Bird Watcher's General Store

Adventure in Alaska

Dear Bird Folks,

Actually, there is no question this week because Iím out of townÖand I mean way out of town. On my upcoming birthday I am officially turning old, so I decided it was time I took a bird watching trip that I have been thinking about for a long time. As I type this column Iím in a plane headed for the 49th state, Alaska. At least I hope the 49th state is Alaska. Iíll be really disappointed if I step off the plane and find out the 49th state is actually Indiana. Iíd hate to spend the next two weeks Hoosier watching. Donít get me wrong; I donít have anything against Hoosiers. Itís actually a fun name to say, but not fun enough to spend two weeks doing it.

Most people experience Alaska in one of two ways. The first, and apparently the most popular, is to hop on a fancy cruise ship and sail along Alaskaís magnificent coastline. No offense to the cruise ship lovers, but traveling in a boat surrounded by 2,000 nametag-wearing strangers, some of whom could be Hoosiers, is not my idea of a good time. The better way to see Alaska is to load up a backpack, hike into the remote wilderness and sleep under the stars. And thatís exactly what Iím going to do, or what I would do if I were eighteen years old, or out of my mind. My days of sleeping on the ground, surrounded by 2,000 nametag-wearing mosquitoes, are over. So instead Iím choosing option three. My plan is to fly into Anchorage, rent a car and head off to places that are remote enough to have birds, but close enough to have hotels with indoor plumbing (which can be rare in Alaska). Iím really getting excited and I canít wait to get started, but first I have to somehow survive this super-long flight. Plus, Iím trapped in the middle seat of Jet Blueís famous Baby Express. Iím totally surrounded by dozens of screaming kids. Who knew so many babies wanted to visit Alaska? Why couldnít they have waited until they were officially old, like Iím doing?

Well, I made it to Anchorage. And except for a headache and no sleep, Iím doing okay. The first thing Iím surprised about is that Anchorage is a real city. I envisioned people riding through town on dogsleds, harpooning things left and right, and standing on the street corner eating reindeer sausages. Nope. Anchorage has six-lane highways and BMW dealerships, but folks really do stand on the street corner eating reindeer sausages. (Really.) Anchorage is also decorated in flowers, lots and lots of flowers. But Iím not looking at flowers. My wife isnít with me on this trip, so I donít have to pretend to be interested in stupid flowers. Iím off to look for birds.

Just outside of town is a place called Potters Marsh. Potters Marsh has several long boardwalks that extend into the marsh so folks can easily walk out to see the birdsÖif there are any birds to see. On this day there werenít very many. But I didnít give up. Because the June sun never really sets in Anchorage, I birded all day. I kept at it until nearly 10:00 PM. I visited a whole assortment of birding locations from - rivers, to ponds to mountaintops, and still saw very few birds. What is going on? I thought birds would be everywhere in Alaska. (Maybe I really should have gone to Indiana.) Tomorrow Iím headed to world famous Denali National Park. There had better be birds at Denali or Iím going to start looking at flowers.

The drive to Denali was once again bird-less, but this time I didnít care, or at least I didnít care as much. The weather was beautiful and on the way I had several stunning views of Mt. McKinley. In addition, I saw some reindeer (ones that managed to avoid the sausage machine), a black bear, and a horse and dog walking across a field, which later turned out to be mama moose and her calf. Visiting Denali is a little tricky. Unlike most other national parks, people arenít allowed to drive all the way into Denali. The only way to travel the entire 92-mile Park Road is to buy a ticket and ride on a beat-up old school bus, which is jammed with 2,000 other nametag-wearing strangers. Thatís not for me. Instead, I drove my rental car the first fifteen miles (which is allowed), while stopping to hike on several trails along the way. On my entire day in Denali I saw a total of three species of birds. I saw one gull and one sparrow, and two magpies, neither of which were Heckle or Jeckle. But before you think my day totally stunk, I did have one awesome moment. Near the end of the drive, I got out of my car and there, standing on a cliff high above the road, were four Dall sheep (not to be confused with the sheep dolls they sell in the gift shop). Then, in the valley bellow, I saw three caribou feeding on bushes, and just past them were two grizzly bears, a mother and her cub, both eating berries. Wow! It was like watching a National Geographic special, but without the commercials, and with a few more bugs. What an experience. I know these were mammals and not birds, but they were still pretty darn cool.

After three days in Alaska the weather has been excellent, the scenery stunning and the mammals are way better than expected. But whatís with the birds? That last governor couldnít have shot all of them. So far, on a scale of one to ten, Iíd have to give the birds of Alaska an F. But hopefully things will change. Tonight Iím in Fairbanks, staying in a nature reserve that also has no birds (but I did see some fat beaversÖYes, more mammals.) Tomorrow Iím making the 350-mile drive to the Alaskan coast to look for puffins. If I see some puffins, Iíll write about them next week. But if I donít see any I might be forced to write about mammalsÖor even worse, stupid flowers.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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