June 10, 2013 “Falling off the edge”

puk-ukAttu, Alaska.  Everything you have heard about this place is true it also can be said that everything you have heard about this place is not true.  It is the land of contradictions, as what seems up is down and what is down is up.  The place is steeped in birding lore and mythology and it is the farthest west piece of the 50 states, located in the eastern hemisphere closer to Tokyo than Anchorage.  Having just returned from a two week survey of the island aboard the 72 foot Puk-uk, I have a few thoughts on Attu.

As a birding hotspot, you would think it is full of birds…it isn’t.  It has really only six breeding song birds, the song sparrow, the Lapland longspur, the snow bunting, the gray crowned rosy-finch, the Pacific wren, and a few hoary redpolls.  The mountain loving rosy-finches are usually seen on the rocky coasts, and at high altitudes you find both cackling geese, and glaucous winged gulls, both birds you wouldn’t think would be there.   The place has miles and miles of rocky coasts and one would expect it would have many species of shorebirds, but they are not here.

There is abandoned rusting stuff everywhere, barrels, pipes, fire hydrants, docks, buildings, and fence posts, yet is a place of amazing beauty.  Debris from two major plane crashes scar hillsides, yet it is a place of tranquility.  It has snow-capped volcanic mountains, gorgeous beaches, kelp beds filled with harbor seals and sea otters, whales cruising around, and the steady banter of cackling geese.

It is located actually quite far south, 52 degrees, but it is hardly warm, and the weather is usually truly awful, but we had mostly sun and fog for a week.  The horrid weather causes fallout for migratory birds and faced with stiff headwinds they often end up here.  Almost any small bird seen here is a rare Asian vagrant so it is the land of rare birds, but if the weather clears, they are gone in an instant.

It is the land of one of the major battles in World War II and involved the largest loss of life of any battle on American soil.  The Japanese fought to the last man, and inflicted terrible casualties before being wiped out except for 27 men that walked off the island.  Yet, despite this great battle only one man was ever decorated with the congressional medal of honor from here.  A place of Heroism without heroes.  His name is Joe Martinez and at the critical moment, a time when stalemate was assured, he rose up and did something, and broke the stalemate, and died in the process.  This was a place much like Iwo Jimo, and despite it being unforgettable, it was forgotten.

This is a place critical for its location next to Russia and China, yet is has been abandoned by the US Military and the US Coast Guard.  It was abandoned yet, they left everything, like they were coming back.  It has twin ten thousand foot runways, yet no planes.  They sit there waiting as moss grows on the tarmac, and geese sleep on the asphalt.  Snow machines stand at the ready, for drivers that will never come, diesel tanks sit filled with fuel to heat and power a station that is boarded up.  In one room the clock sits at 11:43, only seventeen minutes to midnight, but only a fire extinguisher and a pen wait in vain for the clock to strike the sacred hour and a new day to begin that will never come.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service put up a wonderful interpretive center with two benches and plaques that point the way to the fields of battle, the lost tribal village, and wildlife.  I attended the dedication, but no one will ever sit on those benches, and no one will ever visit here.  How could they?  No one knows where it is, no signs point the way to its location at Henderson marsh, maybe 400 meters from the sea.  Attu is a three day ride by boat from Adak through stormy seas.  Since 2000, only four birder groups have come.  It is a place worthy of visit yet no one will.  It is a place worthy of remembrance but no one remembers.

The Russians came and virtually enslaved the local natives to produce fur, and arctic foxes were introduced.  Yet, when they were finally removed after two hundred years, the ptarmigan population, birds that one would think foxes preyed on, instead of increasing, actually dropped.

They say birding Attu is birding on the edge.  To me, being at 173 degrees east Longitude, in the eastern hemisphere, it is past the edge, and to me it is birding the other side.  Sometimes the other side is the dark side and sometimes it isn’t.  In Attu, it seems, you can find either, dark and light, good and bad, life and death….  Life and visiting here is what you make it and thinking about it too much will give you vertigo and make your head spin.  It is truly a magnificent place and a place everyone should enjoy, yet if you desire to, you probably can’t come.

Keep exploring my friends,

Olaf

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