices in the restaurants were getting to some of us, so Krony, Sehl, and I located a take-out chicken franchise and skipped what I heard was a delightful dinner in honor of Les Thomas’ daughter-in-law. We hated to miss the good time, but there had just been a full council of war in our room where we got all kinds of bad news about cost over-runs. We were searching for ways to save money; triple-up and quadruple-up in the large motel rooms, skip the last night in the motel in Fairbanks and spend it en route to Brandon (a bonus here, for there will now be more time in Brandon), and turn back one of the rented cars while in Fairbanks. We, therefore, were thinking in terms of economy even to the extent of buying the makings for peanut-butter and jelly in the supermarket (a loaf of bread cost 80¢!). The group as a whole even decided to take the next day off and six of us who wanted to continue birding had to rent our own car for the day (I sure hope the guys in single rooms were likewise hit for a few extra dollars).
The sturdy six (Sehl, Jacobs, Meritt, Kronschnabel, Middleton, and La Via) made the northern most penetration of the trip, as we bounced our way for more than one hundred miles northeast of Fairbanks and finally above the 65th parallel. The road (Steese Highway) was rocky and dusty; I cannot imagine how anyone makes money by renting cars in this area, for by the end of this day the car we were in had depreciated about a year’s worth. At the very top of Eagle Summit nesting Surf Birds made the trip worthwhile. Our continuing Rock Ptarmigan crusade ended in the usual exhausting failure, but the territory was ideal, and it was well worth the attempt. Along the way we had excellent views of Western Wood Pewee, Orange-crowned and Wilson’s Warbler, Bohemian Waxwings, Say’s Phoebe, Wheatear, Common Redpoll, Varied Thrush, Boreal Chickadee, Common Snipe, Water Pipit, and others (even my notes were getting tired at this point!). The six of us were delighted with this side excursion, especially since this proved to be the last day of ideal weather we were to have in Alaska.
Our exertions had been such that I actually slept until seven the next morning (July 6). This could have been the most annoying day of the trip and certainly was until its spectacular finish. The morning was filled with lots of complicated packing (some to be loaded on the plane, some to be taken to Mt. McKinley Park), lots of car shuffling (return one set and pick up another), and also lots of something we had seen only briefly at Gambell – rain. The 125 mile ride from Fairbanks southwest to the Park with Jacobs setting the pace was not at all dusty; the rain of course turned the unpaved portions of the road into mud – not the kind of deep mud we could get stuck in, just plain, old slippery mud.
The road birds were old stuff by now: Harlan’s and Marsh Hawks, Golden Eagles, Bohemian Waxwings, and the always present Violet-green and Cliff Swal1ows at Nenana. Our first experiences in the Park added to our annoyance; it was crowded, and we had delays in locating first the place to find out where our accommodations were and then our actual accommodations. The countless Ravens and numerous Black-billed Magpies helped somewhat. Our lodgings turned out to be eight brand new trailers in the spruce forest along side a rushing stream. We couldn’t have asked for anything better; we didn’t have to, for once again it came to us.
Meritt and I were walking away from our camp when we heard Stern shouting; I raced Jim back to the center of camp where a yellow crowned male Northern Three-toed Woodpecker was surrounded by a group of ecstatic birders. I never did find out who first spotted the bird; Billings, Garner, Wing, and Street seemed to have proprietary rights, and it was Garner, I believe, who raced off to get the unlucky car that had already left for dinner. Just before they came roaring back, another yellow-crowned male appeared, and the two woodpeckers flew off. Of course with the birds gone, we acted out the classic bird watchers’ joke: we started throwing stones as soon as the late-comers could see us, suggesting a less than whole-hearted desire for them to share our find. I remember our excitement and the disappointment of Hubbard and Jacobs particularly (they would see the bird on the next day). Since we surely saw rarer birds, it’s hard to say why this one seemed to be the bird of the trip, or in the terminology of Bob Garner, the ultimate “wow, fantastic” bird. That deserves an explanation. As we spent more and more time together, certain standing jokes established themselves: my own incipient beard was always good for some kind of witty comment even after Evans, Hubbard, and Jacobs tried to imitate it; Evans’ alarm-watch was always buzzing away when least expected or needed, and we let good-natured John hear about it; but it was Garner’s enthusiasm (everything was “wow” and “fantastic”) that first drew the fire of the I-have-been-to-the-antipodes-and-have-seen-everything type of birder. Before long, however, Garner’s zeal carried the day, and everyone began rating his sightings on a scale of wow to fantastic, with double wows and all kinds of combinations possible.
After dinner with our guide for the next day, we saw a cow moose, but that hardly rated with the grizzly bear and lynx spotted by the other cars. I was happily crawling into bed when the word was passed to us that a Hawk Owl was perched on a conspicuous dead tree a few miles away. I couldn’t get anyone interested in going back to look until Garner offered to take me directly back to the bird, then we got a carfull to see this impressive creature. For a “travel” day this was quite an exciting finish.
Our last full day in Alaska (July 7) began at 2:40 A. M. with our high expectations somewhat dampened by the intermittent rain that followed us for most of the day. We had about a fourteen mile ride to the Park Hotel for our 3 A.M. breakfast not easily to be forgotten: eggs, pancakes, sausage, etc. etc. Meritt had made excellent arrangements providing us with a spacious bus and an interesting young guide, Mike, who had requested our group when he heard about our emphasis on birds. The park employs the intelligent plan whereby no private vehicles are allowed within its boundaries. We didn’t have to wait for the shuttle busses, however, as once again we were collectively wealthy enough to rent a Park bus of our own. The road was treacherous enough to make us thankful for a professional driver, particularly when he could spot animals at extreme distances. Although this was the first day I failed to record a lifer-though Lord knows we beat the hills for Rock Ptarmigan and the river banks for Dipper – the birding was worthwhile: a half dozen Willow Ptarmigan, Golden Plover, Golden Eagles, Tatler, Northern Shrike, Long-tailed Jaeger, and Water Pipit. For the first time, however, the birds were not the main attraction.
