The packing is done, the plane and hotel reservations have been made, and now I just have 24 hours to simmer in my stew of excitement and nervousness until it’s time to take off. Where to, this time? I feel like there should be a drum roll, after a four-month-long emotional roller coaster ride also known as The 2017 Job Search. But, without further ado: I will be spending the summer in the Pribilof archipelago, on the Bering Sea.
Unless you count open oceans as places, as many of my sailor and fisherman friends do, these islands are way out in the middle of nowhere. This five-island archipelago is made up of two larger, inhabited islands (St. Paul and St. George) and three smaller, uninhabited islands (St. John, St. Ringo, and St. Pete.)
No, not really. Just checking to see if you are paying attention. St. Paul and St. George were named for Russian Orthodox saints, not Beatles. And the three smaller islands aren’t named after Beatles, either, but after rock-star animals: Sea Lion Rock, Walrus Island, and Otter Island. I’ll be stationed on St. Paul, and may not get a chance to visit any of the others, although I will certainly take the opportunity if it arises.
For the first time in my life, I am going to work as a full-time tour guide. The Tanadgusix Corporation (TDX) owns and operates the St. Paul Island Tour company for whom I will work. TDX is an Alaska Native tribal corporation, created in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Even though the Pribilofs are part of the state of Alaska, and thereby included in the United States of America, the Aleut (Unangax) people will be my boss. I bet it’s going to feel like a different country.
The Pribilofs. If you’ve never heard of them, you probably aren’t a birder. Hyperbolic phrases such as “Galapagos of the North” and “Mecca of Birding” come up if you do a quick internet search. The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, which includes all kinds of accidentals, rarities, and vagrants that might be seen anywhere on the continent, lists 990 species. For St. Paul Island, a checklist generated by eBird shows a whopping 302 species. Birds that you might normally only find in Asia, the Arctic, on a pelagic cruise, or in the far west Aleutian Islands – the Pribs have ‘em all. Human visitors to the islands, unlike the avian kind, travel there with focused intention. They pray for bad weather, hoping the wind will carry in rare birds.
I will be taking groups of people out to explore the island, driving them around in a little bus and stopping along the way to set up a spotting scope. We will go out after breakfast, after lunch, and after dinner. The days will be long, and the season lasts until mid-October, so I reckon my life list will be pretty well-padded by the time I come home.