ALASKA SPECIAL ISSUE: Bristol Bay : Wallowing in Walruses : On remote, windblown Round Island, two-ton wonders rule the roost

Hill is an Anchorage-based free-lance writer

Each spring and summer, this craggy speck of land in southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay hosts one of nature's biggest bachelor parties: a noisy gathering of between 4,000 and 8,000 Pacific male walruses.

The two-ton wonders, whose convergence here represents the largest land concentration of walruses in North America, come to Round Island to rest and feed on the bay's abundant supply of fish after a winter of breeding on the ice floes of the Bering and Chukchi seas about 1,000 miles north.

Humans are welcome to join the party on Round Island, which at two miles long and one mile wide is the fourth largest of the seven islands that make up the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary. But as my husband and I discovered on our own late-June visit, the faint of heart need not apply.

Access to Round Island is by permit only, with about 150 visitors arriving per year. Getting there from our home in Anchorage entailed a 1 1/2-hour plane ride northwest to Dillingham, followed by a 45-minute flight to a tiny Yupik Eskimo village called Twin Hills, where we spent the night at a nearby fish cannery before boarding a boat for a 90-minute, open-water crossing to the island.

Wilderness camping is the only lodging option on Round Island, and there are no visitor facilities--unless you count the one-seater outhouse that doubles as the island's library.

And weather, always a factor in Alaska, assumes an even greater importance on Round Island. Conditions can change quickly and often can be fierce, with rain and winds up to 60 m.p.h., testing even the sturdiest equipment.

But for wildlife watchers, the rewards are significant: flocks of black-legged kittiwakes, common murres, cormorants and puffins, Steller sea lions; a small, often skittish population of red foxes; and, of course, the walruses.

The latter, we learned, are often oblivious to their two-legged admirers. During one memorable encounter a few hundred yards from our campsite on the island's northeast shore, we crawled on our bellies across a swath of spongy, mosslike tundra and came within several yards of a dozen massive, red-brown walruses. A rather uncouth bunch, they ignored us as they grunted, groaned, broke wind and wallowed on top of each other in a dogged attempt to get the very best slab of rock on which to while away the day.

Every visit to Round Island begins on the mainland with an overnight stay at Togiak Fisheries, a haphazard collection of tin-and-wood buildings that look as though they were assembled by our 3-year-old. The cannery sits about two miles across Togiak Bay from the Yupik Eskimo village of Togiak (pop. 613) and is the year-round home of salmon fisherman and charter-boat operator Don Winkelman.

Unless you have your own boat--and can somehow get it to southwest Alaska--the affable, craggy-faced Winkelman is a visitor's only hope of making the 35-mile, 90-minute (weather permitting) crossing to Round Island. For $350 per person, Winkelman will put you up for the night in a sturdy, six-cot tent (with a floor). He'll also provide a hearty breakfast at the cannery mess hall (where you eat alongside bleary-eyed, seasonal workers getting ready for their next 12- or 18-hour day) before ferrying you to Round Island in his partially covered, 28-foot aluminum power boat, the Puffin.

Perhaps more importantly, he'll come back for you when your time on the island is up.

Our own crossing, in calm seas, was blessedly uneventful. When we arrived on the island, we were greeted by the island's three departing guests and a handful of walruses playing hide-and-seek in the waves a few yards offshore. The former had just endured five days of nonstop rain and tent-toppling winds. They swore they'd had a wonderful time.

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Round Island, though windblown and devoid of trees, is surprisingly lush. Its wide, rocky beaches are party central for the visiting walruses, and its steep, furrowed flanks are covered with tundra and patches of wildflowers.

After hauling our gear up the wet cliffs, we sat nestled in waist-high grass to chat with the two biologists stationed here from May to mid-August. The women were spending their first summer working on and caring for the island. One was fresh from a post in Antarctica, where she studied krill, a crustacean, while her partner had traded in an Anchorage office job responding to panicked calls about bear sightings (a not-unheard-of occurrence, even in Anchorage).

As we learned that first afternoon, Round Island rules are few: Camp only in designated sites. Be kind to the fragile tundra by staying on the estimated mile-and-a-half of narrow, often slippery trails. Don't clamber down to the beaches. And don't do anything to spook the resident wildlife. Whether it's true or just a means of deterring smokers, we were told that cigarette smoke can clear the beach of walruses.

