Bonnie Kenk's Alaskan Adventure:
PEAC Comes to Alaska
|by Garry Wallan|
Where did the time go? It seemed like just a moment ago when Liz Wilson came to Alaska for the 2000 Companion Bird Conference. It seemed like only yesterday when Layne Dicker came to Alaska for the very first Alaska Bird Club conference in 1999 in which I was chosen to be the Dicker Handler.
The early evening of June 1, 2001 developed to find me standing at gate B6 of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (thankful that the Senator's proper name was not Theodore Branson-Hershey McGillvary-Stevens) awaiting the emergence of Bonnie Kenk, Executive Director of the Parrot Education and Adoption Center (PEAC), commonly pronounced "PEE-ACK" by Weakest Links and "PEACE" by Golden Ones of Infinite Wisdom.
While I had missed out on being the Wilson Handler last year, I was in the driver's seat this year as the "Bonnie Wrangler." As she stepped out of the jetway, I yelled "Yo, yo, yo, Bonnie K!" to which she replied with a strangled scream and an instant retreat (OK, so I didn't "yo-yo-yo" - it would have been cool, though). Bonnie stepped off the plane and we were instantly on our way to the mini-van because Bonnie traveled light with just the clothes on her back and a rolling carry-on bag at her heels. Little did Bonnie know that she was poised on the edge of three days and two nights of gut crunching Alaskan adventure! OK, so forget the "nights" part . . . it's pretty much all "days" this time of year.
After a May of snow and grey weather, the first day of June had opened with clear blue skies, puffy clouds, and temperatures in the high 60's. Though possibly a wintery day for a person from San Diego, it was a sultry summer heat wave for the denizens of the North. We hit the road and I immediately started telling lies about Anchorage: ". . . founded in 1948 by escaped convicts from an Oklahoma chain gang, the population of Anchorage has grown to nearly two million thanks to cloning experiments and strange genetic excursions. Anchorage is home to a varied array of wildlife including radioactive pythons with bees in their mouths and 20-meter crocs that'll rip yer arm off! Crikey!"
Bonnie laughed politely, which only made me continue. Bonnie also confessed that before she left home, she had told her husband that "her stomach was going to hurt after this trip." I took this to mean that she was expecting a roaring case of salmonella with a giardia chaser, or she was expecting to laugh a lot as she weathered our efforts to make the PEACnik guffaw until she blew wine out of her nose. While neither the former nor the latter ever came to pass, we came close on the second item on a number of occasions, which I will share later in this story.
I took Bonnie on a quick tour of the Hillside area of Anchorage which provided a spectacular view of the town in the foreground and Mount McKinley in the background. Before I continue, I need to explain something to my Alaskan readers: I have given up on trying to get people to refer to The Mountain correctly, so now I call The Mountain "McKinley" (as has been ingrained in generations of rug rats) and the park around it "Denali." Though The Mountain has had numerous other names provided by the indigenous peoples of Alaska, I will bow to the Powers That Be and simply fall back to the imposed name of a dead Caucasian from Ohio. Next thing you know, they will be calling Mt. Foraker "Mt. Clinton" and Sleeping Lady "Monica."
To take advantage of the good weather, we made a side trip up Eagle River Road through Eagle River Valley to the Eagle River Visitor's Center, which is east of the town of . . . anyone? . . . anyone? . . . EAGLE RIVER. Even I was surprised at the warmth of the air and the dearth of wind in a zone known for cold rain and large gusts. The high peaks of the narrow valley were bathed in sunlight, making the springtime colors sharp and clear. Even the pile of bear scat was picturesque! Bonnie and I walked down one of the nature trails, noting the "Bears Sighted" warning signs. I shared what little bear lore I knew and suggested that if we were accosted by a black bear, we should stand our ground and act like hormonal cockatoos on methamphetamine. If a grizzly bear appeared, we should act like mammals who soil themselves when frightened.
