Chapter 13. Aleutian Islands
(Bert) We finish up our errands in Fairbanks: sending e-mail once more at Barnes and Noble, dumping sewage tanks, getting propane, and refueling. I reread our Fairbanks journal of 2008 and noticed the price of gas was $4.29 per gal. The price of diesel today at Fred Meyers is $4.09 per gal. and because we buy groceries there also, we get a discount of 30 cents, thus only $3.89 per gal. That may still seem like a lot, but you cannot claim it is high compared to four years ago.
We take the Parks Highway south, past Denali National Park, stopping a few times on the highway to see if Mt. McKinley is showing–it is not–and continue to Denali State Park, where we camp for the night at the Denali Viewpoint parking lot.
(Bert) As we are passing through Wasilla, Shari notices a sign for repairing windshield chips. We drove 828 mi. on the Dalton Highway, plus another 304 mi. on graveled Elliott Highway, all without incurring a thrown stone to chip or crack our windshield. However, while parked well off-road in the Deadhorse city limits, a semi exceeded the 25 mph speed limit and showered us with stones, leaving two stars on the windshield. So, we stop now to get the chips filled. Repairman Bob does an excellent job and guarantees his work. The bill comes to $60.
A more pleasant highlight of the day is seeing an Ermine crossing the highway. Although I have found Ermine many times zigzagging through brush and trash piles, I’ve never seen one scampering across a highway. With the speed of a cheetah, the sleekness of a malnutritioned weasel, and the short legs of a dachshund, I have but a momentary view of its long red-brown body and short black-tipped tail. It is forty-fifth mammal species I’ve seen since we left Texas.
(Bert) The day slips by as we catch up on errands and I write and send journals. In mid-afternoon Bob and Pat arrive and we trade stories about the Dalton Highway, Denali Highway, and Pat’s trip to Washington State. We also discuss plans for tomorrow’s flight to Dutch Harbor. Another Alaska adventure begins tomorrow.
(Shari) By now we know the drill. The cab picks us up and takes us to the airport where we wait two hours for our flight to depart. At least we do not have a security check as the plane is too small to be bothered with that inconvenience. So we can pack anything and take anything aboard as long as it fits in the very small overhead bin or the still smaller under-the-seat space. The clerk tells me my bag is too big, but I know better since I have taken it aboard on the St. Paul Island flight. Sure enough, I squeeze it under the seat in front of me. This time I have packed two 500 ml containers of wine and some cheese, peanuts, and apple snacks for the next eight days.
(Bert) The Saab 340 aircraft leaves Anchorage airport at 12:30 PM, about three-fourths filled with passengers bound for Dutch Harbor. With our luggage, that is enough weight to necessitate a fuel stop at King Salmon, a small town lying in a flat coastal plain pockmarked with small ponds. Small airplanes flying to islands, often socked in with fog, must carry enough fuel to circle the airport several times and return in case they cannot land. No problem today, though. When we land at Dutch Harbor and disembark the jet in balmy sunshine we have the feeling we have arrived in Hawaii. Tall, green, treeless mountains encompass a calm blue bay and the warm air has a tropical feel to it.
(Shari) When we arrive in Dutch Harbor, I am surprised with its landscape. I
expected treeless and flat and instead get hilly and green. I mention to Bert it
is like flying into Hawaii. We have a beautiful sunshine day and the bright
green hills seem to glisten. I call the hotel for their airport shuttle and it
comes within 10 min. to take us to our home for the next two days. Dutch Harbor
is supposed to be the sixth largest city in Alaska, but I find it small. Most of
its population must come from the seafood processing plant. Dutch Harbor or
Unalaska (both names are used) has the largest seafood processing plant in the
world and employs about 2500 people. These people live in dormitories and eat in
the company cafeteria much like we experienced in St. Paul. We pass a large
Safeway store but not much else in the way of shops or stores. Our hotel is nice
and we have a room with two beds and a window overlooking a canal and a deck.
(Bert) A shuttle takes us to the nearby three-story hotel overlooking the bay. Slowly, reality sets in as we see a tall oil rig centered on a ship awaiting assignment to the Arctic Ocean and in the Nootka Lupine and Coastal Paintbrush strewn lot where I stand, breeding plumaged Lapland Longspurs sing from grassy stalks and tall lampposts. Bald Eagles soar above the mountain tops, Pigeon Guillemots float in calm water, and a Harbor Porpoise humps above the sea and disappears beneath. This cannot be Hawaii. Not with that wildlife collection.
