Nine months after leaving Alaska for Nick to take up a diplomatic posting in Juba (South Sudan), we made a three-week return visit, in part to check on the health of Bosun Bird, and in part to do some land based exploration of the region, taking in the Pribilof islands (Bering Sea), Kodiak Island and Denali National Park (Mt. McKinley).
The Pribilofs are four small islands, two of them inhabited, deep into the Bering Sea, north of Dutch Harbour (Aleutian Islands) and nearly three hours’ flying in the small turbo-prop of Pen Air, from Anchorage.
St Paul’s, the largest of the Pribilofs, is one of the top bird-watching destinations in the world, in part because of its colourful permanent residents, that include two species of puffins, but also because of its location between Russia and the American continent: many vagrants and other lost soul put down here, looking for a breather, and birders (“twitchers”) also flock here from all over the world. It’s not a luxury destination: the only accommodation is a bleak pre-fab complex attached to the airport offices, and the only place to eat is the canteen of the Trident fish and crab-packing plant.
We spent most of a week trekking to various birding spots around the island, many of them atop precipitous sea cliffs: horned and tufted puffins were perched in narrow cracks, displaying brilliant flashes of colour, but far more numerous were the various species of murres that also nest here. A little frustratingly for us, our six birdwatcher companions – all equipped with massive cameras and birding scopes - had little or no interest in the usual residents and wanted only to add exotic vagrants to their list, that is to say birds that are common elsewhere (such as Arctic terns) but that are very rare visitors here (and to North America in general). We enjoy watching birds but for our friends the excitement seemed rather like that afforded by trainspotting: it was in the rare sightings rather than the sightings that were intrinsically interesting; in this world, your stature is measured by the length of your list, not the beauty of the birds you have seen.
As well as the prolific bird-life, the Pribilofs are home to the largest annual assembly of mammals in the northern hemisphere: some 600,000 northern fur seals breed here annually (down from a historic peak of 2 million). We were not here at the right time to witness peak activity, but large males were starting to come ashore to stake out the stretch of beach that they would seek to control (as “beachmasters”). For the next several months they would not go to sea again to fish, for fear of losing control of their 30-strong harems, and by the season’s end would be desperately weak and stressed; such is the price machos pay in the Pribilofs. Arctic foxes roamed the beaches: unlike their close relatives further north, the coats of these foxes stay brown all year, as the snowfall is less here.
The town of St Paul’s, meanwhile, is the largest single community of Aleuts in the world (about 400). Although the Pribilofs are not the Aleutians proper, this population is descended from Aleuts that were brought here as de facto slaves by Russian sealers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is one shop and a beautifully maintained Russian Orthodox church, with a tiny adjoining museum; that’s about it insofar as sights go. The main industry is the packing of crabs and fish. St Paul’s is a frequent stop of the crab-fishing boats that star in the widely syndicated reality show, The Deadliest Catch.
Back on the mainland we spent a week walking in Denali National Park, in the foothills of North America’s highest peak: Mt McKinley. Contrary to all expectations it was hot (28 Celsius) and cloudless for our entire stay, which meant we had amazing views of McKinley, which at 6194m is a truly massive mountain with one of the highest vertical faces in the world. We made a good choice to stay well inside the park (notwithstanding the considerable expense involved) and had a cabin with a plate glass window that gave us 24-hour views of the mountain from our bed (at this latitude in June, at one in the morning, McKinley was bathed in an ethereal pink; it never gets dark). We were lucky enough to see grizzlies (from a safe distance), moose and Dall sheep and enjoyed strenuous hiking up to alpine meadows that were carpets of spring flowers.
On Kodiak we checked in with Bosun Bird, who had patiently awaited us, throughout the Alaskan winter, at Fuller’s boatyard. The boat was dry inside and in good shape; it had apparently been quite a mild winter, especially compared with the previous year’s. We took advantage of the continuing fine weather to do a little painting and varnishing, and then did some serious walking in the island’s spectacular mountainous interior. We realised that Kodiak alone would justify weeks of coastal exploration under sail and resolved that, on our definitive return to Alaska in the Spring of 2014, we would first explore the island before heading over to the Alaska peninsula.
More: Alaska 2014