The trail lead to a pier that extended out into a lake created when the damn beavers built a damned dam. We gazed into the shallow, clear water and wondered at the composition of the scummy lake bottom. Being the great outdoorsman that I am, I noted the existence of fish tracks, a sure sign of piscatorial presence in the dammed waters, but Bonnie gave me a look that said volumes about my being full of excrement. Suddenly, out of the brush near the edge of the lake, a seething feathered fury emerged. A Merganser (also known as "a duck") had appeared, armed with an army of miniature Merganser replicants. Some of them were swimming, but some were riding on the back of the adult "duck" as if on an amphibious attack craft. Sure, she looked like "mommy duck" with her cute little "baby ducks," but I could sense their violent, ducky ways. With murder in their eyes, they swam by the pier. My sphincter clenched. My breath abated. I gathered enough air to plaintively call "Here duck-duck-duck-duck-duck-duck." The parental attack duck immediately swerved away from my position and dived into the water, emerging on the far side of the pier. Sensing my anti-duck luck, I repeated my defensive call: "Here duck-duck-duck-duck-duck-duck." The Merganser Mom bolted away, trailing a fan of scrambling baby Death Ducks behind her.
On our way back up the trail to the mini-van, glorying in our triumph over being pecked to death by Mergansers, we suddenly heard the sound of something large walking through the dry underbrush - for real! Confident that no bear could catch me due to the slippery trail of poo I would leave behind as I ran screaming for the nearest tree, I paused to localize the sound. We cautiously made our way further up the trail and I suddenly exclaimed "I see it, Bonnie! Wait!" Bonnie, fresh off the plane and now in fear of having her brain punctured by a bite from Yogi, stood motionless as I explained: "It's a bear . . . wearing a blue sweatshirt and walking a dog." In fact, some moronic human had decided to leave the trail and walk cross-country with Fido in tow, crunching through the underbrush like a wayward bruin. We politely greeted dog and master and secretly hoped that the Mergansers would return and feast upon their entrails. Speaking of secret thoughts, ravens told me later that Bonnie had mentally called me a "&!*#^@!-&%#*$% with a tiny #+^!% and a head full of @#$*!" for frightening her. In fact, my #+^!% is not so tiny and my head is full of pure #&*%^^#$, thank you very much.
We made it back to the mini-van with no further wildlife encounters, and headed back to Anchorage for dinner at "Gwennie's" restaurant, the home of Big Food. After good conversation and good eats, I drove Bonnie to the Northern Lights Bed and Breakfast, nestled beneath the beautiful Chugach foothills on the east side of Anchorage. This was the same B&B Liz Wilson stayed at during her 2000 visit. Ravens later informed me that Bonnie carved her initials in the headboard right next to "Liz was here 2000 brawwwwk!"
The day of the conference was YAGAD (Yet Another Glorious Alaskan Day). So far, all three conferences have enjoyed good weather, so we will continue the practice of sacrificing small furry animals on an obsidian altar the week prior to the conference. No, wait . . . that was for the Avian Fertility Ritual. The YAGAD ritual was the naked-people-in-blue-paint thing where we danced around the fire after smoking "herbs." I have such a problem getting all this administrative detail sorted out!
After an introduction by Alaska Bird Club President, Karen Webster, Bonnie stepped up to the podium and we were off to the races. Over the course of the day, Bonnie did slide presentations on "PEAC" and on "Parrot Safety," and talked about "Sex and the Single Parrot" and "Parrot Behavior." As in previous conferences, there always seemed to be at least one person who got their eyes opened wide by the information presented. One such person took copious notes and occasionally mumbled things that sounded like "I'm a bad bird Mom!"
Bonnie's talk on "Sex and the Single Parrot" happened after lunch and completely countered the normal tendency for fed people to doze in the afternoon warmth. In fact, Bonnie kept turning the most interesting shades of crimson when she made references to various aspects of unhealthy human-avian relationships. One woman asked "When you talk about that 'rubbing the vent on the finger' thing, are you talking about masss . . . turrr . . . " to which Bonnie quickly interjected "Yes. Masturbation. Yes. Next question." as her face took on the hue of a ripe hothouse tomato.
