Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: Subarctic Waterbird Paradise, pt. 2

69 KillMeNowJune 1: I decided to go on a long coastal hike to the south of camp. I took a compass, GPS, map, sat phone, change of clothes, some snacks and not nearly enough water. My plan was to walk the Bering Sea shoreline where the ground was a bit higher and the walking easier. However, the whole area is tidal and some sloughs are too difficult to cross at their mouths. Big Slough, about four miles south of camp, can only be crossed inland from the coast where it is narrower and only during low tide. I left camp around 11:30am and was across the slough40 Branttracks a little after 2pm. A Yellow-billed Loon passed overhead, heading northwest. As I headed south I found some walrus bones, a seal skull, a couple whale vertebrae and small amounts of trash, mostly water bottles from Japan. I found a boogie board made in Paris, Maine. Who knows where it was sold? And where is the owner?

About 10 miles south of camp I saw two large tusks sticking up out of the sand and mud. The whole walrus skeleton was half buried 20 yards in from the shore. I was so happy that I found a skull that if I had a cigarette (and if I smoked), I would have lit up. I started digging with a piece of driftwood, and I soon realized that I had a big problem. A couple inches down the majority of the skull was encased in a huge slab of ice (insert cliche iceberg analogy here). I couldn’t budge it, so I started hacking at the ice with a walrus rib. Over two hours later, with mud52 SpecEiderrework 41 Tuticeand walrus fluids splashed onto my face and shirt, I managed to pull it out of the muddy hole I had created. Again, I was happy… until I realized how much this thing weighed – 50 pounds, at least! It was full of ice and soil, and the lower mandible was frozen to the skull. It would barely fit into my pack, and the top of the skull pressed painfully against my lower back. It was 9:30 pm or later when I started back towards camp. My progress was slow and I had to rest often. Around 11pm a pair of Steller’s Eiders whizzed by 10 yards away! Shortly after 1am I got the sat phone out and let my friends at camp know I was OK. I knew I had to get back across the slough during low tide and I was a bit worried I wouldn’t make it. A little after 2am I lost my balance and fell into a pond 57 walruspacktaking some water down my waders. It started raining and visibility got bad. Around 4:30am I finally located the big pieces of driftwood that marked my crossing at Big Slough. The tide was still going out and I was able to cross with a couple inches to spare. My pack and raincoat were covered in mud from periodically having to take the pack off and set it down in order to check the GPS. I was parched and I knew I couldn’t make it back to camp with the skull, so I put it in a safe spot and gave it a waypoint. At 8:30am, 21 hours later, I stumbled back into camp. I was greeted with, “you look like you are going to die!” Fortunately, I did not. I sat down and could barely get back up. I had some water, tea, coffee and breakfast and slept until the evening.

53 sauna50 breakupJune 3: I was recuperating. I did some photography close to camp and cleaned up my gear. It dried quickly on a sunny, windy day. I talked to my boss on the sat phone; he was getting a bit nervous about me being gone so long. Oh well, I was sort of stranded….. New bird species for the day was Bank Swallow. It was sauna night and we all had a refreshing dip in the river.

June 4: I headed down to pick up my skull and this time I was better prepared. I had plenty of water and enough rope to tie the skull to the outside of my pack. I had about an 8 mile round trip. When I got to the skull it was easy to separate the58 wallypack lower mandible, and it was a lot lighter. I could see that most of the brain was still in the skull so I scrambled it with my walking stick and washed most of it out in a pond. The walk back wasn’t too bad, and I made the whole trip in about six hours. I was stoked that I finally got the skull back to camp, and everyone was pretty impressed by it.

56 Outboardday48 SpecsalongTutJune 5: It was a miserable day with rain and a south gale. The wind was screaming and shaking the weatherports. It was impossible to work or photograph so we did some camp chores, read, ate and played board games.

June 6: Not a good day – the crew discovered that many of the Brant nests north of the river were wiped out from the flood resulting from the previous night’s tide and wind. New species for the day was a male Wilson’s Warbler. After a phone call to a friend in Chevak, we learned that the rivers were free of ice and made plans to boat to Chevak on June 8.

46 Semipalmeggs 66 Emppairtakeoff 42 Camptenys

June 7: I scrambled to get my last photos of the trip after sleeping late, and then I started packing. During the last 2 days I got a few photos of ptarmigan, Emperor and White-front nests. It was tough to get a clear shot through the grass and, of course, the birds look half scared to death….60 Specyawn

June 8: The trip to Chevak would take about 3 hours, and we got started about 6am. We had a huge load of stuff in the boat: fuel, trash, an outboard that needed repair, empty propane tank, all of my gear, and 3 people. During most of the trip geese were everywhere. Closer to the coast there were a lot of Common Eiders, Emperors, Brant & Cacklers. Further inland there were many cranes, White-fronts, Pintails and a few Black Scoters. I barely had any time in Chevak. From the time we tied up the boat to me getting on a plane was probably less than 30 minutes!

45 Dunlinsong 65 CEidersingle2 62 speceiderreflection
64 voletrap4 47 RNPhal 51 Specback
An hour later I was in Bethel and had a rough time being around so many people and traffic. I took my walrus skull to the USFWS office and they recorded measurements and carefully tagged the tusks. After shipping it home I had my first fast food in over a month, Subway (the only fast food in Bethel). My flight to Anchorage wasn’t until the following evening so I had some time to kill; I blabbed with people at the office and checked out their museum. Common birds in Bethel67 aerial1 included Robin, Gray Cheeked Thrush, Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, White-crowned Sparrow and Hoary Redpoll. The next day I walked around Bethel and shot a few more pics. I had my first beer in a loooong time on my flight to Anchorage.

I got back to work on June 11 with one personal day to spare. Needless to say, duck hunting days are pretty slim. I already feel a really bad cold coming on about mid November……


~ by David Stimac on July 3, 2009.

2 Responses to “Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: Subarctic Waterbird Paradise, pt. 2”

  1. Incredible photos David. I’ve worked at Tutakoke camp for two summers now. I think its time to buy a better lens.

    • Thank you! I was there in ’09, 10 & 11 and I’m dying to get back. What kind of camera gear are you using?

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