Monday, June 16, 2008

St. Paul Itself

I am going to digress a bit to write about the Pribilof experience. Birding here requires a little bit of fortitude and a lot of patience and flexibility. The village itself is small with about 125 families, mostly of Aluet origin. There is only one store which has a little bit of everything, including food, furniture and ATVs. Prices are very high, as everything has to be flown in. There is an odd liquor store of sorts which sells beer and wine. The wine selection isn't exactly extensive and, again, the prices are atrocious. (I was desperate enough to pay $15 for a $5 bottle of wine.) There is also a bar, but from what I hear, the locals are not very welcoming to outsiders there.

The only hotel is a prefab structure at the airport. The rooms are small, though comfortable, but most important, there are shared bathrooms. No matter how early I got up to shower somebody else had gotten up earlier. Shades of high school gym class! Some of the other guests wandered the hall in various states of undress. Most them should not have been doing this. I am not a big fan of long johns, even on someone with a good body. There were two lounges at the end of the hall with a tv and comfy chairs. The tv actually had a wide array of cable channels. I finally got to see the cinematic classic "Smoking Aces". (Dan and I agreed that the "karate kid" was the best character in a very odd movie.)

There are no trees on St. Paul, unless you count the ankle high willow that grows in various places. Tundra covers the entire island, except for the lakes and lava flows. Tundra is not the easiest walking. I always imagined it was spongy and soft. It can be somewhat spongy, but its far from soft in many places. I once heard someone say its like walking on bowling balls covered with grass. That's a pretty good analogy. In some places you jump from tuft to tuft. In other places you walk between the tufts. The Pribilofs are volcanic in origin, so there are also a lot of chunks of lava. In some places there is a lot more lava than grass. It is difficult to walk on dry land and even more difficult to "stomp" the marshes, where the water can be almost knee high, but with the same stuff underneath. My knees screamed in pain the last part of the week. It became difficult to even get in and out of the van.

We were really lucky with the weather. In late May/early June the temperature averages about 38 for the high. Its usually rainy or at least cloudy. Most of the days we actually had some sun. Fog can be a serious problem, not allowing flights in and out. One of the birders on the island while we were there had to stay an extra day due to fog. This is something to take into account. St. Paul Tours recommends adding an extra day on in Anchorage just in case. I can tell you, we looked at the sky anxiously when we got up the last day. It can be brutally windy, which is magnified if you are on the beach. Any kind of shelter was welcome.

Despite all of these discomforts, I liked St. Paul. There is a desolate beauty there. Its so foreign, after living in Texas for so long. I loved the beaches and the lonely hills. The town itself is charming, with a tiny Russian Orthodox church dominating the hill. Houses are painted gaudily, defying the cold grayness. I would love to see it in mid summer when the tundra is ablaze with wild flowers. I recommend it, if you are up to the challenge!

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