(Shari) Bert meets Bob and Pat outside to do a bit of birding before dinner. I walk to Safeway to look around and buy some eye drops. We meet in the bar and order the slider special with sweet potato fries and beer. We say goodnight early, as tomorrow we are to meet Bobbie, our guide for our half-day tour of a portion of the island.
(Bert) When the Russians saw a Dutch ship moored in the harbor of Unalaska Island they named the bay Dutch Harbor. In time, the whole area became known as Dutch Harbor, even though it really consists of the city, Unalaska, and two islands–Unalaska and Amaknak–bridged only in the last decade. Four facets, maybe five, of Dutch Harbor fascinate me: terrain, eagles, Aleuts, WWII, and lupines. Like so many other places I have visited, when I see it, it is not as I imagined. These islands are much more vertical than I expected. Except for a few potholed streets in town, almost all of the gravel roads spreading like spokes from a wheel are difficult vertical climbs into rugged mountains that Shari suggests should be called the Aleutian Alps. The vibrantly green mountains are surrounded by ocean and each turn in the road offers a new vista. Except for a small grove of Sitka Spruce originally planted in 1805, the mountains and valleys are treeless, unless you count the dwarf trees that look more like bushes. Deep blue Lupines color large patches and sprinkled throughout are numerous other flowers, including thousands of orchids of two species: Bog Orchid and Purple Orchid.
(Shari) Bobbie, our guide, picks us up at 8 AM sharp and takes us to all her special birding sites. She asks what birds we would like to see and the albatross and auklet are mentioned. She doubts we will see those, but does show us all her target birds. These birds would have been special had we not been birding so much already. But some of them are nice to see over and over again. We see so many Bald Eagles that we lose count. They are all over the place and perch on lamps, on bridges, on trees, on the ground on… Unalaska was bombed two times by the Japanese during WWII and we see many artifacts of the war. The Japanese found the island in 1942 quite by accident the first time and bombed it then. Two days later they came back but by then reinforcements came in and thwarted the attack. Many troops were brought in to protect the island and the native people were evacuated. That is a sad story in itself. Bobbie’s husband is 11/16 Aleut and his grandparents and parents were moved off the island to Juneau. The kids were forced to go to school and speak English. This was the beginning of the loss of the native culture. I had heard of our treatment of Japanese Americans but never knew about the bad treatment of the Aleuts. They were interred and given deplorable housing, crammed into rooms without adequate heating, given very little food and no health care. After the war they were returned to their homes which by then had been damaged beyond repair. No longer could they live off the land and sea as all their tools were gone and houses demolished. The government’s response was, “We all have to make sacrifices.” Hearing the story, I was ashamed of the politicians. The people who were taken prisoners by the Japanese were treated better than those who were relocated.
(Bert) While on tour with Bobbie, we learn the World War II history of the area, starting with the Japanese bombing of the harbor June 3-4, 1942 and the subsequent fortification and buildup by 10,000 U.S. Army and Navy troops. Remnant concrete bunkers are scattered throughout the city and mountains, and we can even see the 70-year-old castellated outline of trenches engraved on one mountainside, in preparation for an anticipated attack.
Nowhere have I seen so many nesting Bald Eagles. At first I estimated there must be a hundred eagles, but when Pat counts over 30 just on one docked ship I have to revise my estimate to multiple hundreds are spread across this part of the islands. Their numbers even surpass the Glaucous-winged Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes we see. One pair of eagles even maintains a nest built into the metal crossbars of an extended crane that has been idle for years. Bobbie tells us that on their Christmas Bird Count, they tabulate over 600 Bald Eagles. Of course, these aren’t the only birds and Bobbie is keen on showing us all of the specialties. In the five hours we are with her, we see Black Oystercatcher, Rock Sandpiper, Horned Puffin, Rock Ptarmigan, Bank Swallow, Snow Bunting, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, among others.
(Shari) After Bobbie’s informative tour, we stop at Amelia’s for lunch. Bobbie thinks highly of the restaurant (not much to choose from here). I have a terrible lunch, however, and wish I had not even eaten. My choice was the special, clam chowder and a fish sandwich. Fish was dry and chowder was tasteless. I hate to pay for food that I don’t like.
