Once more unto the beach…

By Dr. Mike Kinsella


My friend and mentor, Al Canaris, has long been fascinated by what happens to helminth communities in shorebirds during their epic migrations from as far north as the Arctic Circle to as far south as the tip of Africa and Tasmania. During a long and distinguished career at the University of Texas at El Paso, he made collecting trips to shorebird breeding grounds in Alaska, migratory stops in Mexico and Belize, and wintering grounds in Namibia, South Africa, and Tasmania, publishing a long series of papers. I often helped him with helminth identifications but had never participated in collecting.


After Al retired and moved to Montana, he wanted to make one more collecting trip to Bristol Bay, Alaska in the summer of 2001. He called and asked if I wanted to go along, warning that there were no grant funds and the whole trip would come out of our own pockets. The area was trackless tundra and we would have to land on the beach in a bush plane. “When do we leave?” I said.


Mike Kinsella (left) and Al Canaris (center) arrive at Bristol Bay with their trusty Bausch & Lomb traveling microscope.

In July, we flew to King Salmon, Alaska, and hitched a ride with a bush pilot who supplied the small coastal village of Egegik and a nearby salmon cannery. We were met on the beach by Jerry Solie, a salmon fisherman and lifetime friend of Al’s, who had a cabin nearby with no electricity or indoor plumbing. The refrigerator was a hole dug in the permafrost. On the upside, it was 50 yards from one of the biggest shorebird staging areas in North America. Our routine was soon established- Al and Jerry would go out on a 4-wheeler in the morning and collect 8 to 10 shorebirds, and then Al and I would spend the day processing them for helminths.


Mike (left) and Al necropsy shorebirds by the light of an Alaskan sun.

The 600 pound glitch in our plan showed up the first night, banging around the cabin and chomping on soda cans like popcorn. It was a huge Alaskan brown bear. Did I mention the doors were made of plywood and held shut by bungee cords? For arms, we had my Crosman air rifle and Al’s shotgun loaded with bird shot. We were contemplating crawling into the attic space when the bear decided to move on to the next cabin. But it was back the next night, this time clawing a hole in Jerry’s rubber fishing raft. By the third night, we had constructed nail beds as doormats, so naturally it didn’t show up again.


Despite sleepless nights, our trip was a big success, leading to several papers on helminth communities of turnstones and godwits, and the description of two new species of tapeworms. It was not to be our last adventure in retirement and the Western Montana Parasitologists still meet several times a year at Glen’s Café in Florence, Montana to discuss future projects. Al published his latest paper last year at the age of 90 and is working on his next, and I still feel like an overage grad student!

Al thinks twice about continuing up the beach to collect.

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