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Birding in Yup'ik Country

Posted: Monday, March 17, 2008

BETHEL - You can say it in six words. Spectacled eider. Emperor goose. Sabine's gull.

This list of birds explains why it's not unrealistic to think that people from far away places will visit the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to look at birds through binoculars.

A chance to watch these bird species merits a trip to what would seem, to many travelers, to be the nether regions of North America.

Places like Chevak have drawn ornithologists over the years - America's favorite ornithologist, Roger Tory Peterson, for one, wrote about encountering the spectacled eider for the first time near Old Chevak - but not in significant numbers.

Some believe this may change. This summer, entrepreneur Ulric Ulroan of Chevak will host his first paying birding customers during two trips in June.

For Ulroan, 30, it's an idea that began as an assignment to draw up a business plan for a class at the University of Alaska Fairbanks more than two years ago. His idea later won a $25,000 award from the Alaska Marketplace competition, which rewards creative and fledgling entrepreneurial pursuits.

"It should be a helpful source of income once I'm established," said Ulroan, who relies on assistance from his wife, Mary, and eldest son, Aaron.

Ulroan's effort may be the first, but some believe the region may one day support a number of similar guiding businesses.

To this end, Karla Hart of the Watchable Wildlife program at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has led a project to put the region on the map of affluent birders willing to travel. Among her projects is one to give the region a brand - one that rolls easily off the tongue but lingers in the mind.

It needed to be a phrase less clunky than "Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta."

"I'm working to brand the area 'Yup'ik Country,'" she said. "It's a name that's exotic. It's cultural. It's different."

She's hired Mekoryuk artist John Oscar to design the "Yup'ik Country" logo that may appear in everything from advertising campaigns to a new welcome sign at Bethel's Alaska Airlines terminal.

While the brand hasn't created much of a buzz yet, Hart said it's a necessary step in promoting a destination to likely travelers.

In vast Alaska, the tourist trail rarely ventures through this patch of the southwest. Though the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is the second-largest refuge in Alaska, it hasn't drawn many visitors. One 300-page guide to Alaska adventure travel published by Sierra Club Books in the 1990s makes no mention of the refuge at all.

Hart believes a new destination brand might help.

Alaska has plenty of destination brand examples: Southeast Alaska is marketed as "Alaska's Inside Passage." Urban Anchorage claims "Big. Wild. Life." And the Delta will be "Yup'ik Country." Perfect. Almost.

"Well, you know we're Cup'ik, right?" Ulroan said, describing the catch that initially gave him pause. He suggested "Yup'ik-Cup'ik Country," but that didn't fit the succinct brand Hart was looking for.

"To make things less difficult," Ulroan said he'd just explain the difference whenever necessary. He sees Hart's branding as a helpful boost to his efforts.

And networking with the birding community has opened doors, too.

"Somehow I've got to really thank her," Ulroan said. "She's been a big part of developing Chevak."

Some villages seem uninterested in drawing tourists, even on the small scale as envisioned for Chevak Ulroan's Chevak Bird and Culture Tours, which will bring six visitors on its first trip.

But in Chevak, Ulroan said the possibility has energized some in the village. The village corporation is building a restaurant, inspired in part by the advent of birding tourism.

Some are interested in building a guest lodge. Others, including Andrew Boyscout, are considering starting guiding businesses of their own.

As long as local people can direct any tourism ventures, Ulroan said, everyone wins.

"Our kids love it, and they ask a lot of questions," Ulroan said. "I know that the artists are really happy because it gives them a chance to sell their artwork and make some money. And I know our village corporation is happy because they get to make some sales. They understand that this is a new opportunity to bring in new money to Chevak. It's a different source of income coming into Chevak."

Ulroan's company has partnered with Eagle River-based Wilderness Birding Adventures, whose customers will pay $3,500 - a price that includes airfare from Anchorage - for their trip to Chevak.

"Most of them are going to be people from the Lower 48 who are interested in something new and cool," said Bob Dittrick, an owner of Wilderness Birding Adventures. The company offers trips to St. Lawrence Island, Barrow and international destinations.

"Yup'ik Country" is the next cool destination.

"The Y-K Delta's like going to Mars for most people. People don't see places like that," Dittrick said.



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