March 19, 2015
Red-flanked Bluetail
Red-flanked Bluetail, a North American exotic from Siberia

Having lost my father in the Pacific theater of World War II ere ever we laid eyes on one another has been such an integral part of my story that it was never difficult for me to think of John McCain, despite our different world views, as a national hero.  I was even able to work around the whispers of improprieties in McCain’s private life, probably because they allegedly occurred before everyone’s private life became public with the advent of social media, but McCain finally lost me when he tried to foist Sarah Palin on an unsuspecting country.  At best, the Palin choice made McCain seem guilty of The dog ate my homework.  At worst, it showed he had no feel for the pulse of the country.

With these thoughts as background noise, I recently finalized plans for our trip to Alaska this summer.  Of course the Sarah Palin meme about seeing Russia from her front porch has been debunked as apocryphal, but it leant a certain cachet to the notion of Alaska as the final frontier, an outlier, much like its favorite daughter.  We first went to Alaska back in 1989 so it has never been on my bucket list, nor is it the final frontier for my photography endeavors either (more about that in an upcoming column), but there are some subjects there and some gaps I’d like to clean up—Gyrfalcon, Bluethroat, Musk Ox, perhaps even a Grizzly out across the tundra against a backdrop of lonesome mountains evoking eternity.

That visceral sense of eternity intrudes the moment one steps off the plane in Nome.  Some say it’s jet lag, or the cold, or the midnight sun, or the isolation, but for me it is the expanse of the topography and all the things that vastness of nature holds that have never been a part of my quotidian existence, but only outliers on the periphery of my dreams and along the margins of my imagination.

The birds out of Nome are exotic, but in ways much different than birds in the tropics.  For most birders “exotic” implies unique and unfamiliar.  In the tropics, though their shapes and colors seem foreign to our practiced eye and we may not be able to put a name on them, birds are not hard to see.  Birds out of Nome are hard to find.  Latitude and habitat conspire to keep species numbers low, and that vast expanse swallows those individuals that know it as home.  And yes, exotic when found, because Nome’s birds are either arctic breeders that never make it south to the lower forty-eight (ptarmigans, wheatears, wagtails), or species we see down here only in their drab, winter, basic plumages (loons, grebes, shorebirds).

As my so-called bucket list shrinks, the result of a long and blessed life, I find that rather than adding still more new and exotic experiences, I am drawn to repeating those few that have resonated most in my soul.  Part of the ageing process?  Assuredly.  Many things that were important to me when I wore a younger man’s clothes have become background noise.  When first considering this summer’s trip, I figured it would be my final visit to Alaska.  Then again, perhaps not.  As eternity begins playing out, why not find a front row seat?  Perhaps Palin meant to say “eternity” when she supposedly said “Russia.”