When I was planning a trip to Alaska, I couldn't just go on the big cruise ship and see the tourist spots; I always look for the unusual. I had always read and studied about Little Diomede, just across the Date line from Russia, the last outpost of America, so while I was so nearby, I had to go. Even though Bering Air lists them in their timetable, they only fly in winter as they can land on the ice. So I called Evergreen Helicopters, the people who take the mail and supplies to Diomede, and though they couldn't understand WHY I would want to do this, they said to call if I ever got to Nome. Surprise!! I called them right when I got to Nome, and made arrangements to go. The pilot was pretty skeptical, but told me he'd call me if the weather held up; he hadn't been able to fly in the last week at all. The weather is never very good so it is a chance, and I had a 3 day window to try and go. The first day, there was wind and fog and no chance to go. The second day, I call and the weather was looking good, so I go to the airport to fly on Cape Smythe Air to Wales, (65:37N, 168:05W, pop. 165!!) The chopper was too full out of Nome to take me, but would pick me up in Wales and take me the 20 miles across the Bering Strait to Diomede. I also checked on the last flight out of Wales because I didn't want to get stuck there in case the weather got bad, that was 4:30, and definitely he'd know if he was flying by 4:30!!
So, off I go to Wales, and since they had mail to pick up in Shishmaref we go there first (66:15N, 166:04W) and it is raining and blowing and I am sure I have wasted my time, but we continue on to Wales and it is raining and blowing and maybe 40 degrees. Well, I don't know about bush life in Alaska and I think there will be at least a tiny room to sit in while I wait for the helicopter, NO, not true. In these little towns as well there is no food of any kind to eat so you must bring your own, canned fruit or tuna or something for lunch or starve. So I run over to what seems to be the terminal, but it is a garage, no door, so I run back to the 'plane, where do I sit and wait, they look at me and a Navy guy said to wait in his truck, it'll shield me from the wind!! So I gratefully do that!! We go over to the guy's house who runs the airport, who is from California and was stationed here in the Navy many years ago and wanted to stay to get away from it all, and his Inupiat wife of 18 years in quite a nice house for where it is!! This place is REALLY in the middle of nowhere, but when they need to shop they just fly into Nome and go to the supermarket, fill up his small plane and fly home, why not? They were very friendly, fed me freshly smoked salmon, homemade hot cookies, and I waited for the helicopter and watched CNN (yes, they have cable, even in Wales, Alaska!!)
You can often see Diomede on a good day from here, it's about 20 miles, but not today, and I keep hoping for the weather to clear. They say it is fine conditions for a helicopter, so I walk into town (windy, cold, ugh, but I had to see the one street and one store), then waited, so they drove me back to the airstrip in the 4-wheel ATV and just then the chopper arrived, and I got in!!
This is Thursday afternoon, and finally I am going to Diomede, I cannot believe it!! I just couldn't take enough pictures and video, and you know in a helicopter you don't take off like a plane, you just lift straight up, it was SO cool!! So off we go over the water, it felt like the opening of Miami Vice, and I can see Russia and our Little Diomede just in front!! I was so lucky, it would have broken my heart to have come so far and lose the chance. So anyway, off I go and we circle around, there's a tiny village perched on a rock, no other way but to walk, just 4 rows of houses with rock walkways between the buildings and only maybe 30 buildings. They do have a satellite dish for TV and telephone, but this place is REALLY the last frontier (65:47N, 169:00W) and 4 hours will definitely be enough time to see it.
