Chapter 6. Northern Alaska
(Shari) With a travel day yesterday, we had to hustle to get everything packed and now 5 AM comes plenty early this morning. The park shuttle takes us to the airport for our trip to Barrow. The weather is great on landing and stays that way for the day. David, a native of Barrow is waiting for us with a van. At first he scares me when he says that he does not have an 18-passenger van but only a 15-passenger. I remind him that I called in November, confirmed in April and spoke to him yesterday. Oh my gosh, what are we to do. All of a sudden he tells me he has a 21-passenger bus. Well duh, we will take that one. Only that one does not work. So, it’s back to 15 passengers with Bert and me not riding. Then out of the blue he is borrowing one from the hotel and we are all set. We drop off our luggage and get in the 21-passenger bus and David takes us out for a Barrow tour. For the next two hours he drives the streets of Barrow telling us about his 80-year-old father - an elder and a whale captain - his kids, whaling and the people of Barrow, population 4500 and decreasing. We check into our rooms, eat lunch and go out birding. As Bert said in last night’s travel meeting Barrow will consist of bird, eat, bird, eat, bird eat, bird, sleep a little, bird, eat, bird, eat and bird some more. And that is just what happens. I am asleep by the time Bert comes into the room this evening and still asleep when he leaves in the morning.
(Bert) I thought our flight was direct to Barrow, so I’m surprised when the attendant announces we are going to Deadhorse. Curtis and Ann, sitting next to me, ask “Where is Deadhorse?” since it is not shown on the airline map in Alaska Air magazine. We find out when the jet lands at Prudhoe Bay and the sign at the airport announces Deadhorse. More than half the plane empties out with muscular young men headed for their 2-week shift in the oil fields. Their weight is replaced by dozens of cases of Coca-cola, Sprite and bottled water loaded into the cargo bay. I wonder what the shipping cost is for those drinks.
On the flight to Barrow the clear skies allow me to photograph the ice patterns of the Arctic Ocean and I can see the outline of the long thin peninsula of Point Barrow, the northernmost part of North America. We arrive at Barrow and thus begins a confusing array of bus transportation problems, including forgotten reservations – despite several confirming calls over the past 8 mo. – a bus that does not start (headlights left on overnight, dead battery, fried cables), switch to two vans, then another bus, then the original bus repaired but without a full tank of gas. It all gets sorted out with little interruption in our plans and as a bonus David gives us a delightful and educational tour of Barrow and we learn much about the native people including his ancestral family. His father is one of the whaling leaders and the three generations of men were among the many village people who this spring season brought in nine Bowhead Whales. David’s wife makes the strong waterproof strings they use, made from the muscle sinews of caribou and although a valuable commodity to sell, she trades in the traditional way for a share in the blubber. David’s son takes on the traditional role of hunter and his daughter is in Anchorage, studying to be a dental hygienist, illustrating the changing nature of Barrow. On the road to Point Barrow we stop to see the football field, bright orange artificial turf donated by a thoughtful woman and transported by the native village council at a shipping cost of $300,000. The bright blue glows brightly in front of a backdrop of a snow-covered pond. The field was not here when we visited in 2006 and I remember hearing about it on a special program on national TV news. David tells us the addition of football to the high school encouraged many young men to return to school and achieve good grades. David entertains us with many stories until we return to the hotel and adjacent restaurant at 1:30. After lunch, and with an operational bus, I drive to Cake Eater Road and we begin a study of dozens of jaegers, learning to identify the more numerous Pomarine from the fewer Parasitic, both present in light and dark forms. We drive the road leading to Ikoravik Lake because a young man at the airport told a few of our group about a Ruff being sighted there. Along the road we encounter King Eiders and Steller’s Eiders and delight in the colorful males and nearly indistinguishable females. With John in the lead, Bent, Steve, Nancy and I, all wearing high-topped boots, venture out on the wet tundra separating pools and watery marsh, heading in the direction we think is the Ruff. No luck on the Ruff, but we certainly get close encounters with three jaegers that attack us when we apparently get too close to a nesting site. The jaegers dive bomb us to within a few feet of our heads and I have the photographs to prove it.
Back on the bus, we turn on to Gas Well Road, stopping frequently for shorebirds and getting many opportunities to sort out Pectoral, Semipalmated and Baird’s sandpipers. Carol is the first to find a Snowy Owl, probably the most sought after bird in Barrow. We find a few more, each keeping their distance from us, but clearly visible in our spotting scopes. Soft looking piles of feathers with beady dark eyes, the owls look more like cute stuffed animals than birds. We also find our third eider species – Spectacled Eider – an even better prize because of its rarity within reachable parts of North America.
After dinner, John, Bent and Betty join me in the bus for more birding. The ignition key won’t turn the bus door lock and we have to call David for him to bring a jimmy to unlock the bus. He forgot to tell me that the ignition was replaced and the new key no longer matches the door lock. No matter, we are soon on our way to Fresh Water Lake. In the waning hours of the day, but not the perpetual sunlight, I spot an Ivory Gull flying along the edge of the lake and Betty gets a lifer.
(Bert) Although I got to bed shortly before midnight, I was awake every hour or so because of the sunlight spilling around the edges of the window shades. So it is not hard for me to get up in time for our 6:30 AM start on birding. We head out to Point Barrow on a bright, crystal clear morning that is windless and comparatively warm – although it probably would feel warm anyway with my five layers of clothes. I spot a Peregrine Falcon perched on a chunk of ice pushed up by the breaking ice field. The falcon is listed as “not expected to find” in Barrow in A Birder’s Guide to Alaska. This starts a series of good finds, including Long-tailed Jaeger – listed “hard to see” - flying over the Chuchi Sea and a pair of Gadwall, a species not even listed as having occurred in Barrow. At 7:15 AM, Betty is the first to see the Gadwall and I quickly take documenting photos and Jim recites the GPS coordinates as N 71.34742 W 156.59235, elevation 0 ft.
