Celebrating Nature with Our Alaskan Neighbours

What is a top surfing destination, has WWII cannons on its beach, and a splendid view of Mount Logan? Yakutat, Alaska, of course.

The small Alaskan community of Yakutat, tucked into The Lost Coast – 80 kilometres northwest of the mouth of the Alsek River – is a prime location for an admirable globe-trotter: the Arctic Tern.

Yakutat’s sandy beaches offer an ideal nesting location for the avian, a simple dimple in the sand serves as a nest and a rich marine life provides all the necessary nutrition to the three tern species that make Yakutat their summer home.

Two years ago I received an intriguing letter: an invitation to attend the first annual Yakutat Tern Festival as a visual artist. Thinking that the logistics to get to this mysterious hamlet would be pricy and complicated I let things slide and never got there. Last April, when the second invitation came in the mail, I decided that these guys were serious. The good people at the U.S. Forestry Services who organize the 4-day event worked out all the logistics and I found no reason to miss it this time.

After boarding the Kennikott ferry in Juneau, we spent 17-hours getting to the town, following a most dramatic coastline the whole way. The next day the festival started.

They were great workshops, field trips and lectures with experts discussing Arctic Terns and all things related. Keynote speaker Bob Armstrong, famed biologist and bird specialist from Juneau, eloquently explained the habits, behaviours and instincts of different tern species. The Arctic Tern shares this ecosystem with the Aleutian Terns and occasional visits by Caspian Terns, the latter being highly studied for their elusive sightings.

With the help of geneticists, anthropologists, historians, First Nation storytellers and nature photographers, the whole area was in turn mystified, demystified and re-mystified.

Spending time in Yakutat was an interesting experience on its own.

Populated by the Tlingit hundreds of years ago, this subsistence-based community still includes a large portion of seal meat in their diet and has seen nature at its most powerful, crafting of land. As one of the most tectonically active regions of the world, earthquakes are frequent. The Yakutat region is also subject to dramatic glacier activities and sees snowfalls of biblical proportions.

The area also seems to be a sort of a continental Atlantis; its location, right in the bend between the Alaskan Panhandle and mainland Alaska is a blind spot on the map. In the 1940s, this geography, along with an ideal sandy beach and comfortable setting, worried the US army and they armed the area with cannons and tanks, fearing that a Japanese invasion was imminent. Luckily, the only invasions that Yakutat had to deal with were surfers and terns.

During the Yakutat Tern Festival the main events took place at the community school. At the art market, I had a chance to meet with local artists and hobnob with the community. The invitation I received was to teach a painting workshop, which was fun and revealed a lot of young and not-so-young talent.

With Haines Junction being the nearest community to Yakutat, people feel a close connection with Yukoners. Years ago a road between the two communities was suggested but abandoned.

Susan Oehlers, the head organizer of the festival, would like to extend a special invitation to Yukoners for the upcoming festival.

“Sharing an ecosystem for this most amazing bird species is an honour that both Alaskans and Yukoners should be proud of,” she told me as we strolled on the beach. “We have many ties and this is an exciting and beautiful one.”

We gazed across the bay to Mount Logan. That sight alone was worth the trip.

Besides offering breathtaking views, the best steelhead fishing, guaranteed grizzly bear viewing, and friendly folks, the town also offers several lodging options and transportation. The ferry system makes a special stop for festival-goers and Alaskan Airlines has daily departures to and from the town and offers reduced fares for the festival.

The festival takes place May 30 to June 2. For more information go to www.YakutatTernFestival.org or call the U.S. Forestry Department at 907-784-3359.

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