Chapter 6
Wind, Water, and Birds: Cold Bay

Izembek Lagoon is a remote place, and few people walk more than a couple of hundred meters off of the very limited road system. When you set off to walk the area’s beaches, chances are excellent that you can walk most of the day and never see another soul. As a consequence, you feel like an intruder into a primeval world. You’re certainly outnumbered. When the weather is good, you can see for miles: rolling heath dotted with streams and ponds; extensive bays; the extinct, snowcapped volcano called Frosty Peak; and the extinct oceanic volcano called Amak Island that looms out of the haze and cloud just off the coast. (There’s an endemic Song Sparrow population on Amak that I’d sure like to see.) It’s all very spectacular. And in this setting, it is absolutely transfixing to walk around a beach corner and flush a few thousand Brant or Cackling Geese and watch them fly around, calling to you and to each other while they decide just what to do about it. This is repeated over and over again on long beach marches, and I found that even with driving rain in my face I stopped to watch these spectacles every time.

On one very long march, I went out to distant Blaine Point to see if I could find flocks of shorebirds roosting there at high tide. I found very few shorebirds on the way out there, and as the weather deteriorated I wondered whether such a long walk was worth it. But out on the tip of the point there was a fairly sheltered spot, and as I came around the corner I was amazed to suddenly come upon a flock of about 2,000 Rock Sandpipers. I’d never seen such a large flock of this species. It’s difficult to describe how captivating such a docile, densely packed mass of birds quietly talking to themselves can be. They hardly paid me any attention, letting me approach to within thirty feet of the body of the flockā€”just fifteen feet away from the closest individuals. I pulled out my camera and walked very slowly past and through them a few times. Their sheer density, gray winter plumage, squeaking voices, and little movements brought teeming rats or mice to mind for an instant, but then a section would depart in rapid, pirouetting flight, whirling and returning to land just a few feet from where they began. These flights were spectacular, twisting and wheeling like smoke, then piling back onto the beach.

It’s easy to tell a bear trail from a human trail. With four-legged drive, bears must have better balance than we do. They place their feet directly in a line on each side of the body and so don’t trounce the middle of the trail; this leaves a mohawk strip of untrounced grass between two parallel, bear-foot- wide shuffle tracks. On most beach marches, you’ll wind up spending a lot of time on bear trails or walking over their tracks on the beaches, and many of the tracks will be very fresh. I carried the requisite shotgun and bear slugs on the off chance that one might be bold enough to come after me, but I found them to be very polite.