Alaska villagers living in bird flu’s flight path

Times Staff Writer

The 800 Yup’ik Eskimos in this wet and lonely village knew the situation was serious when government scientists began swooping in on bush planes.

Except for a few doctors that fly in each year to give villagers checkups, outsiders rarely visited this outpost of scattered gray plywood homes and prefab structures plopped in the middle of the tundra.

Soon, latex gloves appeared on store shelves and Wild West-style posters started popping up around town: “Wanted: Birds of the Delta.” Researchers camped out in the town’s tribal council offices, preparing for trips to nearby Kwigluk Island with vials, swabs, nets and needles.

They came bearing a warning: The wild birds that the Yup’ik have hunted for millenniums may be carrying the first traces of the deadly bird flu virus from Asia into North America.

“It’s kind of scary, you know,” said resident Ronnie Peter, 39. “That’s like, our food, you know.”

The H5N1 avian influenza emerged in China 10 years ago and has since spread into Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Though the virus mainly infects fowl, since 2003 it has sickened 256 people and killed 151 around the world.

Kipnuk lies at the crossroads of an invisible freeway system linking migratory birds that journey along the East Asia-Australia flyway with those from the Pacific Americas flyway.

Tens of millions of birds flock every year to this seemingly endless expanse of soggy land in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge to feast on insects, grasses, worms and mussels before heading back south in the winter to Asia, Australia and other parts of the Americas.

“If it’s going to show up in wild birds, Alaska is the most likely place where it’s going to happen,” said Brian McCaffery, a federal wildlife biologist who was camped a few miles down the coast from Kipnuk collecting bar-tailed godwit droppings for testing.

Federal officials have identified 29 bird species that are most likely to carry the deadly virus from Asia, and they have enlisted local hunters to help provide birds for testing.

In the old days, the Yup’ik Eskimos felled the uqsuqaq, metraq and kanguq with bows and throw sticks tipped with sharpened walrus ivory.

Now, the men use 12-gauge shotguns and reach remote hunting spots in motorboats.

Little else has changed -- until now.

“Oh Lord, what are we going to eat? Store-bought food?” thought Steven Mann, who oversees tribal operations in town, when he first started receiving faxes on bird flu safety in the spring.

The nervousness has waned through the summer, said the 58-year-old ex-Army sergeant, but still, “We don’t joke about what we eat here.”

Mann’s son, Danny, a lanky 27-year-old who used to work as a bilingual parent liaison for the school, took on the job of bird flu testing manager in Kipnuk for the tribal health agency, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. He gets $15 for every bird he samples.

At the tribal council offices, he was on the phone, checking in with hunters. “Got any birds?” he asked Peter, who goes hunting just about every day except Sunday.

“How many?” Danny Mann asked. “Can I come over and check them?”

Mann threw on a jacket, grabbed a blue Nike duffel bag and headed out. As a light drizzle enveloped the village, he strode across the boardwalks that lie across the marshiest parts of town. The hollow sound of his steps echoed in the still afternoon.

The residents of Kipnuk, which means “bend in the river” in Yup’ik, are a little bewildered that their speck of a village has been drawn into the battle against the bird flu virus.

No roads lead here. The closest Wal-Mart is nearly 500 miles away. The flatland that spreads out between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers is so riddled with lakes and creeks that it looks like Swiss cheese from the air. The slate-gray Bering Sea is only a few miles away.

The coastal location is one reason health officials chose Kipnuk as one of 10 villages for testing. The other main reason is the vigor of its hunters.

Kipnuk villagers hunt intensely through the summer, stocking up on birds, which they usually roast into a crispy meal or boil into a soup made with onions, rice and macaroni. Peter keeps two freezers stuffed with various birds -- some plucked, some not.

Mann climbed up the steps to Peter’s porch and dug into a pile of common eiders, pintail ducks, a shoveler and a Canada goose.

Mann snapped on a pair of surgical gloves and started filling out a form on the birds.

He peeled the paper packaging around a long swab and inserted it into an eider through its cloaca, a combination genital, intestinal and urinary tract. Mann put the swab, now covered in a greenish-white goop, into a vial.

As Peter’s 4-year-old son, Quentin, danced around with a plastic light-saber, Mann repeated the procedure for the other birds.

Mann headed back to his mother’s house, where he crept under the front staircase and lifted the lid of a white canister filled with liquid nitrogen. As cold white vapors curled out, he dropped in his handful of vials, which he would send away for analysis.

Mann said he swabbed as many as 300 birds in the first round of sampling in May. In September, he collected about 50 samples. To get more hunters involved, the health agency raffled off a 55-gallon drum of gasoline for each round of testing, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the summer. Villagers got one raffle ticket for each bird they turned in.

So far, government inspectors have taken 18,000 samples from birds all over Alaska. They have found no bird flu.

Still, Mann said, there are so many birds from so many places that pass through this forbidding terrain that detecting the virus is “not a matter of if, but when.”

“Whenever I see birds, I always think what birds will be the first to get bird flu around here,” he said.

The health corporation began preparing residents in the spring with a newsletter outlining some of the dangers of bird flu.

The newsletter’s advice was simple: Don’t eat, drink or smoke when cleaning birds, and cook the meat thoroughly.

This has caused some problems.

One of the delicacies of tundra life is half-cooked eider. “The reason why we eat them half-cooked is we won’t get hungry for hours and hours,” explained Andrew Dock, 39, who won the barrel-of-gas raffle after collecting more than 100 tickets.

He still eats his eider half-cooked.

Steven Mann explained the thinking in Kipnuk this way: “I like to compare the flu to Al Qaeda. They’re clear on the other side of the world. We hear about them, but we’re not scared.”

After thousands of years, it’s hard to bend traditions.

Peter, an affable, goateed man who served in the Army National Guard for 19 years, goes hunting in a dark green jacket spotted with droppings, one of the primary carriers of the virus.

He seeks out feces. It is an ancient technique to find birds.

“I’ve been around it all my life,” Peter said, explaining that the elders always told him to “look for more bird poop.”

As the wind whipped around him, Peter and his hunting buddy, James Active III, whom everyone calls Big Boy, stalked across a meadow looking for dinner. Peter held his shotgun low in one hand. The only sound was the babbling of geese and Peter’s calls to them: “Luk, luk, luk.”

He scrambled over spongy tufts of lichen and crowberry and waded through the sedge-lined marsh, the smell of rotten eggs rising from his footprints.

As a chill set in, he disemboweled his birds in the traditional style: hooking one finger into the cloaca and tearing out the intestines with one motion.

He wiped his hand on the damp grass.

Peter said he was worried, but not that worried, yet. “Nobody’s gotten sick,” he said.

A few minutes later, he dug his fingers into a container of agutak, a dessert known as Eskimo ice cream, made of tundra berries, sugar and Crisco.

Still a bit hungry, he shook a helping of trail mix into his soiled hands and poured it into his mouth.