By Ryan Bassham
Photos by Matt McCormick
Almost 300 miles off the coast of Alaska, a 40-square mile volcanic island void of trees and vegetation sits in the middle of the Bering Sea. St. Paul Island, the largest of the Pribilof Islands, is one of the most unforgiving places a waterfowler could hope to visit in pursuit of North America’s holy grail of duck hunting. Somateria spectabilis. The King Eider.
Our first three mornings greet us with 40-80 mph winds, which turn the sea into a roiling cauldron of 30-foot waves. It’s too rough for the zodiac boats to safely get out of the harbor, so we hunt from shore and pass shoot Harlequin and Oldsquaw.
Through watery windblown eyes, we catch our first glimpses of King Eider as they cruise across the water going at least 50 mph with a tailwind. It’s exciting to finally see them, but we are confined to the shore for three straight days and can only watch helplessly as they pass out of reach.
King Eider spend their entire lives in polar regions, breeding on the Arctic coast of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia and wintering on the west coast of Greenland, eastern Canada, northern Norway, and here in the Bering Sea.
It doesn’t take long to understand why you hunt them from a boat; they thrive here due to an abundance of food at the perfect depth, and all the birds we see are flying the reefs off the coast. Though they can dive up to 90 feet, most of their food here is at an easily-reachable 60 feet. If you stand a chance at hunting these tenacious birds, you must meet them in their domain on the water.
January 1st. A new year, a break in the storm, and a window to the sea. The sun doesn’t rise until 10:30 a.m., so we set out in the dark. We load the zodiacs and head into the harbor.
Relentless waves crash across the breaker wall but we can’t see them in the dark, which is unnerving. We motor into the abyss with only the faint lights from the village lighting our way and navigate the reef vigilantly trying to discern smaller waves from the larger breaking waves. Eventually, the captain makes the call and sends us into the open water.
Once in place along the reef and lined up parallel to the swell, we deploy the decoy line. Every time we roll over a swell, the decoy line gets sucked under and jerks the boat back. Then, as a wall of water rises and rolls underneath us, our first King Eider buzz the handmade decoys in a surreal and fleeting moment. I stand to shoot, squeeze the trigger, and our first King Eider falls to the water.
With our first Eider in hand, we marvel at the bands of color on the drakes and revel in the moment with hugs, high fives and attempts to articulate the experience.
Seasickness sets in as the tide rises. We pull the decoys to the boat and approach the harbor with one major gauntlet between us and safety: two swells converge at the mouth of the St. Paul harbor and leave little room for error on reentry.
Our captain is stoic but still seems concerned. With the 35hp Tohatsu pinned, we follow the last wave of a set toward the breaker wall. With little warning, another swell from our right joins up with the swell we followed, slows down and begins to peak right behind us. We notice the dark shadow and stay ahead of the crest as it breaks. We skip safely into the harbor covered in sea scum with a story to tell and a whole new appreciation for the Bering Sea and our elusive quarry, the King Eider.