My family thinks Anchorage is remote. Still, there's a road to get "Outside." We have a Nordstrom store, daily jet service, bike trails and relatively fast internet. "I'd love to come visit," said one long-lost cousin. "But it's so far away and it's so cold."
My well-meaning relatives would shudder at the idea of flying three hours on a plane from Anchorage outfitted with a special life raft that takes up most of row five. But that's how PenAir configures its Saab 340 aircraft, since it's flying 770 miles to a small outpost in the middle of the Bering Sea: St. Paul Island.
Is St. Paul "remote"? Well, there are no paved roads. There's one store and one hotel. PenAir flies from Anchorage four times a week. The closest community to this town of 480 people is St. George Island, about 45 miles away.
But St. Paul sits in the middle of the freeway for migratory birds. There are a couple of other hubs in Alaska where you can see some of these birds, including Nome and Cold Bay. But because of the winds, the wild weather and the traditional fly-ways for these birds, St. Paul is where "extreme birders" come to fill out their "life lists" of the birds they've seen.
St. Paul also is a sweet spot for crab fishermen during the midwinter season. Trident Seafoods operates the largest crab processing plant in the world in the St. Paul Harbor. During the summer, the cannery handles halibut caught by a fleet of local vessels.
Also, St. Paul Island is "action central" for the northern fur seals that return each summer. There are protected seal rookeries all over the island — and you can hear them barking from almost any point!
The local Alaska Native corporation, Tanadgusix Corporation or "TDX," offers a tour to visit the island. The St. Paul Island Tour is an all-inclusive package. That's helpful, since it would be difficult to put it together on your own. The packages run from three to eight days and line up with PenAir's flights. Airfare is included in the package price, although next year, the tour will offer a "land only" option for folks who want to use their Alaska Air miles on PenAir.
After arriving at the airport, guests check in to the King Eider Hotel, which is attached to the airport building. The hotel is similar to other remote-outpost housing. That means you share your bathroom.
The tour itinerary is geared to the avid wildlife fan, but every visitor gets to see a little bit of the community of St. Paul. That's because all meals are served in the galley at the Trident Seafoods cannery. On the road in from the airport, you'll pass by the town center with the large Russian Orthodox church and the small boat harbor. On the way to lunch, our guide pointed out the wind turbines, the post office, the one gas station for the island, the store and the school.
Because the seals are breeding, there were specific rules about how we could get to the rookeries. At some viewing areas, we were allowed to roll down the windows of the van, but we couldn't get out.
To view the most sought-after birds, such as the crested auklet, the tufted puffin or the red-legged kittiwake, no such regulations were necessary. That's because these birds make their homes on the sheer cliffs that surround this volcanic island. It's the best way to avoid the Arctic foxes, which always are on the prowl.
Our guides, Claudia Cavazos and Sulli Gibson, both knew the best trails that would provide good views of both birds and seals.
One thing to know about birders: They love their cameras. Sulli was sporting a fancy Canon camera with a 100-400 mm zoom lens. Because of the mostly misty weather, he had it wrapped in plastic. Both he and Claudia had top-of-the-line Swarovski binoculars and spotting scopes to get up-close views of the birds on the cliffs. I carried my own binoculars, but the spotting scope, mounted on its own tripod, offers the best way to see the birds. None of the folks in our group were hard-core bird photographers, but I've seen birders with huge lenses — and they can get excellent up-close photos. Still, my little point-and-shoot Sony camera worked pretty well.
Even the casual wildlife observer can get caught up in identifying the huge variety of birds. There were the red-faced cormorants, the King Eider ducks, the harlequin ducks, the common murres, the gulls, the sandpipers and other migratory birds. At the seal rookeries, it's amazing to watch the behavior of the dominant males, or "beachmasters," as they preside over their harem of female seals. Of course, the females are tending to their newborns as well. That's just before they get pregnant again and head out to sea in the fall.
All around the island rookeries, you can see the newborns, the 1-year-olds and the adolescents as they jockey for position with the beachmasters. Actually, the younger seals are looking to stay out of the way as the grown-ups are busy with the mating game.
There's a special page on the tour company's website devoted to gear. I never saw the thermometer creep above 50 degrees. It was foggy and wet. So I had long underwear, rain pants, a sturdy raincoat and Xtratuf boots. Even if it's sunny, you'll likely be strolling through tall grass, which can be cold and wet. Plus, you want to be able to get down low to take photos of the beautiful wildflowers.
The three-day/two-night tour costs $2,495 per person. There's a 25 percent discount for the two-night tour (TDX-300) between now and the end of the 2018 season on Sept. 15. The price includes shared hotel accommodations, flights from Anchorage, three meals per day and full-day guide services. By "full-day" it means they pick you up for breakfast, then take you out all morning, pick you up after lunch and even take you out after dinner if you wish. The hotel also offers free Wi-Fi.
The next time your friends talk about "remote Alaska," you can pull the St. Paul Island card. Even though it's off the grid for big buildings and parking lots, St. Paul Island is in the middle of the action for nature's migration of birds, fish and mammals. And it's a wonder to behold.