After lunch we drive around the island. Not having a lot to do during WWII, the army built roads, so the island has quite a few. We take the scenic route on a pretty day getting back to the hotel after 7 PM. Bert and I walk over to Safeway for our dinner of a subway sandwich.
(Bert) The incredibly beautiful weather of yesterday has devolved to fog and rain, coupled with chilling winds. From our breakfast table we look out at a bedraggled Bald Eagle dripping with raindrops. A good day for an indoor activity, we drive to the Museum of the Aleutians. I spend 15 min. on the first display case alone, and a couple hours on the many other exhibits. The Aleutian Islands are the cradle of North American civilization. About 15,000 years ago, when the glaciers began to melt and retreat, an ice-free corridor across the Bering Land Bridge and extending to the western mountains allowed nomadic people to enter North America. Evidence as early as 9000 years ago marks the Anagula sites on Umnak Island and Hog Island. Many of the artifacts in the museum come from very recent excavations when the bridge was built between Amaknak Island and Unalaska Island. These include many 6000-year-old scrapers, microblades, harpoon heads, obsidian blades, pendants, oil lamps, and other tools. Also fascinating is an original drawing called Woman of Ounalashka by John Webber, prepared July 1, 1778 when Capt. James Cook visited the area, as well as one of only five known portraits of Cook.
(Shari) It is a good thing we did our sightseeing yesterday as today is rainy and dreary. Meeting Pat and Bob in the hotel restaurant for breakfast, we plan our day. After our bags are safely locked up in hotel storage, we drive to the spit but no one wants to get out of the car to walk in the rain. We drive to the end of another road and then decide to go to the museum. I am usually not a museum person but the traveling exhibit on quilts interests me.
(Bert) In midafternoon, we board the ferry that will take us north on the Aleutian Islands chain to Kodiak Island over the next couple of days. I love riding on ferries and this one will pass remote parts of Alaska that very few tourists see. In fact, it is very difficult to book the few staterooms available and the ferry only makes this run a few times each year. I expect the pelagic birds that we can see will be great in number, though few in variety. The two I most want to see are Black-footed Albatross–unlikely since we hug the coastline and are not far at sea–and Whiskered Auklet. The auklet nests on the Baby Islands which, unfortunately, are not along the ferry route, but I might see one foraging at sea.
The show begins near the Lava Point passageway between Unalaska Island and Akutan Island about 6:30 PM. First a few, then hundreds, and then thousands of Northern Fulmars churn haphazardly in low-flying swarms just above the gently tossing swells. Almost all of these are the dark forms: long black wings, narrow and pointed, splotched with lighter-colored patches and robust tubular bodies. A closer look reveals dark bills mounted with soda-straw nostrils that extend like a shorter bill riding atop a longer bill. Although I often try to count numbers of birds, I am hopelessly lost in even estimating the number that pass by us. I’ve read that the North American breeding population of Northern Fulmars is 2.1 million individuals, with 70% or 1.4 million at 38 breeding colonies in Alaska. We are passing near one of these now and must continue passing others because we are rarely out of sight of fulmars on this cruise.
Quite the contrast, Whiskered Auklets number only an estimated 116,000 individuals and the worldwide distribution is narrowly spread from the Baby Islands westward to the coast of Asia, making it one of the hardest alcids to see. Doug, the onboard naturalist, does not offer much hope of us seeing one, but informs us when the ship is near Akutan Island and is passing near the passage way to the Baby Islands. If we see one, it will be now. I see a dozen Horned Puffins and a hundred Tufted Puffins–too big for auklets. We keep seeing Red Phalaropes, probably numbering well over a hundred. These are close in size to what I seek, but wrong behavior and coloring. A nice surprise is a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, our first of the year, though not remotely like an auklet. Then I see an almost all-black pair of small birds flying in a direct line, low over the water, across the bow and then directly away from me on the port side. They are too distant to make out the whiskered feathers, but the auklet shape and the black plumage are unmistakable. With the image still imprinted in my brain, I study my field guide and quickly eliminate all species except my sought-after Whiskered Auklets. It’s a life bird and the only two seen today.
(Shari) By 4 PM the hotel shuttle takes us to the ferry. We check into our very small room and meet on the observation lounge. No one wants to eat dinner except me, as the birding is too good. I go to the restaurant and have fried halibut and fries, eating at a table by myself. The boat begins to rock and roll so I take a Dramamine and then get sleepy. I head for our cabin and spend the rest of the night continually waking up and falling back to sleep. I never get sick to my stomach, but I sure am tired.
