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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Tracking the kolea in Alaska

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Staff Writer

NOME, Alaska — Eleven shivering kama'aina and two scientists in thermal underwear hunted for a Hawaiian bird, the kolea, in its nesting ground on the tundra near Nome last week.

Tundra in Alaska is a lot like ocean around Hawai'i. The barren, frozen tundra covers a major portion of Earth's surface — from Siberia through Alaska, Canada, Greenland and the Baltic — and appears at first glance a useless desert. Yet hundreds of tough, wiry plants, nutritious and medicinal, hug the soggy ground.

Natives pick the plants for food and medicine, and kolea, the Pacific golden plover, eat them in the nesting season. Like the ocean, the tundra is alive. You just have to recognize what you see.

When warm weather in June brings out swarms of mosquitoes and other insects, the tundra becomes nature's grocery story for migratory birds. They fly in from all over the world to nest.

That's why the Hawai'i 11 signed up for the first-ever tour to follow the kolea to Alaska, arranged by Annette Kaohelaulii of Kane'ohe.

We discovered that following the kolea is like following the voyaging canoes. They don't arrive on schedule. It depends on the weather.

This year, a late thaw delayed kolea occupancy of their Nome hotel accommodations.

Kolea experts Phil Bruner and Wally Johnson, who have studied the nesting kolea every summer for decades, did their best to show us some birds. But on the vast Alaska tundra, kolea don't strut in plain sight the way they do in your back yard.

On the lonely tundra, kolea are as shy as mice. Their nests blend so well with the landscape that you can step on one before you see it. The scientists showed us some old nests. We spotted some kolea in their mating ritual, fluttering like bats in flight. But we didn't see any on a nest.

It didn't matter to me. I was awed by the majesty of the land.

As in Hawai'i, mountains in Alaska are a constant presence, but they aren't green and tropical. They are snow-capped, cold and black and white.

Unoccupied space here is overwhelming. For six hours we sailed from Whittier to Valdez surrounded by glaciers and serene, snow-covered mountains, hemmed in by forest; mile after mile of wilderness, no sign of a house or a human, just whales, eagles, sea lions, moose.

The day we arrived, the Anchorage Times ran a front page story about wolves stealing food from campers. The day we left, a bear attacked a man and a woman.

In Alaska there's room for rugged individualism. People seem bigger to me in Alaska. I've never met more friendly, colorful humans.

Nancy McGuire, editor-publisher of the weekly Nome Nugget, is a case in point. She's a large, hearty, opinionated woman who came to Alaska, volunteered on the Nugget and liked it. While sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels with the owner of the paper, she bought it.