Woman eavesdrops on Alaska's wild sounds

Posted: Wednesday, January 31, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Think of yourself as a mouse in Kathy Turco's pocket.

That's how she thinks of you when she's out there, somewhere in Alaska, three days from a shower, bird puke in her pack, shoulders burdened under 50 pounds of gear.

A little silent mouse, listening. To wind. To caribou ankles clicking. To the lapping of a lake.

To the sounds a walrus makes: ''Ping-ping-ping. Gong. Gong.''

To a storm petrel: ''Eh-EH-eh-EH-eh-EH-eh-EH.''

To a river otter: ''Gruu-huff, gruu-huff.''

When Turco, a natural-sounds recording artist, goes into the Bush, she likes to think she's taking us along. She wants us to know what Alaska sounds like, when you really listen.

Her challenge is to capture the sounds she wants while avoiding those she doesn't, like airplanes, traffic and the hum of civilization. As far as she's concerned, quiet as in the absence of manmade noise is one of Alaska's most precious natural resources.

Turco works out of her home, a 20-by-24-foot cabin in the woods near Fairbanks.

When it comes to her business, Alaska's Spirit Speaks, she has a boundary problem. Her work is her life.

For Turco, winter means logging tape, writing, production, snow, cabin, home. Summer means floatplanes, boots, camp fires, mosquitoes.

In a dozen years of eavesdropping on Alaska's natural world, she's created a digital stereo library of more than 350 hours of tape. Her list includes scores of mammals, marine mammals and birds. She's captured killer whales, bearded seals, caribou, musk oxen, picas, beavers, oyster catchers, jaegers and jumping salmon.

Sounds in her ''other'' category include rain on a lake in Southeast Alaska, fire crackling in a snow pit in the Interior and wind in an old-growth forest. She's even captured the ambience of muskeg (summer, Southeast).

''I don't know anyone who takes the audio work to the level she takes it,'' said Dan Roby, a seabird ecologist at Oregon State University who has studied Alaska birds since 1974. ''Some of the things she records are so unique. I'm flabbergasted. ... I've never heard anything like it.''

People interested in Turco's recordings include filmmakers, biologists, educators, park officials and museum curators.

And the bird puke? That's Turco's ticket into the wild. A trained marine biologist and graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she happens to be an expert at bird puke studies. The puke lady, they call her. Turco uses her skill to get work from biologists.

''I can put a science hat on very easily for fieldwork,'' she said.

If Turco can't get hired to fly into the Bush, then she hitches a ride where she can by offering herself as a volunteer. She's tagged along with moose hunters, bird counters, whale researchers.

She's used her recordings like trading cards parting with a fall Aleutian eider, maybe, for a chance to record Interior boreal owls.

She's well-traveled, logging parrots in Mexico, gannets in Newfoundland, guanacos in Chile and adelie penguins in Antarctica.

On her resume:

A designer used Turco's sounds in the movie ''Dinosaur.'' When morphed, a trumpeter swan makes a great pterodactyl, since no one actually knows what one sounded like.

Turco supplied 85 percent of the sound for an IMAX film called ''Alaska: Spirit of the Wild,'' which received an Academy Award nomination.

She wrote a play, ''The Gathering Place,'' and appeared in it at Out North Contemporary Art House last year. It featured sounds from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a place she said she'd ''go to jail for'' to prevent development.

Buoyant and joyous, Turco talks endlessly about such projects.

''What's really fun with Kathy is her enthusiasm,'' said Bruce Wright, an administrator for the NOAA shark assessment project. ''She'll tell me about the things that she's working on, and it's just a blast.

For her sounds, Turco gets between $1 and $5 per second, which seems high until you consider the overhead. Not to mention that it's a tenth of what documentarians pay for good visual footage, according to Turco.

''Sound always takes a back seat in production work,'' she said. ''But sound is hard to get. Trying to decide how much it's worth has been a nightmare. That's why I'm losing my shirt half the time. I never get what the sound is worth.''

Turco refuses to sell her work to advertisers. Her mission is education. She's a frequent contributor to National Public Radio, a medium that has allowed her to share Alaska's wilderness with millions of rush-hour commuters nationwide.

She figured they, too, should know the eeriness of storm petrels massing in the midnight forest of St. Lazaria in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. They, too, should strain to discern the haunting chiming of Round Island walruses and perhaps understand why Natives imbue the animals with supernatural powers.

Along with taking our ears to exotic places, Turco's task has been explaining the world of biology in a way her mother, Lovey, can understand. Once, when describing a project, she saw Lovey's eyes glaze over.

''I'm not educated,'' her mother said flatly. ''You use big words I don't understand.''

Since then, Turco has written her science pieces with Mom in mind.

''I think she's a remarkable individual,'' Oregon State's Roby said. ''There are very few people I know as devoted to their work as she is. And she does it with absolute integrity.

Of course, there's a price.

''I'm a walking, living financial disaster,'' Turco said. ''I'm amazed I've survived this long.

''The only reason I can do it is because I'm single. There is no room for anything else. It takes everything I have to do it. Everything.''

On her worst days, when she feels busted, Turco likes to think about two fireproof boxes she keeps in her studio. That's her library, her life's work. She puts on one of her tapes and listens.

''I just know this is worth it,'' she said.


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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