The weather that first day was glorious: sunny, calm and so warm that we needed only light windbreakers. Taking advantage of the benign conditions, we set up our tent in one of about a dozen designated campsites and headed straight for a grassy ledge above the beach where Round Island's most famous residents were waiting.

Walruses look as if they were designed by committee. Their heads are incredibly small and appear to be plopped directly onto their shoulders, which are covered with knobby lumps.

Their muzzled faces are friendly in a hang-dog sort of way, with short, stiff whiskers. Ivory tusks, which are actually overgrown canine teeth and are found on both males and females, can reach 31 inches. While Department of Fish and Game workers jokingly refer to the walruses as "fanged yams," their scientific name is Odobenus rosmarus divergens, literally "red tooth walker." Walruses don't actually use their tusks to walk--you'd be stretching it to call their wallowing motions walking--but rather to pull themselves up onto the Arctic ice and along the shallow ocean floors, where they feed on snails, clams, crabs and worms.

For thousands of years, Eskimo hunters have plied Bristol Bay in search of Pacific walruses. Round Island, known to local Eskimos as Qayaciq ("place to go in a kayak") was their favored site. The hunting was excellent, and the rocky beaches provided a good, clean surface on which to butcher the kill.

Although they now make use of modern foods and building materials, Eskimos still eat walrus flesh and use their tusks for making tools, carvings, jewelry and other crafts. As a result, native residents of Togiak are petitioning the state to ease the 35-year-old sanctuary's no-hunting policy.

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That afternoon, however, the recent debate seemed irrelevant as we walked the island's trails, stopping along its eastern side to watch as many as 40 walruses that had hauled themselves up on a rocky beach. As we angled up the island's steep flank, we came upon a red fox sleeping just off the trail, its bushy tail wrapped around it like a muffler. At the island's far southern end, we crouched to watch a dozen sea lions. All but the most playful were asleep, oblivious to the light drizzle that had begun.

The calm, sunny weather that marked our arrival soon faded, and we were hit by what the biologists said later was one of the summer's worst storms. Rain and wind whipped our tent and rattled our nerves. In the end, both somehow remained intact.

Our third day, when the storm let up enough to make walking upright possible, we spent several hours hiking, marveling at the brilliant lupine and dwarf azaleas, nesting kittiwakes, dive-bombing tufted puffins (many of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to an agitated Albert Einstein) and more bellowing walruses.

Although scheduled to stay another two days, the news that our trusty captain was coming across with two more guests inspired us to break camp early. With the weather so extreme, we'd seen how easy it could be to become marooned on this fascinating--though very small and very remote--island. It had been a great party, but we were ready to head for home.

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GUIDEBOOK: Round Island Rendezvous

Getting there: From Los Angeles to Anchorage, Alaska, Delta and Mark Air offer direct flights; restricted fares begin at about $500 round trip. United offers connecting service through Seattle.

From Anchorage to Dillingham, Mark Air and Peninsula Airways offer daily flights of about 1 1/2 hours at a round-trip fare of $322.

From Dillingham to Twin Hills, a 45- to 55-minute flight, several companies offer daily scheduled or charter flights with round-trip fares of $80-$120. Contact Mark Air, telephone (800) 627-5247; Peninsula Airways, tel. (800) 448-4226; Manokotak Air, tel. (907) 842-2486; Yute Air, (907) 842-5333; Tucker Aviation (non-scheduled flights), tel. (907) 842-1023.

Contact Don Winkelman of Don's Round Island Charter at least two weeks in advance; he'll pick you up and drive you the seven miles to the cannery. Winkelman can be reached at P.O. Box 68, Togiak, AK 99678 or by calling (907) 493-5127.

When to go: Weather generally is best in June and July, with the greatest concentration of walruses from late June to early July. Camping permits for five-day periods are issued for specific dates, with no more than 12 people allowed on the island at a time, for a maximum of five days. A $50 application fee is required. For more information and to apply for a camping permit, contact the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, P.O. Box 1030, Dillingham, AK 99576-1030; tel. (907) 842-2334.

What to pack: Visitors must bring their own gear and should plan for wind and rain when packing for Round Island. Camping gear (available for rent at the REI store in Anchorage) should include a sturdy, waterproof tent with extra long stakes, stove, fuel (there's no firewood on the island), sleeping bag and enough food to last a week longer than your anticipated stay. Rain gear, knee-high boots and warm clothes are essential.

--R.M.H.

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