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WINGS Birding Tours – Information

Alaska: Gambell in Spring

Tour Information

Note: The information presented below has been extracted from our formal General Information for this tour.  It covers topics we feel potential registrants may wish to consider before booking space.    The complete General Information for this tour will be sent to all tour registrants and of course supplemental information, if needed, is available from the WINGS office.

ENTERING THE UNITED STATES: Non-United States citizens will need a valid passport and may need a tourist visa. Consult your nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate for details. 

TOUR DELAYS: Alaska tours include lots of internal flights. Flight delays due to fog or other circumstance are always possible. Often these delays are just a few hours but about 25% of the time we are delayed a day at Gambell either going to or coming from the village. On rare occasions Alaska tour participants have been delayed for several days. If we are delayed, we will do our best to cancel the relevant forward bookings and apply the refunds to the extra costs at our current location. However, the uncovered costs of the delay, if any, are the responsibility of the participant. These extra costs are sometimes recoverable on travel insurance policies. Check with your provider. 

PACE OF TOUR: This is a tiring tour. Our birding at Gambell will at times seem continuous, but as we stay at a single location and bird within a small area around the lodge it is always possible to take some down time when desired. Weather permitting we typically sea-watch at 6 am and bird much of the day, and sometimes in the evening too if rarities have appeared Remember, it never gets dark!. We try to schedule some time off after lunch. Days on the Nome extension will also seem long due to long drives and long daylight hours. 

We have ATVs at our disposal but there are times when it makes birding sense to walk….and walking can be tiring. Loose and rounded beach gravel, snow and slush, puddles and hummocks, the craters and mounds of the “boneyards”, and the steep mountainside with its tricky footing on boulders between deep drifts of snow are all activities that could occur during a day’s birding. 

Although we do not schedule rigorous activities (except north of Nome when we look for Bristle-thighed Curlew, if the road is open), walking over uneven ground and spongy tundra and gravel is inevitable, as are periods of rain or snow. One should be in reasonable shape. 

HEALTH: Alaska presents no major health hazards. Perhaps the most serious problems stem from the use of inadequate gear (see FIELD CLOTHING section below).  

Participants on trips to Gambell should understand that they will be isolated from all but the most rudimentary medical care. Local residents have built a clinic, but care is rudimentary with no full time doctor, and air transport to a hospital can easily be prevented by bad weather. Reasonably good health should be considered a prerequisite for trips here.

Insects: Insects can be a nuisance in early June around Nome (most years they are not a problem) and especially around Anchorage. There are no biting insects at Gambell.  Ample supplies of repellent and suitable clothing are the best protection. We recommend using insect repellent with a high concentration of DEET.

Care must be taken, however, to avoid getting the DEET repellent on optical equipment as DEET dissolves rubber and plastic and can damage coated lenses. Camping supply stores and outfitters carry some reasonably effective alternatives, which contain natural products that are not corrosive. 

We do not recommend head nets as they are hot and make the use of binoculars difficult. 

Persons with allergic reactions to insect bites should consult their physician before scheduling a summer trip to Alaska. 

Smoking: Smoking is prohibited in the vehicles or when the group is gathered for meals, checklists, etc. If you are sharing a room with a nonsmoker, please do not smoke in the room. If you smoke in the field, do so well away and downwind from the group. If any location where the group is gathered has a stricter policy than the WINGS policy, that stricter policy will prevail. 

Miscellaneous: While large mammals can be dangerous, they pose little threat if a few common sense rules are followed. Although grizzly bear and others are easily seen in some parts of our Alaskan itineraries, we’ve only once (in 30 years) had an unsettling encounter with a wild mammal. We’ll brief you on appropriate conduct before entering areas with bear, moose, etc. 

CLIMATE: Coastal weather is normally cool to cold. Gambell and Nome experience freezing temperatures into late June, and mid-summer maximums are usually in the low 50s F. Late May and early June temperatures range between 25° and 40° F. Wind, rain, and snow occur frequently, often in rapidly changing combinations.

Temperatures at inland localities, including Nome, are milder: 40s (sometimes 30’s) to high 50s F. in late May and early June, but in some years can be much higher, even into the high 70’s and once into the high 80’s! Rain is always possible.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Other than at Gambell (see below), we stay at standard motels or hotels throughout the tour. 

GAMBELL: Gambell is a Yupik village comprised of about 600 people located at northwestern tip of St. Lawrence Island, roughly 200 miles southwest of Nome.  Sivuqaq is the Yupik language name for St. Lawrence Island and for Gambell, as well as the name of the lodge where we stay. We visit Gambell by explicit consent, as the native corporation has the authority to control access. Most of the village income is derived from walrus hunting, the sale of raw or carved ivory and artifacts, and from government subsidies. Carvings and artifacts are available locally and purchase is one very tangible way of benefiting the local economy. If you plan to buy any such items while in Gambell, bring sufficient cash, including smaller bills (though personal checks are also widely accepted). 

