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Pioneering Alaska Pilot/Biologist Jim King Takes his Last Flight.

by Patricia Heglund, Homer Friend and retired USFWS Biologist

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.- Margaret Mead 

Jim King was one of those people who changed the world.  Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges lost a staunch advocate and conservation leader with his death in March at home in Juneau at the age of 97. Jim was such a gift to me when I was starting my graduate work and throughout the remainder of my life.  Jim’s remarkable life and many awards and achievements are documented in a touching memorial from his family and a Fish and Wildlife tribute. I’d like to focus on one place and a couple of stories to help Friends better understand the significance of Jim’s work.

I met Jim King in 1984 when I was a graduate student planning to conduct research on the new, Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Jim had a special knowledge of and affection for the Yukon Flats. He and his wife Mary Lou honeymooned at Fort Yukon while Jim flew aerial surveys and banded waterfowl. The work was for an environmental study of the potential effects of building a hydroelectric dam on the Yukon River at Rampart Canyon. As proposed, the dam would have flooded nine Alaska Native villages and tens of thousands of wetlands that were breeding grounds for 1 – 2 million ducks, geese and swans. The dam would have created a lake about the size of Lake Erie. Waterfowl that Jim and others banded at big lakes on the Yukon Flats, like Ohtig and Canvasback, were harvested in 46 states and over half of the Canadian Provinces. Based in part on Jim’s work, the US Fish and Wildlife Service strongly opposed dam construction and in 1967, Morris Udall, Secretary of the Interior, voiced his opposition to the dam. The project was canceled in 1971 eliminating the immediate threat to the people and waterfowl of the Flats and allowing for a different future for the land as a National Wildlife Refuge.

Jim King piloting N754 on a waterfowl survey. I was so inspired by flying with Jim that I got my pilot’s license.

Jim once told me a story of how he, and maybe others, photographed several areas of Alaska from his plane using a simple point and shoot camera. He created a picture book of recommended refuges, adding descriptions of the locations and details on the use of the area by breeding waterfowl. Jim took his book to Washington DC to the Secretary of the Interior. In 1980, several of the areas he documented were added to the National Wildlife Refuge System by President Jimmy Carter. I remember being amazed at how accessible someone like the Secretary of the Interior was to a flyway biologist back in the 1970’s. 

Jim King (right) and Bruce Conant taking a lunch break on the wing of N754, a deHavilland Beaver modified specifically for low level (less than 500 feet) wildlife surveys by the Fish & Wildlife Service.  This legendary plane, well-known all-over bush Alaska for over 35 years, now hangs in the Anchorage airport.

Jim’s and my friendship continued over the years. Jim hosted me at his house on Sunny Point and introduced me to his dear wife, Mary Lou, and their menagerie of waterfowl. In more recent years, Jim and I sat on a panel reviewing the biological program at Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Jim always sent me copies of his latest publications, including his last book, Attending Alaska’s Birds, fascinating reading for anyone who appreciates the history of Alaska. I last saw him at his home in 2019 when on his urging I finally brought my family to meet him.  Jim was developing dementia and I don’t think he really knew who I was. But nevertheless, Jim and Mary Lou welcomed us graciously. It’s hard to think of Jim as gone. When I think of him, I see him in a western-style shirt, scrimshawed bolo tie around his neck, smiling, relentless in his pursuit of conservation.   I am grateful to have known him.

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Get Out on a Refuge, Do Some Good, Volunteer!

by Poppy Benson, Friends Vice President for Outreach

Want to get to the Pribilofs or Izembek? Discover Tetlin? Get your hands on a duck? Share your love for Alaska Refuges with friendly people?   Our Alaska National Wildlife Refuges are looking for our help as they are dealing with short staffs and small budgets.   Here’s a sampler of volunteer opportunities.  See all the projects (some are new since the last newsletter) on our volunteer web page here.  

  • Share your knowledge of Alaska at Tetlin’s Interagency Visitor Center 
  • Band ducks on the Tetlin Refuge.
  • Real science: aging black brant at Izembek.
  • Or come on down to Homer May 8 – 12 for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival co-sponsored by Friends and the Alaska Maritime Refuge.  Sign up for Friends outreach here and for festival events here.
  • Spring clean a refuge – Kenai April 26-27, Alaska Maritime Homer April 20
  • Spread the good word about refuges at Outreach Booths at events in Seward, Soldotna, and Homer. 

Some volunteer jobs are just a few hours commitment and others offer a chance to spend a month on a refuge.  Take some time this summer to experience a refuge through helping.   For more information go to the web page or contact us at  Volunteer applications are online.

it’s a lively job working the Friends Outreach Table at the Kachemak Bay Shorebird  Festival and we need 15 – 20 people to cover all the shifts.  Sign up here.  Friends Rosa Meehan of Anchorage and Board President Marilyn Sigman of Homer working the booth at the 2023 Festival.  pc Becky Hutchinson

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Do You Want to Visit a Refuge? Volunteer, Volunteer, Volunteer!!!