After breakfast, a larger group including Shari joins me on the bus for a ride to Fresh Water Lake. I take a side road toward the Chuchi Sea and while we are watching a pair of Tundra Swans we see a Red Fox in a very unusual form of the cross phase. The coloring is vivid patches of red and black, much more distinctly marked than I’ve seen before. We watch the fox for a long time as it prowls through the tundra, intent on dining on eggs for breakfast. I wonder if the swans are sitting on eggs. Stopping at the colorful cemetery with large white crosses, we scan for birds. At our feet someone discovers a Lapland Longspur sitting on a nest. We take photographs as the bird seems to ignore us even at our close range. Then it escapes, revealing three eggs in the nest. We back off from the location so the bird can return. John points out a Short-eared Owl resting in the tundra and then we watch it fly with butterfly wings over the field. We are distracted from the flight by a King Eider closer in and I set up my scope so Shari can get a full view of the soft blue, vivid orange, outlined black and faintly green white head of the drake. At Fresh Water Lake I point out a flying Sabine’s Gull and on the return trip we find a Dunlin with white flags on its legs, apparently a banding marking from Russian ornithologists. Another Snowy Owl and a “hard-to-find” Savannah Sparrow complete the trip.
We return to Barrow and the shoppers and museum visitors separate from the continuing birders. On the way to Ikoravik Lake we bump into Andrew, the young biology student from Montana that we met at the airport. He is conducting bird research this summer at Barrow, as he did last summer, and he joins us for a repeat search for the Ruff. We reach the end of the road and walk left, instead of the direction we walked yesterday. Those with high boots do not hesitate to cross the wet marshy tundra and for a bird as rare as a Ruff, Steve, Nancy and Betty tackle the ice water in low cut shoes, soon soaking their feet. Just beyond a rise in the tundra, we get our first glimpse of the Asian overshoot. Fortunately and thankfully, John carried his scope and we all get a good look at the shorebird, including its ruffed neck feathers. We move closer for better photographs and the Ruff conveniently obliges. Walking across the tundra we have constantly scared up small rodents which I thought were Tundra Voles as they look quite similar. Andrew catches one of them with his hands and tells us they are Brown Lemmings and that this year they are especially bountiful, I’m sure to the delight of the Snowy Owls, jaegers and its other predators. A Red Phalarope alights from its nest and Andrew quickly finds it and shows us the eggs. His summer job is to track bird nests and he seems adept at locating them. Returning to Gas Well Road, we see the Snowy Owl still sitting on a large tundra tuft, same as yesterday, and presumably on a nest. Then we turn on a new road not here in my 2006 visit, finding a Steller’s Eider at the intersection. A small pool of water is covered with dozens of Red Phalaropes, including a pair of Sabine’s Gulls, one with an obviously yellow-tipped bill. Farther on the road I photograph a Semipalmated Sandpiper with color leg bands. The good birding does not seem to end, as there are good finds in every direction, but it’s time to return to Barrow for dinner, final repacking and the flight back to Fairbanks.
(Shari) I join the group for breakfast at 9 and go out to bird with them afterwards. We see a Red Fox, a King Eider and a Snowy Owl worthy of my list. Joann and I notice some of the weeds turning green and Marie has Bert stop to take pictures of some strange looking but sweet smelling flowers growing on the tundra. After a “potty” break at the hotel, Bert drops some of us off at the store and Heritage Center. I look for a cache but do not find it. No one has found this one since it has been planted and I wonder if I have to count this one as a “no find” if it is in fact not there. We drive past another virtual cache which I capture on film. As Joann, Mel, Donna, Jim, Bent and Marie visit the museum I go over to the grocery store. David said that it sells some native crafts but I am disappointed that there is not more for sale; I learn later the vendors were at the museum instead, showing their wares to a tour group. I do notice that milk is $9.69 a gallon. I walk back to the hotel and peel off layers as I go. It is a hot one today in Barrow. David says the average summertime temperature is 50 but today it must be in the high 60s. I am too hot, that I know. I would hate to live here. The streets are all gravel that sticks to the soles of your shoes. This dirt must come indoors and be a constant battle to keep off carpets and floors. There is not one house that they could give me to live in. I need plants and greenery and well kept surroundings, not dirt and gravel and broken equipment in my yard. Everywhere I look I see cars with flat tires, burned out shells of houses, abandoned shacks, and rotting wood. Not garbage littering the land like in Mexico, but things that need hauling out. Apparently there is no place to haul it and if something breaks that is where it stays. I see old refrigerators on crooked porches, cars with four flat tires in a front yard, old toys, snowmobiles and ATV’s sitting just everywhere and anywhere, and boarded windows on inhabited houses (the glass must have broke). I get back to the hotel quite tired and read a book until the group returns. After a light dinner we board the airplane for our flight home. Back in R-Tent-III, Bert and I relax with a beer that tastes so good.
(Bert) Apparently others in Barrow, besides Shari, are aware of the discarded junk around town. The new road I refer to in my journal leads to a new and very large metal dump carved out of the tundra with bulldozers. A truck carrying a big load of snowmobile bodies and parts passed us on our way out. Today also, youth groups were colorfully painting dumpsters scattered around town to gather junk and David mentioned a cleanup drive coming up in the next week or so.
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