In the now distant past we experienced hostility from Gambell residents but in the last fifteen years we have had almost no problems;  we should emphasize that the vast majority of locals are very friendly.  It is important to note that alcoholic beverages are not permitted at Gambell or anywhere on St Lawrence Island. If you are found with any alcoholic beverages, you will be asked to leave the Island. 

SIVUQAQ INN:  Our accommodation at the Sivuqaq Inn consists of nine bedrooms (double occupancy), four of which are in the main lodge and the remainder in the adjacent annex. We share the lodge with another large group in the spring so it’s usually very crowded. Single accommodations will likely not be available at Gambell, or may only be possible for part of our stay at Gambell. Sometimes we may not know what’s going to happen with rooming until you arrive at the lodge. There are six bathrooms with flush toilets; four of the bathrooms have showers (bring your own soap and shampoo; you might want to bring your own towel, just to be sure). 

King Eider Hotel, St Paul, Pribilofs: Single rooms are often not available in spring. We will stay in the hotel wing at the airport, a basic but comfortable hallway with 20 rooms and a lounge. Remodels were recently completed and all rooms now have private bathrooms.

Internet:There is internet (including Wi-Fi) available in the hotel in Anchorage. Wi-Fi is not currently available at the Sivuqaq Lodge in Gambell, so unless you have a local cell phone plan (see below), be prepared to not have internet access for the duration of the time in Gambell.  Wi-Fi is available at our Nome lodging.

Note: Cell phones do not work on Gambell unless you have a SIM card from the local Alaskan carrier GCI, but AT&T phones do work in Nome (data can be very slow but the phone service works).

FOOD: The first night’s dinner in Anchorage and the dinners taken in Nome are in standard restaurants.

NOTE ABOUT FOOD AT GAMBELL: The meals we offer at Gambell are very different from anything else offered on any other WINGS tour, as one of our leaders acts as our own cook – planning the menu months in advance, shipping non-perishables several weeks early, shopping in Anchorage for perishables two days prior to the tour, and preparing all of our meals in the Sivuqaq Inn kitchen. An early cold breakfast and a later complete hot breakfast; lunch with soups made from scratch and sandwiches on homemade bread; delicious, wholesome dinners; and fabulous desserts and snacks baked from scratch are aa wonderful as they are unexpected.  As mentioned elsewhere, there is no alcohol at Gambell, so drinks are limited to water, coffee, tea, and juices prepared from concentrate. 

Snacks are always available, including fresh fruit, mixed nuts, energy or other granola bars, popcorn, and occasional baked goods, but if you have very specific needs, you might consider bringing your own. Meal times are flexible, depending on other groups sharing the kitchen and dining facilities; any participant who needs to eat earlier or later than the times scheduled for the group should merely let the cook know; leftovers are usually available and can be reheated at any time. Please contact the WINGS office if you have any questions. 

NOTE ABOUT FOOD ON ST PAUL: In recent years meals were served at the kitchen room of the hotel by our local leaders. These meals generally consisted of a continental-style breakfast (oatmeal, cereal, bread, fruit, coffee/tea and yoghurt), a soup and sandwich for lunch and a two-course dinner including options for vegetarians and a salad.  Note that the island is basically dry, and no beer or wine is available at mealtimes. If desired, and if time allows we may be able to stop at the island’s beer store for provisions. There is a refrigerator available in the common room of the hotel.

Food Allergies / Requirements: Please let the WINGS office know as soon as you sign up of any food allergies, sensitivities, and severe dislikes. We can accommodate most preferences but we need to know all pertinent details well in advance as we plan the menu months in advance and start shipping food to Gambell weeks before the tour’s start date. It simply will not be possible to accommodate any last-minute notifications. Please contact the WINGS office if you have any questions.

TRANSPORTATION: The Anchorage-Nome flights are on commercial airliners, typically 737s. The Nome-Gambell flights are on small prop planes. Transportation is on foot and by ATV while on St Lawrence island; and by 15-passenger van or SUV while in Nome. Participants should be able to ride in any seat in our tour vehicles.

A note on ATV use at Gambell: We’ll provide one ATV for each two participants. We’ll provide a brief course in ATV operation at the start of our stay but each participant will be asked to sign a specific liability waiver in which they will acknowledge that the operation of an ATV involves some personal risk, and that (as in any rental contract) any damage (including the loss of the keys) incurred to the ATV’s will be the responsibility of the driver.  Please note as well that there may be situations where the leaders, for birding reasons, will ask the group to walk. One should be in reasonable shape and expected to walk up to a mile at a time.

Updated: 02 July 2024