It was the morning of May 22, 1992, five of us having breakfast in an Anchorage restaurant. We were Minnesotans on our first Alaska birding trip.
I was reading the Anchorage Daily News. That day, and on all of the three days we ate there, I read aloud to my friends stories about people dying on Denali, the mountain in the park. Eleven climbers died that week.
Some fell. Others slipped, then slid thousands of feet.
People died of hypothermia while hiking in city parks. They went for simple walks, their bodies found weeks later. One washed ashore in a survival suit, a crabber who had fallen into the Bering Sea months before.
Alaska, on that trip and those following, offered more than birds.
It offered plenty of birds, of course. Red-throated loons swam in pond/puddles along Nome's main street. A short walk out of town reached tundra, nesting jaegers and short-eared owls, one or the other always in the air.
You crossed a creek on a drive out of Nome up the Kougarok Road to the hills where bristle-thighed curlew nested. The creek had bushy edges, a good place to find bluethroats, a small Eurasian songbird.
A local joke was birders should ring bells in the bushes to scatter bears.
The punch line was bear scat with bells in it.
We met several Minnesotans then living in Nome, as though our state was boot camp for Alaska. The woman who ran the Nome Chamber of Commerce was from Crookston.
A convenience store clerk asked us where we were from. (We didn't look like locals.) "Hey, me, too," he said. "I'm from Minnesota."
He had come to Nome to hunt moose, liked it so much, he told me, that he called his wife and told her to pack up the kids. I've wondered how she felt at that moment.
There was a second clerk, a young man with what war reporters have called the thousand-yard stare.
I asked him what brought him to Nome.
"I don't like people," he said.
We drove to Denali to see the mountain. Something that large is best viewed from a distance.
We did see a bear, some marmots, a ptarmigan we hadn't seen before, and snow.
A resident's view
My favorite book about Alaska (read three times) is "Disappearance: A Map – A Meditation on Death and Loss in the High Latitudes" by Sheila Nickerson.
She writes of the history of Alaska exploration. Ships frozen in ice, gull soup, starvation, unexplained loss, heroics.
She writes of the simple events of a lonesome place, Juneau, where she lives. Bird song, 24-hour daylight, monthslong darkness, snowflakes, glaciers, people who disappear.
Her accounts are punctuated with excerpts from stories like those I found in that newspaper.
If you fly from Anchorage to the western coastal city of Dillingham, as I did once, you fly over countless, endless, unnamed mountains. White peaks, so many places to go lost.
Small planes take off, never to be seen again. Search planes disappear. Hikers disappear.
I've never heard of a missing birder. We tend to go in groups, safety in numbers, I guess. Or tenderfooted caution.
Our pilot from Nome to St. Lawrence Island flew low enough for us to clearly see green Bering Sea water, foam-capped waves, a sea filled with ice chunks.
If we went down, I asked, how long would we last?
Five minutes was his answer, adding, "but we have orange survival suits in the back of the plane."
"We call them body markers."
Read Jim Williams' birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.