Volunteer, Volunteer, Volunteer!!! by Poppy Benson, Vice President for Outreach

Setting up a Starlink solar system, deploying rat traps in the Pribilofs and teaching first aid in McGrath are three of the most unusual volunteer requests from the refuges this year.  And that always fun project of banding ducks for a week on the Tetlin Refuge is back for a 4th year as well as brant aging surveys on the Izembek Refuge in October.  Tetlin Refuge is also looking for visitor center help in Tok in 30 day shifts over the summer. Shorter term projects include helping with an Anchorage public meeting on rat eradication in the Aleutian Islands, building rat traps in Homer for the Alaska Maritime, a cleanup at the Maritime Visitor Center on April 20 (and expect one on the Kenai Refuge in May dates, TBD), and two big events – the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival and the Kenai Sports and Recreation Show.  

Friends cosponsors the Festival, May 8 – 12 in Homer, and volunteers are needed for Friends outreach– staffing our Outreach Table and the Birders’ Coffee–and for Festival events.  The Festival is our biggest project and traditionally our best source of new members and, its really fun.  Come on down to Homer and help out.  May 4 and 5 is the Kenai Sports and Recreation Show in Soldotna.  Friends are needed to help the Kenai Refuge with its activities and to do outreach for Friends and the Refuge.  

Some of these projects need help right away so don’t delay in checking them out  – the Starlink system, rat trap assembly and the first aid instructor for Innoko Refuge would ideally happen in March – April.  You can find all projects listed here including who to talk to for more information.  Applications are needed for most projects and you must be a member for most projects.  You can join or renew here. 

In addition, refuges with visitor centers – Kodiak, Kenai, Yukon Delta in Bethel and the Alaska Maritime in Homer – can always use help.  Contact the refuge.

Yes, there are fewer volunteer opportunities this year than last as only five refuges requested our help as opposed to seven last year.  I can only speculate that this is due to the refuges not having a budget as Congress only passed the budget last Friday.  And then there are the significant staff shortages.  It takes staff and money to plan projects.  Hopefully, with the budget resolved we might yet see some more projects for this year.


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Do You Want to Visit a Refuge?! Let’s go to the Aleutians

Do You Want to See the Aleutians? by Poppy Benson, Vice President for Outreach

February 2024’s presentation on the Aleut prehistory of the Aleutian Islands, might get you thinking, I want to go there.  So how?  Yes, the Aleutians are remote and stormy with minimal transportation but it is possible to visit at least a part of this fabulous volcanic island chain of seabirds and seals, wild flowers and wind, ancient ways and WWII history.  Nearly all of the Aleutians are in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Although there were hundreds of villages precontact there are only five now: Akutan, Unalaska, Nikolski, Atka and Adak, there are only 5 now.   Each has some form of commercial air transportation, but it may not be often and can be unreliable due to weather. Dutch Harbor/Unalaska and Adak are the easiest to access.   

Unalaska has it all: birds, whales, fish, culture, history, hiking, kayaking, volcanoes and fine accommodations.  The ferry Tustumena makes a monthly 3 day trip from Homer stopping for a full day in Kodiak with a chance to visit the  Kodiak Refuge and an afternoon in Cold Bay where Izembek Refuge staff may take you on a tour of refuge lands. Other village stops in Chignik Bay, Sand Point, King Cove and False Pass are brief but memorable.

Unalaska is famous with birders as the easiest place to see the whiskered auklet, a bird found only in the Aleutians and adjacent Russian islands.

Give yourself time to experience Unalaska by staying a few days and flying back.  A fine hotel, the Grand Aleutian, other lodging options and numerous restaurants make visiting comfortable.  Local guides can take you birding or to WWII sites.  Culture and history abound here with a historic Russian Orthodox Church, the Museum of the Aleutians, and the World War II Historic Site and Museum.  Most of the island is in the refuge.

Adak, 450 miles farther out the chain, is a very different experience.  Once a military base that was home to over 5000, only about 170 live there now.  The abandoned, crumbling base would make a good set for a zombie movie.  But the island boasts beaches, a lagoon packed with otters and Emperor geese, hiking trails, rare birds blown in from Asia, fishing and caribou and ptarmigan hunting.  Constructed almost overnight during WWII, Adak was an important base right up to the 1990s.  Alaska Air flies twice a week and mileage tickets can be cheap.  Former military housing, now privately owned, can be rented but bring your food as shopping is minimal.  The Alaska Maritime Refuge has a satellite office with a few exhibits.  Bird companies lead tours to Adak for the fall and spring migration. 

Dutch Harbor, Unalaska’s port, is the number one fishing port in the US and the burly fishing fleet, popularized in the reality show Deadliest Catch, adds a unique element.

The small villages of Akutan, Nikolski and Atka are much harder to visit.  Grant Aviation flies but weather can shut them down for days on end.  Nikolski has a small lodge but in the other villages you need to speak to the village corporation to find out about housing.   This would be quite an experience for the self-sufficient and culturally aware person.  

To visit any of the other 70 plus islands in the chain you will have to find a boat.  In some years, a cruise ship will pass through the chain visiting uninhabited islands.  Search online because no company does it regularly.  Attu, the holy grail of birding and WWII history, is nearly impossible to get to since the Coast Guard left in 2010 leaving the island uninhabited with no maintenance on the runway.  Attu, the last island in the chain, was occupied by the Japanese and the site of a major WWII battle. A fascinating place but I just don’t think you can get there now.  But visit what you can of this wildlife refuge so unique in wildlife, land forms and history.