Alaska authors Hank Lentfer and Richard Nelson this summer began a two-year project recording the natural sounds of Glacier Bay National Park, one of the most sonically diverse areas in all of Alaska.
Nelson has been recording Alaska’s sounds for about 10 years as part of his Raven Radio program, “Encounters: Radio Experiences in the North.” Years of close listening have “completely revolutionized my whole sense of the world,” he said.
That’s a sentiment Lentfer echoes.
“Listening this intently transforms your relationship to the place,” he said. “It’s kind of akin to maybe if you had crummy eyesight your whole life, and somebody finally slipped a pair of glasses on … that’s kind of what it’s like going through the world with these microphones.”
Listening in Glacier Bay is a special thing in itself: it’s a place marine, coastal and some typically interior Alaska animals converge.
Glacier Bay’s uniqueness might be most pronounced among its birds, Nelson said. The gray-cheeked thrush, for example, is “a classic far-northern bird,” but likes Glacier Bay’s shrubs.
Whales, porpoises, sea otters, seals, brown bears, deer, moose and wolves contribute to the bay’s sounds, as do glaciers, icebergs, wind in trees and bodies of water large and small.
“If you’re interested in sound, you can hear more different voices in Glacier Bay than perhaps in any other national park in Alaska,” Nelson said.
This summer, the two woke up at as early as 2 a.m. in their search for clean sounds. The equipment they’re using is very sensitive, and could pick up noises below the level of human hearing.
One of the advantages to rising so early is that they realized the “dawn chorus” of songbirds peaks around 3:30 or 4 a.m. in the summer, Lentfer said, and is largely over by 7 or 8 a.m. It’s also much more prevalent before the end of June.
Water has presented somewhat of a challenge to the project, as the roar of a river, of rainfall, of snowmelt or of wind can overpower other sounds. Paradoxically, it meant that Gustavus, which is flat, was one of the best places to listen.
“You just have to wake up before the town does,” Lentfer said.
One of Lentfer’s favorite sounds he’s recorded so far is that of a trumpeting whale.
“That was just amazing,” he said. “It’s not only an amazing sound, but there are natural amphitheaters which make a great sound a fantastic sound.”
Some of Nelson’s favorite recordings from the summer are those that focus on the “chorus,” not “a soloist.”
One of those recordings is of a mother sea otter and her pup “talking” to each other in whimpers, growls and whines — woven through with songbirds and whales.
Another standout, for different reasons, was “the most spectacular concentration of biting insects I’ve ever experienced,” Nelson said. Some of the insects were mosquitoes, two different kinds of white socks (a kind of black fly), no see ums and horseflies, all contributing to “a roar of little tiny insect wings.”
“It’s not a pleasant recording to listen to,” he added.
Another is a wolf they recorded from Gustavus early one morning. Its howl is set to a background of singing birds.
“It’s an eloquent reflection of the abundance of life here in Southeast Alaska,” he said.
LISTEN AND LEARN
In a motorized, populated world, it can be an act of “self-preservation” to filter out sound. But that act is a loss for our knowledge of the world.
“We live in a society in our modern world that has forgotten how to listen,” Nelson said. “We stopped paying attention.”
Nelson pointed out this contrast relative to Native Alaskans’ traditionally close relationship with sound.
The Koyukon, for example, with whom Nelson lived for a time, knew that the alarm call of a Yellowlegs could mean a larger animal was nearby, he said. Stories intertwine with birdcalls: The white-crowned sparrow’s song is the lament of a man who starved on his way to a camp.
Now, the American robin is no longer finishing its sentences. The birds’ songs are changing.
Birds also have dialects that differ across the continent.
“You would think that a robin in 1700 would probably sound like a robin today, but that’s not true,” Nelson said. “There’s a lot of scientific value in these recordings.”
The project is funded by the National Park Service, which plans to use the recordings in many of its educational materials, Lentfer said. The two are also working with the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center at the University of Alaska Southeast, and with Cornell University. Friends of Glacier Bay has also provided some money for the project.
The recordings will be included in Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library. According to its website, the Macaulay Library is “the world’s largest and oldest scientific archive of biodiversity audio and video recordings.”
Nelson and Lentfer recently gave a talk on the project on UAS’ Sitka campus. Plans are in the works for them to come to Juneau sometime in the fall of 2014, after their second and final season in the field.
Nelson hopes people might begin to more frequently associate certain sounds — a yellow warbler’s song, for example — with the animal making it. The two also hope to enhance people’s awareness of sound.
“We’ve drifted away from understanding our world through sound,” Nelson said. “We surround ourselves with our own noises. If we’re going to listen to music, it’ll be music made by other humans, instead of stepping out the door and soaking up the free concert ... A huge loss for us and one of the great values of our national parks that’s not often talked about is that they are a repository for the original voices of North America.”
• Contact Outdoors reporter Mary Catharine Martin at email@example.com.