After the conference, we returned the Campbell Creek Science Center auditorium to it's original upright and locked position, packed the cars, and headed to dinner. On the way, shortly after leaving the Science Center, I spied a moose walking in the woods on the left side of the road. I stopped the mini-van and gave Bonnie a chance to take a picture. My wife, Carrie, seeing me parked on the gravel road, thought I wanted to talk to her, so she pulled up next to the mini-van, and thus blocked our view. We hollered "The moose! The moose!" to which she replied "Yeah, I know, I've seen them before. What did you want to talk about?" After gently explaining that we had stopped to allow Bonnie to take a photograph and that Mrs. Wallan needed to move her G.D. car, Bonnie was finally able to take a picture of the north end of a southbound moose which had almost totally disappeared into the alders. What a priceless Alaskan memento: a picture of a big, brown moose butt. Strangely enough, this played into an odd event the next day.
The post-conference decompression dinner was held at the Sourdough Mining Company, a rustic venue with food left over from the 1898 Gold Rush. Though we did not visit the adjacent Alaska Wild Berry Products candy factory, I understood that they offered a spectacular view of a chocolate waterfall. I believe they also had Oompa Loompas working in the bowels of the facility, assisted by Smurfs, and Shrek-like ogres. At the dinner were Bonnie Kenk, Jean Feakes (all the way from Juneau!), Karen Webster, Melanie Roble, Carrie Wallan, and myself. It was generally a low-key, relaxing event, though I did try, unsuccessfully, to make Bonnie laugh and blow wine from her nostrils, and Karen Webster did accidentally stray into the Men's restroom, a mistake she noted from a seated position when she realized there were urinals in the room.
After dinner, Bonnie and Jean climbed into the mini-van for a ride back to their B&B. I activated the radio and was greeted by a vocally emotive opera on the classical station. I proceeded to lip-sync the words and physically act out the opera, much to the distress of Bonnie who, had she been sipping wine, would have become a nasal Mount. St. Helens. Suddenly, to enhance the moment, I changed the station to something different and caught the signature line of "Oh Yeah!" by Yello (that's the song with the catchy beat and the gravelly voice saying "Ohhhh, yeahhhhhh"). A quick punch on the radio controls brought us back to the opera and I continued my phony lip-sync without missing a beat.
We all erupted in laughter.
As she left the parking lot, Karen Webster saw us and thought we looked like a bunch of hysterical spider monkeys on crack. The perfect juxtaposition of the two musical components released pent-up tension created by travel and conference preparation, and triggered a potent storm of laughter that made us all sick, sore, and gasping for breath. During the 20-minute drive to the B&B, we spontaneously started giggling over the incident which led to new gusts of laughter. Of course, now, whenever I try to explain this hilarious development to people, they just stare at me as if I have lobsters climbing out of my pants . . . but Bonnie and Jean understand! Ohhhh, yeahhhhhh!
The Sunday of Bonnie's adventure was sunny, but clouds were gathering to the southwest and the forecast called for liquid sunshine in the afternoon. Bonnie and I waited at the rallying point for other bird club trekkers, but the only one to show up was The Prez, Karen Webster, so the Three Amigos hit the road to Seward to see the scenery, the town, and the Alaska SeaLife Center.
The trip down the Seward Highway was uneventful, except for a supremely emotional moment as we passed the "Layne Dicker 'Shitload of Eagles' Rest Area and Sandbox Stop." The tide was in and there were no eagles, unless of course they had drowned, or were wearing little eagle dry suits and scuba tanks and were playing Sea Hunt at the bottom of Cook Inlet.
We arrived in Seward just past noon and proceeded immediately to the Alaska SeaLife Center, a research, rehabilitation, and educational facility with information displays and tanks of exotic North Pacific sea life such as salmon, crabs, shrimp, octopi, sea birds, and sea lions. They even had a big, dead squid which had been necropsied the previous day! It was really weird seeing shrimp without cocktail sauce, crab without butter, salmon swimming free of my fishing gear, and the baby harbor seals, alive and well and not turned into garments.
At the end of our walk through the facility, we found ourselves in a darkened area with chairs and a continuous video presentation about the wildlife in Alaska. The video was narrated by some cute kid, or some wacky adult who just sounded like a cute kid. At one point in the presentation, the narrator introduced a moose and proclaimed them to be his favorite animal. He also mentioned that moose have "the biggest antlers" . . . at least, that's what we suspected was in the script. The little-kid pacing of the statement accompanied by the little-kid slurring of the words resulted in a line that sounded like "they're my favorite because moose have big-ass antlers."