(Bert) Just before 9 PM, in diminished light but still quite bright, we dock at Akutan, a small native village, population 89, enlarged greatly by seasonal workers in a fish processing plant. Two churches figure prominently on the narrow coastal shelf with a steep backdrop of treeless green mountainsides. One is the modest green-roofed, onion-domed white clapboard Russian Orthodox Church enclosed with a white picket fence that also encompasses a small cemetery with dozens of gravesites, each adorned by a white double-barred cross. The other, far in the distance, is a large, new non-denominational church with a tall steeple topped with a white single-barred cross. One church serves the native population; the other the multi-national transient worker population. Streets in the native village are just wide enough to handle an ATV and are constructed of boards running lengthwise, undulating gently over the uneven grass-bordered surface. By 10 PM, we are back at sea and soon to bed.
(Bert) I arrive at the forward observation deck at 6:30 AM and pull up a few of the shades that block the wall-to-wall windows. For more than an hour, not much is stirring on the calm sea except a few Horned and Tufted Puffins which seem always to be present along the ferry route. As the ship nears Cold Bay, a concentration of 20+ Pigeon Guillemots spreads over the water and we get our first sighting of two Pomarine Jaegers. At Cold Bay the ferry attaches to a dock that must extend nearly a third of a mile to shore. I walk toward shore, but to allow vehicle traffic to and from the ferry, I must step to the extreme edge of the 2-foot-high railing bordering the narrow pier. A hovercraft with two giant wind turbines docks nearby. It provides transportation to another isolated island where a large fish processing plant is in operation.
From the Alaska mainland it is usually difficult to see puffins close to shore, but here on the Aleutians the puffins often mingle with the gulls and Pigeon Guillemots and are in good photographic proximity. One Horned Puffin even poses on the pier railing. Ashore, I tick a few land birds: Tree Swallow nesting under the pier, Golden-crowned Sparrow and Savannah Sparrow in the island grasses.
We are back at sea at noon, near Deer Island, when I see my first Ancient Murrelets of the ferry trip. Unlike the few times I have seen this species before, now I get good looks of them, both resting on the water and in flight. I sight them five times this afternoon, for a total of about 15 birds.
(Shari) The ship finally stops rolling and the seas become calmer. We have periods of some sun during the day but it is mostly cloudy. I eat breakfast, read, sleep, read, sleep, read, sleep and then eat dinner with the group. Pat, Bob and Bert are continually watching for birds on the deck. I find looking at seabirds from a ship extremely boring. They all look alike–black specks–and usually are too far away to get satisfying looks. So I read some more.
(Bert) King Cove lies in the flat alluvial plain washed from steeply sloping treeless green mountains on its flanks and, as its backdrop, a gentle slope toward snow-covered peaks. Gray clouds curtain off the tops of the mountains, presenting a long horizontal view with little vertical depth. As we have seen now at most ports, thousands of cubical metal crab traps are stacked near shore, await in due season. Colorful orange and yellow floats are caged inside the traps.
Just before 3 PM the ferry is in the North Pacific Ocean along the Aleutian chain and south of Pavlov Bay when we see spouting Humpback Whales. Altogether we see six whales, watching them spout several times and then begin their slow motion dive, revealing a long gray back arching to show its small dorsal fin, and continuing the arc to the tail which rises from the sea, flukes, and descends into the depths. About a half hour later we get our first view of 8264-ft. Pavlov Volcano which last erupted in 2007. While the island coastlines are usually flanked in steep, raw, multicolor rock cliffs, capped with verdant grasses, the much higher volcanoes stand out as brilliant white snow etched with dark ribbons of exposed rock. The tops of the tallest volcanoes, such as Pavlov, are entirely snow-covered cones, although seeing them through the enshrouding clouds is often difficult. Hiding behind Pavlov is Pavlov’s Sister. This shorter 7028-ft. volcano is visible in a cameo window, with the brilliant white symmetrical cone backlit with clear sky blue.
At 8 PM we can see the spinning wind turbines on the hillside behind the village of Sand Point. We go ashore while the ferry workers load and unload vehicles. Arctic Terns fly over the boat harbor and Black-billed Magpies complain from the hillsides. Passengers are called back to the ship, but it will be hours before the crew finishes unloading and loading trucks, so I am asleep before the ship is moving again.
