COLD DAY ALASKA
gunning for geese and ducks in a remote a leutian outpost
cold bay, alaska, isn’t much of a destination for tourists, or anyone else for that matter. The yearround population is said to be somewhere around 100 people, give or take, but after spending a week there I think that number is inflated. You end up seeing the same faces whether you’re at the bar, the grocery store, or the post office, or walking around the town’s packed-gravel roads. What is certain, however, is that there are more houses than people, many of which look abandoned, having been beaten down by the salt and wind and cold.
Without doubt, Cold Bay also has more communications gear per capita than any other place on the planet. The treeless tundracovered hills in and around town bristle with antennas, radar domes, oversize convex dishes, and strange structures that defy easy categorization but are clearly designed to emit, or detect, electronic signals of some sort for some purpose. They are modern-day reminders of the town’s military history.
Cold Bay is part of the Aleutian chain, which juts off the southwest corner of the Alaskan mainland. To the south, the bay opens to the North Pacific Ocean and the Aleutian Trench, a 2,100-mile-long gash in the earth’s crust that plunges to depths of more than 25,000 feet and follows the crescent of the Aleutian Islands. To the north is the Bering Sea.
Cold Bay’s airfield was constructed during the Second World War, and fighters and bombers from the 11th Air Force were stationed there. It was used as a jumping-off point to defend Dutch Harbor and other parts of the Aleutians from the Japanese fleet.
Just between Cold Bay and the Bering is a small lagoon—small at least by Alaskan standards at 150 square miles—and it, too, is a critical jumping-off point. Called Izembek Lagoon, it is notable for one thing in particular, and that’s the reason I’ve traveled to this remote, windswept location. The bottom of the lagoon grows the world’s largest bed of eelgrass. bottleneck Eelgrass is pretty plain-looking stuff. The long, dull-green blades grow in meadows on the saltwater lagoon’s shallow bottom. But for Pacific brant—also called black brant—it is the linchpin of their existence. They rely on it to fatten up for their remarkably long migrations, and it even provides them with fresh water as they munch away.
Like eelgrass, Pacific brant aren’t particularly visually striking. They are stocky little geese, with black and buff coloration on their chest, wings, neck, head, and bill, and they have a white belly. Mature brant get a distinctive ring of white around their neck, which is a helpful thing to look for when they fly within shotgun range.
Nor are Pacific brant prolific. Their population hovers at around 150,000—a mere drop in the fowl bucket when compared to the millions of Canadas or mallards that course along North America’s flyways. But, remarkably, every one of those 150,000 brant stops at Izembek Lagoon in order to rest and feed during their travels. Their breeding grounds are scattered for thousands of miles across the High Arctic. And they winter mostly down in Mexico, and in some small pockets along the Pacific Coast of the U.S. Yet they all congregate around the same time during the fall in Izembek, making
this spot a singular bottleneck for these birds.
Once the brant have consumed enough eelgrass to continue south, they take off and won’t land for several days, covering the thousands of miles to the Baja Peninsula and the Sea of Cortez in a single flight. When I learned about the extent of their travels, I felt a bit uncharitable for grumbling about the two days it took me to get from my home to Cold Bay. sleeping bear During my first night in Cold Bay, the weather gods brewed up a storm that lashed the town with an elemental fury. Seventy-mile-per-hour winds drove the rain sideways against the small house where I was staying along with the group of hunters who had joined me to hunt brant and sea ducks. The building shook and groaned as the rain hammered the window above my cot. It felt more like being at sea than on solid ground.
The rain was still coming in horizontal in the morning. We had a quick breakfast of biscuits slathered with sausage gravy, pulled on our waders, piled into a two-truck convoy, and went to a small lake to try our luck. The open water on the bay and in the lagoon was too rough to launch boats.
Crossing the soggy ground around the lake, I leaned into the wind to keep my balance. We helped Jeff Wasley, the owner and head guide of Four Flyways Outfitters, set four dozen decoys—a mix of buffleheads, divers, and puddle ducks—in the water. They strained on their anchor lines in the wind, dancing, rolling, and tugging like disobedient dogs. With our spread set to Wasley’s satisfaction, we tucked into a muddy bank for some protection from the wind and watched the sky. Or, in my case, mostly watched the sky. Looking around, I saw torn-up chunks of dead silver salmon in the grass— and lots of bear scat.
Some ducks flew high overhead, but the wind kept them out of our decoys. Ben Teale, a young guide from Wisconsin with a bright-red lumberjack’s beard, decided to walk the shore of the lake to see if he could jump some birds, and maybe push them our way. His plan didn’t work. The only thing he kicked up was a snoozing brown bear. The bruin popped up out of the grass and Teale raised his shotgun and shouted at it. Fortunately, the bear turned tail and ran off rather than look for a fight. lady luck
That night we went to a Ducks Unlimited banquet. All of Cold Bay showed up for the party, because It turns out nearly everyone in town is a DU member. We had a classic banquet smorgasbord with Swedish meatballs, baked pasta casserole, salmon dip, and Halloweenthemed cupcakes. While drinking punch out of a paper cup, I browsed the raffle and silent auction items propped on tables around the edges of the room. There were bar sets emblazoned with the DU logo, framed pictures of waterfowl, Du-branded shotguns, and a Taurus Judge revolver with “Ducks Unlimited” etched on its cylinder. And, of course, there was the obligatory print showing the three flavors of Labs: black, yellow, and chocolate. This one featured a trio of puppies in a tableau of handcarved decoys and duck calls. They looked slightly constipated. Perhaps, they couldn’t believe they were being immortalized in such a clichéd representation of doggiedom.
The night was great success. People engaged in bidding wars for some of the choicer items, while others popped out of their chairs laughing and clapping when they won
from left: a trio of duck and goose calls ready for action; a hunter wades out to retrieve a harlequin drake he shot moments before; the author swinging on a duck that is coming in low and fast Just off a rocky beach.