For those of you who know me and immediately thought "Oh that Garry! He always twists things so they sound dirty!" be aware that immediately after the innocent utterance regarding antler size, both Bonnie and Karen looked at each other, totally independent of me, and mouthed the words "Big-Ass Antlers???" The rest of the audience, apparently under the spell of some kind of calming pharmaceutical, sat silently oblivious to "Big-Ass Antlers" and wondered at the stiffled laughter of the three goofs in the back of the room. This development, coupled with Bonnie's butt-end photo of a real moose from the previous day (as well as a totally unrelated story involving a donkey) prompted me to suggest a special bumper sticker to commemorate Bonnie's trip: "I Saw The Big-Ass Moose!"
That was just the beginning of the fun at the Alaska SeaLife Center! A little over a year ago, Michelle Miller of the SeaLife Center came to an Alaska Bird Club meeting and talked about their various sea bird research projects. One of the projects involved breeding Tufted Puffins, or as we call them, Alaskan Sea Parrots. However, the gender of the Puffins was not known, so the bird club donated money to solve that part of the puzzle. On our current trip, we received a side benefit of that donation when Michelle arranged for a guided "behind the scenes" tour of the SeaLife Center. In the capable tutelage of our guide, Rob, we walked though the bowels of the SeaLife center and saw: the breeding boxes in which a Puffin had deposited an egg two days earlier; the various holding tanks and preparation rooms for incoming sea life; the massive pumps, filtration, and ozone systems; the warp drive; the docking bay for the Admiral Nelson's "Seaview" submarine; and the Mrs. Paul's Fish Stick Machine.
One of the big attractions was a massive Steller's Sea Lion named Wally. Wally gracefully glided through the water like an animated, grey torpedo. Small, almost dismissive movements of his flippers propelled the massive body through the water in a hydrodynamic ballet that completely belied his onshore appearance in which he moved like Jabba the Hut (or a "sack of fat" for those of you who never saw "Star Wars"). We later found out that "Wally" was actually named "Woody" much to the embarrassment of the SeaLife Center staff who had to field questions and comments from the public such as "How big is Woody?" "Does shrinkage make Woody look smaller in the water?" and "I've seen bigger Woodies!" Of course, on this day, such questions only came from three members of the visiting public. All the Woody talk gave rise to comments about oosiks, which we had to explain to Bonnie and which SHE will happily explain to you if you are not familiar with the term. I think we scared all the normal people away when the oosik talk began, especially the family with the little girl who was taking an unholy interest in our conversation. I imagine that their trip home was interesting and I envision a lot of family therapy in their future.
The highlight of the SeaLife Center tour was the sea bird rookery. A huge water tank provided an ocean-like environment for the assembled Guillemots, Kittiwakes, and Tufted Puffins. Above the tank rose a rock cliff with burrows leading back into the dark safety of nesting boxes. All this was enclosed in a large outdoor area with a roof overhead and flexible netting screening the sides to prevent escape from within as well as intrusion from without. Two Puffins, Fabio and Trailer Trash, cavorted in the water and on the cliff. An unidentified male Puffin nurtured a three-way romance as he nuzzled two attentive hens. A Kittiwake, which I affectionately nicknamed "Butthead" strafed us repeatedly. With a background in sea bird rehabilitation (including a checkered history hand-launching Ruddy ducks), Bonnie was captivated by the avian display around her. Imagine her surprise, and our dumbfounded amazement at the way the universe works, when our guide, Rob, mentioned that they were clicker training the birds! Our first reaction was to call Layne Dicker and ask him to send an official Dicker Clicker for use in the project! I'm sure Layne would have selected the correct model of clicker by using the speedy, automated Dicker Clicker Quicker Picker, which would have undoubtedly been blessed by the Dicker Clicker Quicker Picker Vicar.
