I have slept in all sorts of weird and wonderful places on my London2London journey so far…. drainage tunnels in the Gobi desert, a supermarket car park, rocky ledges and motorway islands, beaches of all shapes and sizes and spooky woods. There had been the odd hotel from time to time too. But this is the first time I have slept in a Palace. Princess Justine and I have spent the last three nights on Aiktak Island with Stacie and Amanda – two field biologists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They are five weeks into their three month season, monitoring various sea bird populations and mainly the breeding and hatching success of said populations. Having been dropped off at the end of May we are the first people they have seen since, even though their are three other biologists studying sea lions on Ugamak Island just a mile away. Throughout the Aleutians there are more again.
And the palace? Amanda and Stacie have been kind enough to welcome we two smelly paddlers into their 12′ by 8′ cabin which serves as their bedroom, office, kitchen, store room and everything else besides. It is called the ‘ Puffin Palace’ after the bejillions puffins (both horned and tufted) who call Aiktak their home.
I have really enjoyed meeting communities along the islands so far and this tiny community of two – our smallest so far – is no exception. It has been fun sharing tales of our respective wild lives along and on – and perspectives of – these islands and spending time with folks other than our respective team mates. The science side of it has been really interesting too as we accompany Stacie and Amanda on their rounds, checking nests for birds and eggs and chicks, either long range through scopes on cliff top perches or at close range by sticking arms into burrows or rummaging beneath vegetation on the beach at known sites. My tummy turned sitting on the four hundred foot high cliff top looking down at the brown swirls of kelp in the azure bay below – I don’t think it is a job I could do on those grounds and my short attention span when it comes to data collection! However, the remote island life and hours spent tramping about in all weathers, immersed in the boom and bust of wild lives and syncing with the rhythms of the flora and fauna certainly appeals. Good job I am engaged to a farmer, eh? *smiles happily*
Life on expedition often reminds me of the fragility of life and the random dealing out of luck or otherwise, and how the forces of nature can chance this way or that. In terms of expedition successes in this respect of chance etc, it all seems rather futile when compared to this snapshot of bird life these last few days. Holding a handful of grey fluffy down that is a forked – tailed storm petrel in the sunshine on our first day and wondering on its life ahead felt pretty special- huge and minute all at once. A tiny moment in the story of this tiny winged life – not even a wingbeat in the grand scheme of this island, let alone the island chain as a whole. As we wandered down the beach to check on oyster – catcher chicks I was reminded how easily it could have gone the other way for that handful of fluffy down when we came across a dead chick – head forward on a pebble and body low to the ground, just as we had seen all the other oyster-catcher chicks doing, hiding as best they could from the threat of hungry beaks. There are no mammals on Aiktak (apart from paddlers and biologists) so predators are the gulls and ravens and eagles, all looking for an easy meal.
For me, the fluffy chicks are adorable and the throngs of comically suave tufted puffins flapping for all they are worth to get and stay airborne always make me smile, but I think my most memorable moment was watching two red – faced cormorants making a nest together on a splinter of a rocky ledge, weaving their necks side to side in mirror image as if dancing together. As someone miles and months away from her lover, that spoke to me.
For now we are waiting for the wind to calm down so we can paddle on. As much as I am enjoying my Palace life I am ready to paddle on now. Hopefully tomorrow the wind will be gentler so we can make the fifteen mile crossing to Unimak Island. Just a mile the other side of that island is the Alaskan Peninsula. The mainland and the second half of our paddle. We have six hundred miles to go to the nearest road. So on we go.
With many thanks to Stacie Evans and Amanda Boyd for the welcome and our other USFWS friend on Lisa Spitler for putting us in contact. Another unique insight into island life to add to the memories.
Happy days indeed,
P.s For the birders amongst you, we have been looking at storm petrels (both Leech’s and Forked-tailed), Ancient Murrelets, Black Oyster- Catchers, Red – faced, Double – crested and Pelagic Cormorants and Glaucous winged gulls.