My friend Mike Mulligan and I were spending a month in Alaska. We would look for birds in and around Nome. We would spend a week in the Gambell, a native village on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. We planned to spend a week on the Aleutian island Attu. I would finish my trip with q week on St. Paul Island in the Pribilof Islands, also in the Bering Sea. Attu was our week three. This trip was inexpensive, relatively speaking: one week for $2,000 (usual offering was three weeks for $5,000). The trip the year before had been scrubbed because of seriously bad weather. We got the low price by agreeing to work half days prepping two buildings for the full-rate birders who would arrive as we left.
The pair of buildings once was used by the Coast Guard. Both were made of cast concrete. Both were in rotting, stalactites hanging from ceilings. It was Attu, though, and wonderful birds flew all around the island in reality and in stories told anywhere serious (obsessed) birders gathered. Attu generated stories, some true, some exaggerated. Attu stories could have come right from that movie you might have seen last year, entitled “The Big Year.” To do a serious big year you had to go to Attu. The movie, though, did not tell anything near the real story.
A Weekend on Attu
A man sits at a scarred kitchen table on one of several molded white plastic chairs scattered around the room. About 60 years old, dressed for the outdoors, he is playing solitaire. The cards are turned and studied and manipulated. He works at his game slowly and methodically. He seems engrossed. He plays in daylight filtered through grime-smeared windows. The sills of the windows are deep with a lively growth of grass-green moss. Behind him, mounted to the concrete wall, a small citizen’s-band radio delivers a non-stop scrawl of static.
The card player gets up from his table on the hour and half hour to tend the radio. He answers calls distant and fragmented that crawl and stumble from the speaker.
“Roger, Steve, this is lower base. You are at Smew Lake with nothing to report,” he says into the microphone.
“Roger, James,” he says several seconds later after another faint message struggles from the box. “You are at Casco Cove with an Arctic Loon.”
The static returns, the microphone goes back on its hook. Two other men are in the room. When the loon call is received and acknowledged, they perk up. One has been reading a paperback novel. He marks his place with a folded page and lays the book on a shelf. His companion was preparing instant soup in a plastic mug. He sets this down. They zip jackets and leave, hoping the loon waits for them. It’s a bird species they have never seen.
The card player pulls his chair back to the table and turns over more cards. He has been here before, many times. He has seen Arctic Loons, many loons, many times. He is waiting for the radio to offer him a better bird, a life bird. He is waiting for one of the sightings that has made this place famous.
The man is on Attu.
To be continued.
Here is the building in which Attu birders slept and tried to keep warm. Note the bicycles: more on them later.