Part of the training process involved desensitizing the birds to the appearance of different people at feeding time, so Bonnie was allowed to be the Guest Intruder. A faint click brought all the birds streaming to the fake cliff. As if from a James Bond movie, a secret door in the rock opened, and Bonnie Kenk emerged, appearing to be a Seabird Goddess as yummy shrimp was tossed to the assembled feathered congregation. After the feeding, Bonnie retreated back into the secret fake-rock lair and emerged in the viewing area with the other normal mortals.
Our guide, Rob, and his assistant, Heather, warned us that the Kittiwakes had a tendency to eat way too much and yak up part of their meal. Within minutes, Butthead started his attack run. He flew circuits across the room, purposely flying into the flexible netting and bouncing back towards the other side of the enclosure like some demented WWF champion. Suddenly, Butthead dove towards Bonnie and released a mass of shrimp from his gullet. The slimy payload splattered across a rock behind Bonnie and up a wall, peppering a Kittiwake display with chunks of bird dinner that slowly slid to the floor, leaving a slime trail as if from a leaky snail. Even we seasoned parrot people, who have been the recipient of more than one sticky blob of regurgitate from our loving avian companions, could only stare in disgust and say "Ewwwwwwwwwww!"
With apologies to Robert Service and his poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee," the following poetic fragment popped into my mind:
The Bombing of Bonnie K.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the folks who toil for birds;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make you lose your words;
The Northern Lights have seen odd sights,
But the oddest I must say
Was that time in the wake of Lake LeFake
Butthead barfed near Bonnie K.
We spent a few more minutes with the sea birds and then bade farewell to Rob, Heather, Butthead, Fabio, Trailer Trash, and our large friend Woody. We visited the gift shop and then left the SeaLife Center for our trip back to Anchorage, with a brief stop at a quaint little clothing shop in Seward that had cute li'l bunnies running around outside. To get to this clothing shop, we passed a place called "Zippy's Alaska Spice Company: Fresh Fudge." Now, I'm not sure how that all works together, and I tried to imagine Cajun or Schezuan fudge, but the image did not equate to "yummy." Perhaps this will be food for another story in the future.
The homeward trip gave us a chance to revisit the fun of the last few days and provided us the opportunity to discover the thrill of Rumble Strips. Rumble Strips are sequential grooves cut into pavement that create a strong vibration when a vehicle strays too far towards the lane divider or the shoulder. They provide a physical and aural sensation intended to startle an inattentive driver back to the real world. A side benefit is that Rumble Strips can turn the entire vehicle into a giant vibrating appliance. Not that we purposely used Rumble Strips that way! We simply made an empirical observation . . . over, and over, and over, and over.
Our journey returned us to Anchorage in time for dinner at the Moose's Tooth restaurant, home of really good pizza, and many forms of yeasty, malty, beery beverages, including a green apple ale that, to quote myself from Liz Wilson's visit last year "they better have in Heaven or I'm not going!" Afterwards, fed and exhausted, we all headed to our various domiciles to recover from the trip.
The next morning, I had one last duty to perform as the Bonnie Wrangler. At 6:00 AM I arrived at the B&B and transported Bonnie to the airport for her trip back to San Diego with a brain full of odd memories, and the knowledge that there is still a Merganser out there with her name on it.
I want to thank Karen Webster, Melanie Roble, Leanna Rein, Carrie Wallan, and Beth Wallan for their help with the conference this year. We will do it again next year, so plan on joining us for the 2002 Alaska Bird Club Companion Bird Conference. If you are not from Alaska, make the conference your excuse to travel North to see the Greatland. Perhaps you will have an adventure and see a Big-Ass Moose, a barfing Kittiwake, a large Woody, or some other bizarre form of Alaskan wildlife. If not that, there are always the Rumble Strips!
The conference is tentatively scheduled for sometime in June, 2002. We don't know who the speaker(s) may be, but we have some interesting plans; only time will tell! Watch our newsletter or periodically visit our web sites at http://communitynews.adn.com/239/ and http://www.alaska.net/~liveware/tabc/
We hope to see you next year . . . Ohhhh, yeahhhhhh!
Return to the Cage Floor
© 2001 Aviantics
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