The mammals of Mt. McKinley Park demand attention. We were just like the rest of the tourists when it came to seeing Ursus horribilus. It’s hard to take one’s eyes off of a Grizzly Bear, even after we had seen about ten of them. They are impressive by any standards, and no one complained when we were prohibited from leaving the bus in the area of our extremely close sighting of three of these creatures. We all enjoyed – though I’ll not go into detail about our non-ornithological sightings — the numerous Dall Sheep, Barren Ground Caribou, Ground Squirrels, Hoary Marmots, Snowshoe Rabbits, and finally a huge Bull Moose. Around Nome and Gambell we had seen Grey Whales and Spotted Seals, making this overall quite a trip for mammals as well as birds.
The weather prevented us from getting a look at Mt. McKinley itself and even prevented us from getting as far into the Park as we had planned when a washout caused the road to be closed. The topography we did see was fascinating. Mike was able to explain many of the curious features of this still active glacier country. The rivers consisted of various trickles of water spread over an acre a half mile wide. It seems that because of the sediment picked up by the glaciers, the rivers carry so much gravel that they continually dam themselves up and have to seek a new path. The bigness of this country allowed Mike to fool us in estimating distances; a “little rock” off in the distance turned out to be seventy feet high but many miles away. We enjoyed all Mike had to tell us but were most pleased that he kept the bus on this twisting road and didn’t lend truth to the rumor that the beautiful variety of hues of Pholchrome Pass came from the different colored buses that had plunged over the side.
After our damp day in and out of the bus, we did some hiking near the ranger headquarters through the spruce and quaking aspen that characterize the north woods. We had something very special in mind. Up until about three weeks before we arrived there was an active Great Gray Owl nest that was routinely pointed out to all Park visitors. Did you ever see sixteen men gnash their teeth in unison? Of course the birds were gone, and all our scouring of the area was in vain. Just think of all those mere tourists who got to see this magnificent bird while we pure of heart birders got to see an empty nest. We felt cheated, and not even a debate over whether the large hawk we saw was a Gyrfalcon or Goshawk could make us forget.
By now we were all a little worn from the hectic pace, and it was not out of the ordinary for someone to disappear for a few hours or even half a day to catch up on his sleep or just to get away for awhile. Some of us tried to keep going all the time; after all we were about to leave some of the grandest country we will ever see. We got off early on July 8 and made excellent time through the mud back to Fairbanks, lunched at the airport and quickly took off for Whitehorse. We were heading home, and although most of us were ready to return, we had that uncomfortable feeling that we had just finished doing something that we would never do again. Alaska was no longer a romantic anticipation; it was now a memory.
Once again we planned to stop on the way home at Brandon, Manitoba for some northern plains birding. We flew from Fairbanks through Whitehorse (for supper), Edmonton, and Saskatoon and reached Brandon at 1l:30 A. M. on July 9 after eighteen hours elapsed time (we lost another four hours in time changes). The time changes made it rather difficult to determine the exact moment my July 9 birthday began, and it wasn’t until 3 A. M. that I had happy birthday sung to me somewhere high over Canada – a first for me. When we put down in Brandon, it marked the sixth Canadian province we visited on this trip; I guess birders are just compulsive listers.
Brandon means Jack Lane to us, for just as last year, he took us in tow and gave us another unforgettable day of birding. After all the lifers of this trip I would have been disappointed if I didn’t get a birthday bird. Jack took care of that and led us directly to a nesting colony of Eared Grebes. The bird is more impressive than its colorful plate in the field guides. The red eye is so prominent that it appears to be a button sewed on the bird. I can still hear Garner’s “fantastics”. We added many other trip birds, admittedly some were not the kind to get excited about – House Sparrow, Coot, and Starling – but others kept us out in the heat and bugs until we ran out of light: Swainson’s Hawk, Western Kingbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Clay-colored Sparrow, Cedar Waxwing, Bobolink, Black Tern, Forester’s Tern, Vesper Sparrow, American Bittern and Upland Sandpiper.
We also had an exhausting and fruitless tramp through a wet meadow in search of the Leconte’s Sparrow (Sehl finally saw one at International Falls). Douglas Marsh again produced the ticking of the Yellow Rail but no sighting of the bird, and although we all give lip service to the rule that “a bird heard is as good as a bird seen”, we’d have been far happier to see the bird.
Some of the party did get to see a Wilson’s Phalarope which led us to some summing up of our accomplishments: all three phalaropes, all four eider, all three jaegers, all the loons except Common, and eight alcids. Our final trip list, as recorded by Sehl, went over two-hundred, but I have not tried to list everything in these notes, which have only attempted to describe the trip from my own point of view.
By the end of our day in Brandon we were finished; we had had enough birding, enough living out of duffel bags, enough restaurant meals, enough take-offs and landings. The flight home (July 10) was a blur. We cleared U. S. customs at International Falls, Minnesota, where a team of four blood hounds went through every inch of our plane, including – to their own everlasting horror – our carefully sealed bags of dirty laundry; they deserved what they got. After all our success it seemed ironic that the trip had to end on the anti-climax of a forced landing (because of thunder storms) in Coatesville, Pa. just a few minutes from home. The final low flight to Northeast provided us with a bird’s eye view of Philadelphia. I felt sorry for the guys who had to go to work the next morning; I needed some time to readjust to normal living.
These were a very special sixteen days.
John LaVia, June-July 1974