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ALASKA SPECIAL ISSUE: Bristol Bay : Wallowing in Walruses : On remote, windblown Round Island, two-ton wonders rule the roost

March 12, 1995|ROBIN MACKEY HILL | Hill is an Anchorage-based free-lance writer

ROUND ISLAND, Alaska — Each spring and summer, this craggy speck of land in southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay hosts one of nature's biggest bachelor parties: a noisy gathering of between 4,000 and 8,000 Pacific male walruses.

The two-ton wonders, whose convergence here represents the largest land concentration of walruses in North America, come to Round Island to rest and feed on the bay's abundant supply of fish after a winter of breeding on the ice floes of the Bering and Chukchi seas about 1,000 miles north.

Humans are welcome to join the party on Round Island, which at two miles long and one mile wide is the fourth largest of the seven islands that make up the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary. But as my husband and I discovered on our own late-June visit, the faint of heart need not apply.

Access to Round Island is by permit only, with about 150 visitors arriving per year. Getting there from our home in Anchorage entailed a 1 1/2-hour plane ride northwest to Dillingham, followed by a 45-minute flight to a tiny Yupik Eskimo village called Twin Hills, where we spent the night at a nearby fish cannery before boarding a boat for a 90-minute, open-water crossing to the island.

Wilderness camping is the only lodging option on Round Island, and there are no visitor facilities--unless you count the one-seater outhouse that doubles as the island's library.

And weather, always a factor in Alaska, assumes an even greater importance on Round Island. Conditions can change quickly and often can be fierce, with rain and winds up to 60 m.p.h., testing even the sturdiest equipment.

But for wildlife watchers, the rewards are significant: flocks of black-legged kittiwakes, common murres, cormorants and puffins, Steller sea lions; a small, often skittish population of red foxes; and, of course, the walruses.

The latter, we learned, are often oblivious to their two-legged admirers. During one memorable encounter a few hundred yards from our campsite on the island's northeast shore, we crawled on our bellies across a swath of spongy, mosslike tundra and came within several yards of a dozen massive, red-brown walruses. A rather uncouth bunch, they ignored us as they grunted, groaned, broke wind and wallowed on top of each other in a dogged attempt to get the very best slab of rock on which to while away the day.

Every visit to Round Island begins on the mainland with an overnight stay at Togiak Fisheries, a haphazard collection of tin-and-wood buildings that look as though they were assembled by our 3-year-old. The cannery sits about two miles across Togiak Bay from the Yupik Eskimo village of Togiak (pop. 613) and is the year-round home of salmon fisherman and charter-boat operator Don Winkelman.

Unless you have your own boat--and can somehow get it to southwest Alaska--the affable, craggy-faced Winkelman is a visitor's only hope of making the 35-mile, 90-minute (weather permitting) crossing to Round Island. For $350 per person, Winkelman will put you up for the night in a sturdy, six-cot tent (with a floor). He'll also provide a hearty breakfast at the cannery mess hall (where you eat alongside bleary-eyed, seasonal workers getting ready for their next 12- or 18-hour day) before ferrying you to Round Island in his partially covered, 28-foot aluminum power boat, the Puffin.

Perhaps more importantly, he'll come back for you when your time on the island is up.

Our own crossing, in calm seas, was blessedly uneventful. When we arrived on the island, we were greeted by the island's three departing guests and a handful of walruses playing hide-and-seek in the waves a few yards offshore. The former had just endured five days of nonstop rain and tent-toppling winds. They swore they'd had a wonderful time.

*

Round Island, though windblown and devoid of trees, is surprisingly lush. Its wide, rocky beaches are party central for the visiting walruses, and its steep, furrowed flanks are covered with tundra and patches of wildflowers.

After hauling our gear up the wet cliffs, we sat nestled in waist-high grass to chat with the two biologists stationed here from May to mid-August. The women were spending their first summer working on and caring for the island. One was fresh from a post in Antarctica, where she studied krill, a crustacean, while her partner had traded in an Anchorage office job responding to panicked calls about bear sightings (a not-unheard-of occurrence, even in Anchorage).

As we learned that first afternoon, Round Island rules are few: Camp only in designated sites. Be kind to the fragile tundra by staying on the estimated mile-and-a-half of narrow, often slippery trails. Don't clamber down to the beaches. And don't do anything to spook the resident wildlife. Whether it's true or just a means of deterring smokers, we were told that cigarette smoke can clear the beach of walruses.

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