(Bert) The morning scenery is Picasso’s Blue Period mixed with a warm pink boundary between sea and sky. Against the backdrop of dark mountain slopes I watch three large white birds in direct flight, their long wings beating slowly. They are a mile from me, too far to identify by shape, although I first guess they are swans. I watch them for a long time, as their progress in the same direction as the ferry follows. Eventually, their wing action clues me into recognizing them as Glaucous-winged Gulls, confirmed when they come to rest on vertical cliffs.
When we reach Chignik at 8 AM a flock of a thousand Black-legged Kittiwakes form a continuous white line of feathers just off the shore. They are madly feeding on a stream of fish effluent pumped from the processing plant after being ground so finely as to pass pollutant laws. Usually the ship crew erect a staircase for us to descend to the wharf, but this time we exit through the car ferry deck, using an elevator designed to lift vehicles to dock level. The slow process delays our exit and allows some of the crew to be the first to reach a bakery shop that sells fresh donuts. Then other ferry passengers make a beeline to the shop, quickly buying up the balance before Shari gets in line.
By 9:30 we are back at sea and churning past Sea Otters, most with pups that are nearly adult size. I see my first cormorant of the ferry trip, a Red-faced Cormorant. During a lull in birding, naturalist Doug takes us to the bridge, the top deck where the crew controls the ship. The spacious room, with windows on three sides, is filled with electronic equipment whose function is explained by second mate Mike. Our first impression is that Mike is very young, but when I ask him what training he had before assuming his post, our doubts are calmed. Shari asks how many officers rank above him on the ship and he mentions the first mate and the captain, both only a speaker button away from contact. The ferry is traveling at 14-15 knots, its top speed. The time-consuming process of loading a fleet of dump trucks yesterday has put us nearly two hours behind schedule and Mike is trying to make up time. He reads a computer display and says we have 236 mi. left to Kodiak.
For our pleasure, Mike deviates his route slightly so as to pass closely to Kak Island to view a Steller’s Sea Lion haul out. Equally impressive is the rock formation. I have seen this only a few times before, most notably at Devil’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Rapidly cooling volcanic lava has formed tall columns that are hexagonal or polygonal in cross section. Cut off at different heights and packed tightly together, they look like arrays of organ pipes. We are allowed to stay on the bridge long enough for me to step to the outside view stations and get in good position to photograph sea birds. Ancient Murrelets are again in good view and I see groups of 1-5 birds on six occasions.
Finally we are shooed off the bridge and I move back to the forward deck, maintaining a sea watch vigil. Dall’s Porpoises put on a show, their speed and clowning acrobatics most entertaining. I notice several very black murres and quickly photograph them for identification. To my delight, the photos reveal strong white lines along the cutting edge of the mandibles, a sure sign for Thick-billed Murres. After a hiatus of Fork-tailed Storm-petrels, now we see more and this time singles are close enough to photograph. This is quite gratifying to Bob and Pat, as they have had a tough time, previously, to see enough of the bird to mark it down on their life lists.
I have been surprised by the thousands of fulmars we have seen and perplexed by not finding any shearwaters. Naturalist Doug is not surprised, but I am sure some of the would-be fulmars are actually shearwaters, so I start photographing the darkest birds. Finally I get good enough photographs to convince Doug, although whether these are Sooty Shearwaters or Short-tailed Shearwaters will require better examination of my photos on a computer screen.
By midafternoon, the ferry is at open sea, nearly out of sight of land. Amazingly, the sea is so calm it is almost absent of ripples. Here we see many smaller sea birds, some of which are hard to identify. For sure, we have flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes. My photos at 3:34-3:45 are good evidence for Cassin’s Auklets. However, I have good photos of another alcid and so far I have not been able to identify the species.
At 4:55 I take my first photo of Kodiak Island, now just a string of mountains on the horizon, and soon thereafter we see the snow-covered peaks of Katmai. At 6:15, while eating dinner in the dining room, I see a pod of Orca Whales at the horizon. The male is identifiable by its tall dorsal fin; three others are females. In the early evening still more wildlife is added to our list when I spot a black phase Parasitic Jaeger, several Finback Whales, as well as more Dall’s Porpoises. By 9 PM, though, I am in bed. Morning will come very early because we will reach Kodiak while it is still in night darkness.