They asked one of the local guys to show me around, and you have to pay an entry fee to the native corporation, but it's OK, they have no jobs other than the store, the post office, the native corp. there's nothing there!! I always had postcards and stamps to mail myself something from every unusual town and of course I had to get a Little Diomede postmark!! It was amazing, though there is almost nothing to buy I got a carved bracelet which was gorgeous and so got to see inside one of their homes, clean yet small and simple, I couldn't stop saying to myself, that's Russia right there, I mean RIGHT there, I am sure as I was taking pictures of them they were probably looking at me too!! It was an incredible feeling. The residents there were fascinated with me, they only get the occasional tourists so they're all interested to talk to an outsider. There are similarities to Pitcairn in that it is hard to get there, when the supplies come all the men rush down and pull them off and carry them up to town, there are the same 4 families that live there, a small population, the only way to find someone to marry is to go outside and bring them back, but it would have to be a unique outsider that would go back to Little Diomede!! It was absolutely thrilling but I could not live there, whereas I could live in Pitcairn. In Diomede the weather is too cold and there are only 4 small streets, paths only, to walk on. In Pitcairn it is beautiful and warm and plenty of food and space to move around...
Then we left, really amazing, just whoosh, into the air, and the kids waved goodbye, they were really glad to see their teacher back and she is really a saint to live there and help them, that's one thing, in Alaska even the smallest town has a beautiful school, because the Alaska government does very well through the oil profits. There is no state tax and no sales tax, and every Alaskan gets a check every year, instead of paying taxes they get a check from the Permanent Fund which calculates the interest from the oil revenues and gives every Alaskan a check for about $1500!!
Anyway, I was very happy to see Little Diomede, and overwhelmed that we were in the shadow of Russia, and so as we circle around the island near the Russian side back toward Nome the chooper pilot says to me 'Happy Birthday' coz we'd just crossed over the Date Line for a few seconds and it was Friday, my birthday, for at least a few seconds, I couldn't even believe I was doing this!! But of course I did!! It was just great, wow, then 45 mins. later back in Nome at 9 pm and still daylight.
Quick packing, then the next morning I flew out to Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island with a handsome pilot that looked like Mel Gibson, on a 9-seater aircraft. Gambell (64:30, 171:44), pop. 700) is on the west end of St. Lawrence Island, out in the Bering Sea, 40 miles from Russia and easily seen from the island. Gambell is a traditional whaling village, and they are Yupik eskimos, in fact they all speak Yupik normally and only English to tourists or visitors!! I am so lucky they are having a whaling festival where the neighbor villages come and they have a native fashion show, how they prepare the boats, speeches, dances, blanket toss, etc and a picnic, so I am happy to hare in it!! Gambell has small roads only by ATV, and loose, thick shale covers the "streets." So it is harder than sand to walk on but gave me good practice!! I am really lucky though that there is sun and maybe 50 degree temperatures. It is funny, because on Weather Channel on TV they say ridiculous things like "it was 45 in Michigan last night, can you believe it could be so cold in July" and I am standing in Alaska in all my clothes on at the same time and still freezing, you bet I can believe it could be 45 in July!!
Gambell has a cafeteria where they make great hamburgers so I buy lunch and we walk around town, to the post office, native store, etc. then to the school for the festival. This is not put on for tourists, this is for them so it was great, not fancy or slick like we'd have for tourists, but real, with kids running around and presentations given in Yupik language!! When the mayor opened the festival with "Welcome to the edge of tomorrow", boy she meant it, you are also right on the Date Line here too!! They blend the traditional with the modern, the boys go after their girlfriends on ATVs instead of dog sleds but the courting ritual is the same.
I enjoyed my trip to these 2 islands and was so glad I had the experience to learn about a native culture that is still part of the USA. They are proud of their heritage and continue their traditions, but also have a deep pride in America that we might forget about. They have big July 4 celebrations and the whole community gets together to remember our country. They have a very different life from mine, and I was able to learn a lot from them, and also experience a unique part of Alaska that you don't see on an organized tour.
Nome information: http://dwarf.nome.net/
Rural Alaska communities information: http://www.dced.state.ak.us/mra/CF_CIS.htm
Bering Air: http://www.beringair.com/
Little Diomede home page: http://www.kawerak.org/village/diomede/diomede1.html
Photos by Cristy Trembly and courtesy of Sue Steinacher's Bering Adventures
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