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Mile High Steps

            My mother used to reiterate the same nagging admonition.  “Never, ever,” she constantly harped, “accept candy from a stranger!”  I finally break her rule.

            I’m on Cruise West’s “Voyage to the Bering Sea,” which sails from Anchorage to Nome by way of the Bering Sea and Russian Far East.  The two-week itinerary explores the natural and cultural history of Alaska’s western reaches, a side of the state few ever see.

            The trip begins with a cruise-through viewing of the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage.  Here, mirror-smooth fjords penetrate a land of somber crags, deep forest and glistening glaciers.  Classically Alaskan, this lush landscape looks as if it was ripped from a Sierra Club calendar.

            After a day in Kodiak, a Starbucks-equipped city of 6,400 lying on the island of the same name, the ship crosses to the Alaska Peninsula.  There, we board inflatable Zodiac motorboats to go brown bear viewing in Katmai National Park.  For us, the park’s woody shoreline represents an arboreal last stand.  There will be no trees to see once we reach the Bering Sea. Nuka Passage

           Midway down the peninsula, Zodiacs ferry us to an uninhabited section of Unga Island in the Shumagins.  Instead of being garbed in forest, the land here wears a spongy tunic of velvet tundra garlanded in wildflowers.  Volcanic cones poke like big gray buttons in the distance.  I wander the beltline shore, listening to birds, feeling the breeze, smelling the surf and watching waves wash across a beach that looks to be littered with driftwood.  But this wood’s drifting days are done.  It’s petrified.

            “The Aleutian Islands may once have been completely forested,” explains cruise naturalist Patty Hostiuck.  “Twenty million years ago, we had a climate that was much warmer, much wetter.”

            After a day exploring Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, the ship turns north into the Bering Sea.  Our first stop is St. George Island in the Pribilofs, which looms from the water like a parsley pancake floating in a sea of blue-gray syrup.  This was once a stronghold of the Russian fur seal industry, with much of the work performed by shanghaied Aleutian natives whose progeny still reside here.  Today, the Pribilofs hold the largest Aleut community in the world.  Now that commercial harvesting has stopped, they also host nearly a million northern fur seals.

            Andronik "Andy" Kashevarof leads a tour of the abandoned fur factory, which he says closed in 1972.  He tells how he once earned 30 cents an animal for scraping fat from the skin.

            "I used to blubber 30 seals an hour,” the septuagenarian proudly admits.  “That was my spot over there.”Russian Orthodox Church on St. George Island

            Since the plant’s demise, the 150-person community has drifted in the economic doldrums.  Some residents work for the native corporation, which owns the land.  Others are employed by the town government or the air carriers who serve the island.   A handful do commercial fishing.

            “Most of the people who live here have had their jobs for life,” admits local resident Grace Merculief.  “If you quit, you probably won't get another one.”Fur Seals on St. George Island

            The island maintains a small tourist industry.  With 210 aviary species to spot, St. George attracts birding enthusiasts to what some consider Alaska’s most abundant and diverse seabird colony.  Visitors can book quarters at the island’s 10-room hotel, and for meals, there’s a tiny restaurant offering a menu of hamburgers, fries and nachos.

            We continue north to sprawling Nunivak Island, which has been inhabited for 2,000 years by Cup’ik Eskimos.  Zodiacs motor us into Nash Harbor, site of a village abandoned in the 1950s.  It’s now home to Nunivak Island Cultural Education Adventures, a native organization offering eco-tours and summer science camps.  A dozen islanders wear costumes, perform dances and demonstrate how to filet and dry salmon.

            One of the elders, Edward Shavings, tells how 60 years ago, his mother sent him to high school on the mainland.  Shortly after he returned, he was hired to teach grade school in the community, which then held 10-12 families.  His hands point to where the building once stood.Edward Shavings

            “Wood along the beach was very scarce,” he says.  “When the school closed, the village had permission from Bureau of Indian Affairs to tear the building down for firewood.”

            Displaying a toothy grin, the man goes on to tell us that he is famous.  Years ago, he was the first person in his village to buy a deep freeze to store meat during the summer.

            “You heard about that salesman who was so good he could sell a freezer to an Eskimo?” Shavings asks.  “Well, I’m the one who bought it.”

            We continue north to Savoonga, one of two Yup’ik Eskimo villages on St. Lawrence Island near the Arctic Circle.  The land appears bleak, desolate and windblown, but its people are warm and friendly.

