Yakutat Tern Festival a fantastic opportunity

When Seniors Travel

In the course of magazine editing, newspaper reporting, book authoring, freelance writing and Web site publishing for the past 60-plus years I’ve had the pleasure to visit and write about many a splendid local celebration. These have included locales that varied from Kansas on the plains in our nation’s mid-section to the mountains of Colorado, the islands of Hawaii, the shores of California, Jolly Old England and (drum roll please…)  funfests that have provided enduring grand memories in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan.

This month let me tell you about a four-day Alaska community party I’ve never yet attended – but which I enthusiastically hope to take in some future year.

The community: Yakutat, located north of Juneau, Haines and Skagway in northernmost Southeast Alaska. The occasion: Yakutat’s Third Annual Tern Festival, May 31 through June 3. Truth to tell I’m just blown away at the scope, depth and planning for this celebration of the region’s birdlife, wild game, gorgeous scenery and hospitable people.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I traveled with two friends to the Yakutat area in the 1970s for small-plane fly-in hunts, during which we hiked and sought moose by day and relaxed each night in comfortable U.S. Forest Service cabins or in motels near the airport. The Yakutat folks we met and chatted with before and after our hunts were as hospitable and friendly as any I’ve encountered anywhere.

The Tern Festival is an extension of that hospitable nature.

Here’s a sampling of agenda items you can experience in the community May 31 through June 3:

Art. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, check out the art show at the high school gym. Local and visiting artists will display, sell and demonstrate quality Alaskan arts and crafts.

That’s just the beginning. Additional festival attractions will include Alaska Raptor Center birds and their handlers, a photo contest display, information booths and more.

Visiting Artists: Nathalie Parenteaus’ modernistic painting style is easily recognizable and is collected by people all over the world. Peter von Gaza specializes in black and white photography and his primary motivation is in visiting remote and desolate landscapes and capturing a sense of the immense nature of the planet.

Featured Artist of the festival will be Bob Berry of El Cajon, Calif. He is an accomplished bronze sculptor, master taxidermist and champion bird carver. Clients include George H.W. Bush (yes, that George H.W. Bush), the Prince of Wales and prominent business and industrial leaders.

Opening Day. Special events and seminars will include an opening reception May 31 that includes light food catered by Fat Grandma’s. (You read it right: Fat Grandma’s!) This event begins at 6 p.m. and will be free and open to the public. At 7:30 p.m. a presentation called “The Glacier’s Eternal Gift: Traditional Ice Floe Sealing at Yakutat,” will feature Dr. Aron Crowell and Elaine Abraham explaining the traditional relationship of seals and people, especially near the advancing and retreating edge of nearby Hubbard Glacier. This event, too, is free.

Field trips. Especially notable on the days that follow will be field trips where kids (if you bring a grandchild perhaps) can participate at no charge if accompanied by a responsible adult.

Among Thursday kids’ activities will be an 11 a.m. walk-and-learn “Birding 101” session with Susan Oelers to learn the basics of bird identification, including bird songs and calls. At 12:30 p.m., Bob Berry will give each child a wooden cutout to paint and decorate, and at 2 p.m. there will be story telling with local authors and elders. Also on tap for youngsters: Bird banding, cedar bark basket making, play performing, bird house building, face painting and (for young people 12-18) outdoor and wildlife photography.

Friday, June 1, from noon to 1 p.m., a fundraiser lunch will be served, with proceeds to benefit the Mt. St. Elias Dancers.

At 1 p.m., Forest Service biologist Melissa Cady will explain the basics of bird-watching. At 2 p.m. visitors can join with U.S. Forest Service wildlife technician and avid birder Gwen Baluss to learn about the Yakutat birds likely to be spotted on festival field trips.

Friday’s dinner, at 6 p.m., will be another fundraiser event for the awesome Mt. St. Elias Dancers, with a performance by the dance group to follow the meal.

At 2 p.m. Saturday, June 2, Bob Armstrong of Juneau will conduct a bird photography workshop discussing the best cameras, lenses and techniques for getting good photos. He will also cover “the good, the bad, and the ugly” or, how to photograph birds without disturbing them.

Believe me, this guy really knows his stuff. He’s a highly respected author, having written some of the very best Alaska birding books on the market. Bob also will be the Saturday-night keynote speaker, sharing a good number of his awesome photos of Arctic Terns and Black Oystercatchers and discussing the differences in their migration patterns.

On the last day of the festival, Gwen Baluss will demonstrate bird banding from 7 to 9 a.m.  Breakfast will be served from 8:30 to 10, with proceeds benefiting the Yakutat Tlingit Language Program.

A word about the rich variety of field trips (nine of them) through prime birding country offered throughout the festival: They vary from “easy” and are only two to three hours in length, to “easy to moderate” in three hours, plus “easy to moderate” in four hours. And (this sounds fabulous to me) there is a four-hour charter-boat option described at the festival Web site as “a  trip that will depart from the Yakutat Boat Harbor and explore the inshore waters of Monti Bay and Yakutat Bay.”

Equally attractive will be a kayak option that will depart from Sandy Beach or other local launch site and explore the inshore waters of Monti Bay and the mouth of the Ankau River. Weather permitting, kayakers may explore the shoreline of Khantaak Island, described as “a prime place for seabirds (such as a variety of gulls, scoters and cormorants). Common loons are abundant year round and Pacific Loons are common migrants.”

Interested in learning more about this incredible festival? (Or want to register for it online?) Visit the Web site http://www.yakutatternfestival.org.

Mike Miller lives in Juneau and, with oldest son Kevin, publishes a cruising Web site, http://www.AlaskaCruisingReport.com.

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