(Bert) I hear the broadcast announcement, but cannot distinguish individual words. I assume we are arriving at the port of Kodiak, so I climb down from the upper bunk and quickly put on my clothes. Our room is adjacent to the rear deck and when I look out through the open door I can see the ferry is passing under the high bridge just before docking. Bright lights illuminate the dock, though elsewhere the sky is pitch black at 3 AM.
(Shari) Three AM is a terrible hour to arrive in port but that is the time we stop in Kodiak and, unfortunately, it is the time we must get off the ship. A taxi takes us to our hotel and I request an early check in. The clerk really does not have to check us in until 8 but kindly does so at 4 AM. I am ever so grateful and intend to get her a gift card of some sort before I leave, as a thank you. As soon as we get to our room, I collapse on the bed and fall asleep, not waking until 9 AM. The shower feels so good and it is great to be clean again. Bert and I grab some of the hotel breakfast before the café closes at 10. Pat joins us to fetch our rental car and then we go back to pick up Bob. Not an early riser, Bob is like me and takes more time to get going.
(Bert) Fortunately, the hotel clerk arranges for us to get into our rooms at this early hour and we can finish our interrupted night’s sleep. I am up in time for a hotel breakfast, though. It is not until afternoon before we start visiting the island and birding. At Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park the still water is blanketed with Yellow Pond Lilies and the surrounding lush Sitka Spruce forest is tall, with each tree clothed in dark green moss. Birds sing profusely from the depths and heights of the forest. I hear Hermit Thrushes, Varied Thrushes, and Common Redpolls, but the only one we see well is the Hermit. I hear another species that I have not heard in several years. I see a few in flight between spruce crowns and get just a fractional second’s glimpse of red. Dialing Red Crossbill on my iPhone, the recorded song matches what we are hearing.
(Shari) The day is full of sunshine and after we notice the possibility of rain tomorrow we reschedule our bear watch for 4 PM today. Four years ago, we went to Fraser Lake on Kodiak Island and had a National Geographic Experience. I doubted this trip could beat that one, but in some ways it may. Because bears are so scarce at Fraser Lake this year–the excursion company thinks Alaska Fish and Game are shooting blanks at the bears to keep them away from the weirs and fish ladders–we are taken to Katmai National Park across the strait from Kodiak.
(Bert) While waiting on the dock for our floatplane to arrive, a pair of calling Black Oystercatchers flies high above us, an odd sight for a bird we usually see prowling among shoreline rocks. Pilot Phil arrives and, with difficulty, we climb awkwardly into the small plane at 4:45 PM. Pat takes the copilot seat, Shari and I sit in the center row, and Bob has the last row to himself. Taking off is so smooth I cannot feel when the floatplane runners leave the water. Phil flies low over Kodiak Island’s varied scenery, passing the city, its airport, golf course, calm bays and lakes, steep green mountain slopes, and rugged snowcapped peaks. Twenty minutes into our flight, we reach Shelikof Strait and now fly over open water toward Katmai. Phil spots a spouting Fin Whale and tips his wings just enough for me to get a good photo from the air. At sea, Fin Whales can be identified by the diminished water spout and the long distance between the spout and the small dorsal fin. No hump, no fluking, just a long straight back just barely visible above the surface. However, from the air the extremely long full body of the Fin Whale is visible. I can even see its forked tail. What a neat opportunity!
(Shari) I am not afraid of the floatplane and do not have to squeeze Bert’s hand until he has no feeling in his fingers, as I do in a regular plane. In fact, I do not even know we are in the air as I feel no lift but know we must be up as we are flying over a sandbar. The seas are so calm and as we cross the 30-mi. strait we see two Fin Whales from above. Long and skinny, they appear to be torpedoes on the surface of the water.
Our landing is as smooth as our take off and our pilot touches down on a ribbon of water between sandbars. Here another guide meets us and takes us to see bears. We alight from the plane and are glad we have the hip waders we were given before we took off, as we have to walk in about a foot of water to reach land. We are told we have to walk about a mile to reach the bears. Sometimes the walk is more, sometimes less as the bears are all around the area eating the grasses that grow in the meadow. We had seen bears from above when we landed some distance away and I am hoping we do not have to walk that far. Soon our guide points out three bears and tells us we will get closer. All of a sudden, Bert notices a Brown Bear rubbing its back on a tree not too far from us. I think we are too close and start to move back but our guide says the bear is not interested in us. In fact, the bear does not even look at us. We must be only 100 yd. away when another bear joins the first one. Each bear mostly ignores the other’s presence and continues eating. When they reach the river, one drinks, and then lays down to cool off. Again we are very, very close. We circle around the bears to find more. At one point we are in sight of seven bears. What a beautiful scene! Bears in a meadow with glaciers in the background!