            “Welcome to Savoonga,” residents greet us with a smile.  “What's your name?  “Where are you from?”  It feels like I’m in the third world, only these folks speak American English and have their own zip code.Savoonga

            The backwater feeling is accentuated by the appearance of the community.  Streets are bare dirt.  Junk fills yards.  Homes are made of plywood and tin, few display siding, and nearly none bear paint.  Nearly everyone rides all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

            “This is no way to live,” I overhear one cruiser remark.

            “I don't look at it that way at all,” passenger Sandy Crowder disagrees.  “I’ve found that in places I've traveled, buildings may not be well kept on the outside, but inside they're beautiful.  These people have a wonderful culture and magnificent lives.”

            That night the ship enters Russian waters.  After clearing customs, we head for Whalebone Alley on Yttygran Island where long jawbones from the marine mammals stand ritualistically near water’s edge.  Carbon dating shows the monuments date back to the 13-14th centuries.Whalebone Alley

            “This was a place where people came together to hunt bowhead whales,” explains Igor Zagrebin of Russia’s Provideniya Museum.  “There are more than 100 meat pits all over the coastline.  During wintertime when the strait froze, people from different villages could come to their pits and bring the meat back home.”

            Some might have come from Yanrakynnot, a Chukchi Eskimo village on the nearby mainland where residents still herd reindeer, drive dogsleds and fish from sealskin kayaks.  They greet us on the flats at the edge of town.  Many sport traditional costumes while others appear to have just stepped out of Wal-Mart.

           They pose for photographs and present demonstrations of athletic endeavors such as wrestling and antler lassoing.  Folk dances follow.  Through it all, the natives smile, laugh and ham it up.  Even though we non-Russian speakers understand nary a word they say, a good time is had by all.Grandfather and child

            When the festivities end, I stroll through the village.  Although there seem to be no ATVs or snowmobiles on this side of the Bering Strait, the Russians share one glaring similarity with their American counterparts.  Their paint seems just a prone to peeling.  While many older structures look dilapidated, the town boasts a few rows of new, pastel prefab dwellings.  More of them stand in the next village we visit.Native craftsman

            We head for Novoye Chaplino, where many of the residents are Siberian Yup’iks, close relatives of the Eskimos who live on St. Lawrence Island.  The community, which lies nestled between the ocean and mountains, displays a housing blend of old and new.  Blocks of modern, prefabricated bungalows sprawl between an abandoned concrete condo complex and an array of well-worn wooden hovels.

            “They’re Canadian cottages,” says local resident Ludmila Makotrik.  “In 2002, they built 60 houses and in 2003, 40 more.”

            She invites us inside one.  It has three small rooms plus a kitchen and enclosed front porch.  Floors are linoleum covered with rugs.  Walls are papered, magazine photos hang as artwork, and plants bask in window sunlight.  Neat and tidy, the place feels comfortably middleclass.Shack in Provideniya

            A 16-mile road crosses the mountains to Provideniya, a seaport city established in the ‘30s.  Serving as a Cold War center for military activities, it once boasted a population of over 10,000.  Today, more than two-thirds of its residents have left, and much of the city lies in abandoned ruin.  Junk heaps line the highway.  Whole apartment buildings stand empty, every window broken.  Both the brewery and bakery have gone out of business.

            “We don't grow food, vegetables or meat,” says Olga Trofimchuk.  “Everything is brought on ships.Performer in Provideniya

            The young Caucasian woman sings at the House of Culture, where we go for an afternoon performance of traditional Russian song and dance hosted by a tuxedoed master of ceremonies.  In a beauty-from-bleakness transformation, the exquisitely costumed performance lifts us from Provideniya’s gutters to the pinnacles of Moscow culture.  A Shrek-like heart of gold still beats in this ugly ogre of a town.

            While most passengers ride buses back to the ship, I choose to walk.  As I stroll toward the harbor, two school-age girls from the show approach.

            “What is your name?” one of them asks in classroom English.  I tell them mine and ask theirs.

            “Inonia” answers one.  “Natasha” responds the other.  She smiles and holds out a handful of wrapped Russian candies.

            “Here,” she says.  “Thank you for coming.”

POSTSCRIPT

            The cruise and the company that ran it are no longer around.  The Voyage to the Bering Sea adventure disappeared when Cruise West decided they could better use the Spirit of Oceanus on longer voyages around the world.  That may have proved to be their undoing.  In September 2010, Cruise West went out of business.