Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
It's been two weeks since I last posted about my 1996 trip to the island of Attu, at the end of the Aleutian Islands. My friend Mike and I were spending a month birding various parts of Alaska. We had planned to spend week three on Attu with other customers of the tour company Attour. The usual Attu trip was three weeks for $5,000. We bought into a one-week special for $2,000. We got a discount rate because we agreed to spend half of each day working with the cleanup crew trying to make the accommodations habitable. Housing was in a rotting concrete building once used by the Coast Guard. Accommodations were not a consideration, however. The reason people went to Attu was wonderful birds, birds blown off course by the strong storms from the west. Migrants heading for Japan or Russia got blown onto Attu. If you were building a North American birding life list, Attu was pretty important. The trip began in Anchorage. Mike and I arrived there two days ahead of time, and were killing time until departure
The most recent previous post was on April 4. All six earlier chapters can be found by paging back on the blog. In chapter six, Mike and I were driving in and around Anchorage, trying to find a wild place.
Espresso and lawn mowers aside, Alaska is of course a vast wilderness, an easy place to die. At our first breakfast in Anchorage we read the morning newspaper. The day before, celebrating his high school graduation, a young man tried to swim across a city lake. Some lakes still held ice. Hypothermia got him. A plane and its pilot had gone missing. A friend took his plane out over the mountains to join the search. Neither had been seen again, and the search had been stopped. On Mt. McKinley, climbing season was open. Three climbers from Japan had died the day of our arrival. Roped together, one man slipped. All three slid down something called the Oriental Chute. It was named for a previous mishap. A father and son took a fatal slide of 2,000 feet. The newspaper story said dental records were needed to tell one body from the other.
We never came close to a deadly situation. Up around Nome, earlier in the trip, people told us to watch for bears when we birded willow thickets. Carry a bell, they said, or talk to yourself; let the bears know where you are. Bears don't like surprises, they told us. Oh, I did fall asleep at the wheel of an old Chevy Suburban driving back to Nome after some vigorous tundra birding. I drove off the Kougarok Road into a boulder field, the only place in 70 miles where there were no deep ditches. Bounced awake, with passengers shouting, I drove back onto the road without even slowing down. Dumb luck.
(From Nome, you drive 84 miles up the Kougarok Road to a landmark bulge of tundra called Coffee Dome to look for Bristled-thighed Curlews. That’s another story I’ll share sometime.)
There’s a wonderful book titled “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska,” by Colleen Mondor. The Hennepin County library has three copies. It and John McPhee’s book “Coming into the Country” are my Alaska favorites.
To be continued.
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