Saturday, August 9, 2008

Kasatochi memories

Sunlight streams through storm clouds near Fenimore Pass in the Aleutian Islands (©Scott Weidensaul)

More about the Wales Writing Workshop presently; but I saw a small news item today that took me back to one of the most remote and beautiful places I've ever been.
"Biologists rescued from remote Alaska island after volcano erupts," read the headline on an AP story in the Fairbanks News-Miner yesterday. (I'm indebted, as is often the case, to Lou Carpenter's bird-news site for posting the report.)

"ANCHORAGE (AP) — Two federal biologists were rescued from a volcanic island just before it erupted, sending a 35-thousand foot ash plume into the air.

"The biologists, who were studying birds, were rescued from volcanic Kasatochi Island in the Aleutians on Thursday. They were rescued by a local fishing boat.

"Official said the escape allowed the unnamed biologists to escape burning flows of gas, steam and ash that reportedly enveloped the island.

“ 'If they had been there, they certainly could have died,' said Stephanie Prejean, U.S. Geological Survey seismologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory."

In the summer of 2005, I was lucky enough to hitch a ride to Kasatochi on the M/V Tiglax (pronounced Tek-la), the research vessel of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which protects most of the Aleutian Islands chain. Kasatochi is a miniature Mt. Fuji, a perfect volcanic cone rising from the frigid Bering Sea waters, green with grass and cupping a deep lake inside its caldera.

The Tiglax, which had picked up me, field guide author David Sibley and several folks from The Nature Conservancy the previous day on Adak Island, 50 miles to the west, crossed the chaotic waters of Fenimore Pass as bright shafts of low sunlight pierced the storm clouds, illuminating rugged island shorelines.

Laysan albatrosses followed our wake, and the boat stirred up flocks of thousands of rare whiskered auklets, which David had come to see – one of the last North American birds he hadn't seen in the wild.A Laysan albatross crosses the wake of the Tiglax near Kasatochi Island. (©Scott Weidensaul)

We arrived at Kasatochi at 11 p.m., in the dim twilight of an Alaskan summer evening. Two young women, bio-technicians working for the refuge, were living for the summer in a tiny cabin perched on Kasatochi's slope, and while the crew off-loaded supplies for them (including a new stove to replace their broken one, so they could again cook hot food), we watched one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles I've ever seen.

In the gathering dusk, several immense clouds of crested auklets had gathered in the air around the island, waiting for the couple of hours of true darkness, around 2 a.m., when they could safely land without risking attack by gulls and falcons.

The birds whirred in dense masses hundreds of thousands strong, forming ever-shifting shapes like Möbius strips, smoky ribbons becoming balls becoming tendrils, rushing down the water, then swooping high in the air, wheeling and wheeling endlessly while the sea lions roared and the surf boomed.

One of the huge flocks, evading a passing peregrine falcon, swooped low toward the water and engulfed the boat, a roar of rushing wings that gave me, for a minute or two, a sense of what a passenger pigeon flock must have been like. Even after they passed, the air was heavy with the cloying citrus smell of tangerines, a characteristic of crested auklets.

Once it was fully dark, the vessel was kept in black-out conditions, because any light would disorient and attract the birds, with disastrous results. (One fishing boat, unaware of this, famously almost sank under the weight of confused seabirds piling onto the decks by the thousands; you can read a journal article about it here.)

The scientists aboard the Tiglax needed to catch a few birds to collect blood samples, though, so the crew turned on a few dim lights, and we scurried around the decks scooping up Cassin's and whiskered auklets, ancient murrelets and gray, fluttering fork-tailed storm-petrels, which puked up little gobs of pink crustaceans when we carefully lifted them.A whiskered auklet from Kasatochi, caught on the Tiglax for a quick blood sample and then released. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Kasatochi was almost certainly the most remote and empty place I've ever had the privilege of visiting. Sitting in the pilothouse of the Tiglax, Capt. Kevin Bell pointed on his chart to the tiny speck that was Kasatochi. "Draw a circle 500 miles wide, with Kasatochi at the center," he said. "There probably aren't more than a few hundred people in that circle, almost all of them on Adak or a couple of fishing boats."

Kasatochi is the third Aleutian volcano to erupt this summer, along with Okmok and Mt. Cleveland. It gave no warning, going from dormant to full eruption in about 24 hours, the U.S. Geological Survey said.The Tiglax anchored at Ulak Island, near Kasatochi. (©Scott Weidensaul)

A helicopter that was supposed to rescue the biologists developed mechanical problems, according to AP story. A Fish and Wildlife Service boat – presumably the Tiglax – was too far away to help, the AP reported, and calls for fishing boats went unanswered. Finally, fishermen from Adak raced the 50 miles of rough seas to pluck off the biologists, who said the island was shaking violently, and the air smelled like sulfur.

And a little bit like tangerines, I'll bet.


Julie Zickefoose said...

What a terrific piece, Scott.

Unknown said...

I lived on Kasatochi when I worked for the USFWS in 2003. It was the most beautiful place in the world.