Fly Away, Alaska
Published by American Vogue, 2020
October 02, 2019 – Ted Stevens International – Anchorage, Alaska
The check-in queue was a slow-rolling train of worn kennels, battered ammunition cases, and recycled cardboard boxes haphazardly taped with neon FRAGILE stickers. The ratio of man to dog: 3:1, man to woman: 5:1.
A persistent grey sky hung heavy and low, blanketing everything beyond an arm’s length above my head. The 36-seat plane was a full flight with bulging under-seat baggage and passengers uniformed in camouflage and Xtratufs, shouting over the hum of the turbo props, and greeting familiar faces as they shuffled into place on the open seating plan.
I am flying to Cold Bay, Alaska.
At the tip of the Alaskan peninsula, Cold Bay occupies a strip of land hugged by two tides emanating from the Pacific Ocean to the South and the Bering Sea to the North. Cold Bay is 768 miles south of the Arctic circle and 335 miles West of Honolulu. It’s a place so remote, it’s permanent residents include 38 households, a rotating cast of brown bears, wolves, foxes, caribou, and a lot of birds – at this time of year, about a quarter of a million.
The birds are why I’m headed to Cold Bay. Every Fall, thousands of migratory waterbirds take refuge in the lagoons of the nearby Izembek National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and State Game Refuge – most impressively, the entire population (~160,000) of Pacific Black Brant geese. Peppered amongst Emperor Geese, Canada Geese, and Steller’s Eiders, Brant annually reunite with their relatives to stage (‘fatten up’) on the world’s largest eelgrass beds before setting forth to their respective wintering grounds – protected bays along the Pacific Coast of the U.S. (B.C., Washington, Oregon, California). Most are headed for Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, with an ever-growing portion (currently about 30%) remaining in Izembek; due to the warming winters.
I’ve come to see this incredible spectacle through the eyes, and from the jump seat, of one of the people who spots these birds best. Heather Wilson is a Biologist-Pilot flying for The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), who has seen, measured, and counted Alaska’s waterfowl by becoming one of them, soaring above the flocks in an amphibious Cessna 206, or as you’d hear it from Air Traffic Control, “November-9-6-2-3-Romeo.”
Heather has been a part of the USFWS Migratory Bird Management program since 2007 and has flown over 4,000 hours, over endless miles and some of the wildest reaches of the Great American North. Some of the first aerial wildlife surveys were conducted in the 1950s – when the USFWS tapped the surplus of trained aviators after WWII – but it wasn’t until 1981 that this specific survey of Alaska’s waterfowl at Izembek NWR was first conducted. She is one of a small group of people who have done this survey since.
At the crux of the mission lies one of the most difficult tasks: counting the birds while flying at 100 mph. Before there were computer simulations, one way of sharpening the skills required for being an ocular counter was to throw a handful of rice on a tabletop. Using one’s best cumulative spatial judgment, the trainee estimates how many grains there are…as fast as they can. But, unlike rice, birds fly away. Quickly.
With a radar altimeter at anywhere between 125–500 ft, Heather has fully adapted to life in the air. She banks, dives, and turns every few seconds, constantly adjusting her view to the most optimal lock on the blur of birds below.
“I identify with air… I enjoy every environment, but I feel the best in open, high, places, especially the air, and flying. It just seems natural to study animals who are the same way.”
Joining her on this particular survey is fellow USFWS Wildlife Biologist and bird fanatic Tamara Zeller. As one of Heather’s frequent flyers, Tamara noted,
“[With Heather,] there is always some type of adventure that awaits. [She] is different than others I’ve worked with because she really goes after what she wants in life and in her career and invests in the success of each project. She’s had to break through so many stereotypes and barriers and is such an excellent role model - she has reinforced that the skies have plenty of room for women.”
Our survey flight was the first time I’ve been an active member of the crew; participating as part of a team during the takeoff, cruise, and landing processes; each of which was exciting, interesting, and held my full attention. The diligent pre-flight protocols and the skilled precision of Heather’s agility behind the yoke, all dialed into the fluctuations in the weather and unpredictable movements of the birds, amounted to a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“The more I fly in remote places and among birds, the more the wind, weather, and landscape start to become a part of me; the way I think it’s a part of them.”
