A couple of weeks ago in my StarTribune column I wrote about visits I’ve made to St. Lawrence Island, to the village of Gambell there. The island, 200 miles into the Bering Sea from Nome, Alaska, is a wonderful place to see birds. Gambell, a Yu’pik native village, is where birders stay.
My first visit was with four friends. We hired a guide. He made reservations for the house we rented, and found a village family that would provide our meals. He knew the birds and where to find them, although that was the least of what he did. Most important was where we slept and ate.
My editor suggested I include in the column information on making plans to visit the village — accommodations, food, other needs.
No. There is a better way to make a first visit.
I’ve visited the island four times, the latter three setup by the information I acquired on my initial visit. During the best birding seasons — late May and early June, and August — most of if not all of the available places to stay will be booked months in advance by the several birding-tour companies that make annual visits.
An individual or a non-tour group can get on the phone and find rooms, either in the small lodge the village owns or with a village family. It needs to be done months ahead of time. Ditto plans for eating. On that first visit we ate with a family. On subsequent visits we shipped food ahead of time (UPS) and did our own cooking. The lodge has a kitchen visitors can use.
By far the easiest way to visit Gambell, however, certainly for an initial trip, is to book a tour. It will cost more than a self-planned visit, but it will be much more enjoyable. Having someone take care of logistics is worth the price. Plus, you will have a professional guide. That will solidify your travel investment.
Google will bring up the several tour companies who make trips to Gambell. I can recommend three — WINGS, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT), and Field Guides. Check all of the several. Prices and length of trips vary. Most if not all will include a few days in and around Nome, another prime birding location. If you are going all that distance, include Nome.
Nome, by the way, is a place where you can plan and make your own trip. There are motels and B&Bs. There are restaurants. There is car rental. There are daily flights from Anchorage (flying is the only way to get there). The Nome Chamber of Commerce is the place to begin. The last time I visited, a woman from Minnesota managed the Chamber. She was, as you would expect, very helpful. Again, make plans well ahead of time.
There are books describing birding in Nome. The best is
ABA Birdfinding Guide: A Birder's Guide to Alaska by George C. West, paperback, $32.95. Available from http://www.buteobooks.com
(I helped write the chapter on Nome.)
This is Nome from the southern edge of the city, a photo taken about 15 years ago. Things probably haven’t changed much. If you follow that truck into downtown you will find shops, motels, and restaurants. That's the Bering Sea off to the left. The weather in Nome is not kind to paint. Below, The Alaskan native village of Gambell, photo taken from atop Sevuokuk Mountain. The village is built on a wide span of egg-sized gravel The Bering Sea laps at the village shore, and far in the distance are Siberian mountains. Gambell is on the northwest corner of St. Lawrence Island, 200 miles from Nome.