(Bert) Phil glides the plane over Hallo Bay, making two passes as we scan for Kodiak Brown Bears feeding in the sedge marshes surrounding braided streams. We see bears! Phil brings down the floatplane along a narrow canal adjacent to a muddy shoreline. Again, the landing is so smooth that I do not feel when the plane touches the water. We meet Jim, who will be our bear guide, and he assists Phil in pulling ropes attached to the wings to bring the plane closer to shore. In the hip waders we put on when in Kodiak, we step off the plane and wade a dozen feet to the beach.
Jim leads us single file through the sedge marsh, following a bear trail. The flat marsh is mostly dry, with intensely green grass about a foot in height, sprinkled with the pink blossoms of Beach Pea. In the distance we see our first bear and continue in that direction. Our attention, however, is drawn to a much closer brown bear that is scratching its back on a short spruce tree. Even though it is quite close–perhaps a hundred yards–it pays us no mind, resolves its itch, and lumbers slowly at a diagonal partly in our direction. It continues eating its way across the marsh until we see a second close bear. This one is blond and Jim suggests we wait to see if the two bears interact. The bears continue toward each other, although they avoid eye contact. Meanwhile, my camera shutter is clicking wildly as I document every movement. We are as close as the 50-yard-line is to the goal posts while we are watching these incredibly large Kodiak bears, which can weigh up to 1300 lb. and leave footprints that make a man’s boot print appear small.
I ask Jim about the classification of bears. As I suspected, there are only three species of North American bears: black, brown, and polar. However, the brown bear can be subdivided into two distinct forms and their behavior is quite different. The Grizzly Bear of Denali and the interior is an aggressive omnivore that would not hesitate to attack humans. Kodiak Brown Bears on Kodiak Island and other coastal areas–the ones we viewed on our 1998 trip to the island–dine on spawning salmon in season. However, the Kodiak bears here live without salmon, since none spawn on these streams. They will, however, take an opportune Moose, which accounts for the scarcity of Moose at Katmai. The Katmai bears show no fear of man, nor view them as a threat. Jim says if we maintain a reasonable distance, move slowly, and talk quietly, we can coexist with the bears in remarkably close proximity.
We move on through the marsh, descend a couple of feet to a stream, and walk across the mud and gravel. The bears are moving in this direction also and one is about to cross the shallow stream. My camera and its long lens are in position for a marvelous opportunity as the bear walks through the stream and I capture its reflection in the mirrored surface.
The marsh is so flat it is not easy to see distant bears in the grass. Jim’s more trained eye spots a few that we have missed. As we scan across the marsh, right up to the short spruce forest up rise, we can count seven Kodiak Bears visible at one time. Bob notices the proliferation of fallen tree trunks that align along the separation between marsh and forest, a keen observation. Jim explains that the prior to 1964 that line was the Katmai shoreline. Then during the Alaska earthquake that year, the sea bottom raised from the ocean and the land where we are now standing became part of the island.
It is now 7 PM and, much as we would like to stay longer, it is time to hike back to the floatplane. There have been many times in my life that I have viewed animals in the wild, but few times as special–and rare!–as today.
(Shari) I think Bert told me he took 400 photos. I wish I could say I even took one, but the battery on my camera went out just when we saw the first bear. Needless to say I had a few nasty words in mind. I can only blame myself and my stupidity though. I was so looking forward to using my new camera too. (Bert got me one as an early anniversary present. He wants my old camera since he broke his small backup camera in Coldfoot.) I think I would have gotten some great pictures too. Now I will have to look at Bert’s. Bob’s camera is about out of battery power also and he too is conserving on picture taking. Bert just snaps away. Too soon it is time to walk back to meet our plane. The pilot gives us snacks and drinks before we take off for our 50 min. flight back to Kodiak. It is well past 9 when we get back to the hotel. It is still light out when Bert and I walk to the grocery store to pick up a sandwich and soup for late dinner.
(Bert) We have the full day to explore Kodiak Island, south of the city. Passing the U.S. Coast Guard station, the largest in the world, we see two of the rescue helicopters parked near a hangar. They are quite impressive in their bright orange and white colors and huge size. Our first stop is Sargent Creek where 210 Glaucous-winged Gulls spread across acres of mudflats. At Salt Creek I notice the Beach Fleabane is just starting to bloom, a couple of weeks behind schedule. Elsewhere the Common Fireweed is still in the bud stage, many weeks behind those blooming farther north.