In our search for Brant, we saw walruses, harbor seals, humpback whales, sea otters, brown bears, and arctic foxes. It was a 4-hour aerial safari. Ultra-bright teal rivers unraveled into glassy seas and ATV paths wove through the wild shrubs. Unless focused on the intimate, almost lacy, details of the tundra, the muted greys were all-encompassing. The open horizons and expansive wilderness felt to be as still as they’ve always been, innocent and largely untouched… with the small outpost of Cold Bay, as the lone exception.
With no resident law enforcement or game wardens, it was no surprise when multiple people referred to Cold Bay as one of the last-standing Wild Wests. It’s composed of not more than a small tangle of dirt roads connecting a few dozen free-standing houses and community centers, adorned with caribou antlers and parked ATVs. The old church, previously a military Quonset hut with a board-and-nail steeple, held its final mass in 2008 and is now used for storage. Alaska law states that there must be 10 kids (of any age – pre K through grade 12) for state-provided school funding. Without enough kids to meet this quota, the Cold Bay school closed in 2015, leaving the swing sets to sway vacantly. With limited cell service (only ATT and Alaska’s GCI work here), if you need a connection, you can join the other data groupies in the daily pilgrimage to the local library, where they hang about, tethered to a radius around the chair-lined entryway. The essentials-only grocery store receives its shipments by cargo boat or plane and is in the same single-story building as the town bar and a fluorescently-lit payphone. It’s a true one-stop-shop in a micro-world of how life used to be.
“Cold Bay is a really important epicenter and stopover place for people and animals alike. The salmon, the birds, the weather, and the hunters are all [here] at the same time in the fall. No other place I survey has quite the same eruptive nature to it.”
It should be no surprise to anyone at this point that the health of birds is a direct correlation to the planet’s health at-large. In contrast to the rapid decline of songbirds, waterfowl are probably the most thriving group of avian species. Yet even among this highly adaptable group, not all species will be able to adapt quickly enough to be winners in the face of climate change. For now, the warming has brought largely positive benefits to the birds that use Izembek. A lagoon landscape that once froze over by November is now staying open for months longer, providing access to abundant eelgrass, the main source of food for Brant. How these alterations to habitat and timing will ultimately play out for these birds is a story that is still unfolding.
“As we are shifting towards a warmer climate, temperature-driven wind and weather patterns, especially in the north, are changing as well, with more extreme weather becoming the norm. If that trend continues, it’s not only going to make my job more difficult, but could also dramatically change the patterns of bird migration; affecting how and when the birds move, stop-over, reproduce, and ultimately survive...Our coastline is thawing, I see it out my cockpit window, and combined with less sea ice, there is less protection for the land, which creates a perfect storm for erosion. This affects not only the birds, but the people who live in these areas. A lot of the most productive habitat for breeding waterbirds is located along these sensitive coastal fringes. I’m not sure how the vast numbers of birds using these areas are going to adapt to the rapid changes, but I hope we are doing our best to help them.”
When I first heard of Heather, the image that immediately came to mind was Fly Away Home, the 1996 Dr. William Sladen-inspired Columbia Picture of a girl and her geese. My newly found birds-eye view in observation of Heather mirrored the grainy widescreen frames I’d, not knowingly, imprinted on as a kid. Here in Cold Bay, my imagination turned Heather into the heroine of a modern environmental story between woman and bird.
“One of the things that is most different [about this job relative to other flying jobs] is that you always feel that you’re contributing to something bigger. It’s not just about ‘getting there’... it’s our platform for observation, and ultimately conservation.”
Heather’s role in the story of these birds is far-reaching. Her surveys help set wildlife regulations and inform conservation decisions all while being on the front lines of our changing climate. Her life’s work has brought her to the skies to fly among the creatures she loves, above some of the planet’s most precious lands. As a role model and action seeker, Heather’s glass ceilings are that of a prism, refracting the sacrosanct balance within the interconnection of all creatures. She is a woman with wings.