At Kalsin Bay we study a Red-throated Loon and then are surprised to find two petite deer attempting to cross the highway. Apparently, these are the coastal form of Mule Deer, but they look more like a miniature form of White-tailed Deer. Nearly absent are the white rumps of inland Mule Deer and their fur is a pretty shade of tan. Both deer are sporting a small rack covered in velvet.
When we reach Pasagshak Bay we encounter a dozen fishermen tossing lines into a narrow creek rapidly spilling into the bay. Hardly a minute passes without at least one of them catching a Sockeye (Red) Salmon. Once snagged, the fish fights valiantly and to avoid it breaking the line, the fisherman walks the gravel beach, letting the salmon float downstream until it tires. It takes ten minutes or more before bringing the fish to land. One of the fishermen is carrying his catch by the gills and the salmon extends downward almost to his ankles. I can see that Shari is envious. She loves catching, as opposed to fishing, and the catching is good today. Also envious are dozens of Glaucous-winged Gulls and half dozen Bald Eagles that study the happenings, eager to fly to any discarded fish remnants.
We continue along the Kodiak Island coastline and next stop is Surfer’s Beach to watch a Common Loon. A flock of distant ducks eludes identification as they float in the bouncing waves, sometimes in sight, sometimes not. After many minutes I finally identify the 25 as Harlequin Ducks, almost all females and juveniles.
We reach the end of the road at Fossil Beach. I park the car on a bluff where Bank Swallows circle around nesting holes they used earlier in the season. In a profusion of bald tree trunks washed up onto the beach and snarled tree branches carried by a stream to the sea, we search rock piles for fossils. Embedded in sandstone rocks are sea shells, some just leaving an impression, but many others intact and still showing original colors.
On our return, when we pass Pasagshak Bay again, we stop to watch the cliffs where a Peregrine Falcon harasses a Bald Eagle in a David and Goliath battle.
(Bert) On our 2008 visit to Kodiak, we only visited Northend Park briefly. This morning we have plenty of time for a leisurely walk, and what a wonderful walk it is. Weather conditions are ideal with a bright sky and pleasant temperature. The spruce forest seems alive with anatomical trees. Massive Sitka Spruce are clothed in green moss with multiple leafless horizontal branches that reach out like menacing arms and the tree crowns are adorned in cones like hundreds of hair curlers. Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls feed on the forest roof and dozens of Fox Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes dine at the forest floor. Red-breasted Nuthatches, Varied Thrushes, and Black-capped Chickadees take the mid story. The best is a pair of Pine Grosbeaks at eye level.
We see Pine Grosbeaks again on our drive along Anton Larsen Road to the bay of the same name. At road’s end, while we contemplate taking the uphill Three Pillars Point Trail, Pat spots a pair of White-winged Crossbills in a short spruce proffering a massive cone crop. The crossbills twist and turn around the cones, pulling seeds with their uniquely shaped bills. We have birded months in Alaska, yet it isn’t until we visit Kodiak Island that we find all three of these seedeaters: Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, and White-winged Crossbill.
We decide to take the hike, hoping it will lead to a viewpoint of the sea, though we do not know how far that would be. The forest hike is pleasant and the birds plentiful, though often heard and not seen. An hour of uphill and then level walking takes us to a stream. While I can hop across on the rocks, Shari is sure she will fall in and so declares it is time to turn around. On the hike back, I notice small white flowers designed like old style lampposts, topped with an arched hook and a drooping flower shaped like a lampshade. I photograph the Shy Maidens from a distance with my long lens while Bob crouches down on all fours to take a photo inches from the blossom.
Back in Kodiak, I refuel the SUV while Shari orders me a chocolate milk shake at McDonald’s. It has been many years since I enjoyed this treat and we reminisce about the even-better Malted Milk shakes of our youth. Does anyone still sell those?
By 7 PM we are in the air, flying over the North Pacific. I’ve got a window seat and notice when I see land again we are flying over the Harding Ice Field and its glaciers on the Kenai Peninsula. These glaciers can only be seen from the air and not reached by land. Soon thereafter we fly over Turnagain Arm and its mudflats, and then we descend to Anchorage airport, the end of our Aleutian Islands tour.
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