September 9, 2004 -- An awful lot of people think they've seen Alaska. They've taken an Inside Passage cruise from Vancouver, and maybe added on two days in Denali or Fairbanks, and they've called it done. Thing is, those people have really only seen a tiny fraction of the Great Land -- and not even its most amazing parts.
Four times each summer, Cruise West's flagship, the all-suite, 114-passenger Spirit of Oceanus, offers 13-night Bering Sea expeditions that give folks the chance to sail right off the map, or at least to feel that they have. Making a wide, 2,500-mile semi-circle between Nome and Anchorage, Oceanus's passengers cross the Arctic Circle, visit Eskimo subsistence villages and half-abandoned Soviet cities on Russia's Chukchi Peninsula, hike through knee-deep tundra on Alaska's wildlife-rich western islands, and explore historic coastal towns.
Call it a tour of Beringia, the name given by scientists to the now-submerged land between Asia and North America, known to laymen as "the Bering Land Bridge."
Calling it a bridge, though, is like calling Australia an island. During the last ice age, Beringia was a thousand-mile grassland stretching from Siberia to the Alaskan coast -- a country nearly as large as the current landmass of Alaska, full of woolly mammoth, mastodon, and bison. Hunting those herds, man first crossed Beringia's plains and eventually made his way down into North and then South America, in time populating the whole western hemisphere.
When the great glaciers melted at the end of the ice age, the ensuing rise in worldwide sea levels drowned Beringia as surely as Atlantis, leaving the most remote parts of Russia and North America to stare at each other across the cold sea.
The Edge of Nowhere
For most Americans, Nome sounds like the edge of the world -- which it is. It's also the starting point for Spirit of Oceanus's southbound itinerary, following a charter flight from Anchorage.
Founded in the late 1890s after "three lucky Swedes" -- Jafet Lindberg, Erik Lindblom, and John Brynteson -- discovered gold on Anvil Creek, Nome quickly became a boomtown when further strikes were made in the beach sands. As soon as steamships from Seattle and San Francisco could get through the winter ice, some 10,000 wannabe prospectors stampeded north, looking for instant riches. By 1900, a full third of all the white men in Alaska lived in Nome, and over succeeding decades industrial gold mining took the place of individual fortune hunters.
Gold continued flowing for decades, but international politics also had a hand in shaping the town. During WWII, the city was a supply point for our allies the Soviet Union -- then, once the Cold War cranked up, it acted as a link in our early-warning system against them. Today, four huge decommissioned antennae, looking like drive-in movie screens or Richard Serra sculptures (take your pick), sit atop Anvil Mountain, testifying to improved Russian-American relations. And, though large-scale gold mining finally ended in the 1980s, you still find individual panners living in tents along the rocky beach, hoping for the next big strike.
Fires and storms consumed most of Nome's original wood-frame buildings, but this is still a frontier town, with dirt roads, low-slung buildings, and as many bars as churches. Around the countryside, 44 giant, rusting gold dredges were left to settle into the tundra, looking like defeated dragons. Around town, the huge iron buckets from those dredges have been transformed into flowerpots, full of summer bloom. On Front Street, a wooden platform stands at the official end-point of the annual Iditarod Sled-Dog Race, with the site of Wyatt Earp's 1899 saloon to one side and a few shops dotted 'round about, selling art from Native villages on the mainland and the Bering Sea islands.
Nome's population is itself 58% Alaska Native, reflecting the cultures that have prevailed here since before Beringia disappeared beneath the waves. For millennia, the Native peoples recognized no barriers between people on the eastern side of the sea and those on the west, their cultural, linguistic, and family ties stronger than any outside political borders. Through all of Europe's upheavals in the 19th and early 20th centuries, life continued here much as it had for hundreds of years. It took the Cold War, and what people here called the "Ice Curtain," to finally push the peoples apart.
Nowhere was this more evident than on Little Diomede Island, Spirit of Oceanus's first stop. A two-square-mile pyramid of rock jutting from the Bering Strait, the island's one tiny village faces west toward the Russian island of Big Diomede, only 2.5 miles away. Once home to the Diomeders' nearest relatives, the big island has been deserted since the 1940s, when Soviet powers moved them to the mainland to make way for a military base. Today the island is deserted save for a border station. On Little Diomede, an American border station completes the picture, it's high-powered binoculars trained permanently across a border strait that in winter, when the pack-ice forms, can be walked in half an hour -- something that no one here ever does, they say.
Little Diomede's 160 Inupiat residents live clustered together in weathered homes and workshops rising right from the seacoast, threading up the hillside and connected by narrow stone walkways. Ancient and modern stand side-by-side: For every snowmobile parked outside an unpainted doorway there's a dogsled waiting for winter. For every satellite dish there's a pair of walrus tusks drying in the sun, waiting to be carved into art. Only seventy years ago, people here lived in semi-subterranean homes heated with seal oil against the subzero winter cold. Today barges bring fuel oil and soda pop, but in summer the men still use butterfly nets to snare birds among the rocks, supplementing their mainly sea-based diet.
Diversions are infrequent, so when we stepped ashore from our inflatable landing boats we were met by a clutch of local children, who held several passengers' hands during a quiet tour of the village. One girl ran off, only to return a minute later cradling a tiny puppy in her arms. She held it out to us. "Her name is Bella," she said. Other dogs ran alongside us, wagging their tails.
Little Diomede's adults were no less welcoming -- albeit with a streak of marketing attached. One passenger, noticing a local woman's necklace, was told it had been made by her 90-year-old father, then was brought to meet him at his home. Other passengers attended a program of traditional song and dance in the school gymnasium, the largest public space in town. The dances, accompanied by large walrus-gut drums, mimicked gestures of the hunt and other aspects of traditional life. All the while, children climbed on our shoulders, laughing out loud at their images on our cameras' digital screens.
At the end of the day we sailed westward into a dense fog. Russia lay on the other side.
Breaching the Ice Curtain
Picture this: A wide, deep bay, surrounded by massive mountains, their sides rocky, bare, and glacier-scoured. To the right, a bank of clouds, miles long, breaks over the mountain ridge, looking like a wave about to engulf the channel below it. To the left, a city stretches up from the coast, its edge a forest of heavy gantry cranes, its upper reaches chockablock with nearly identical four-, five-, and six-story concrete apartment blocks. On one side of town, a ramshackle cemetery cascades down a barren hill. Toward the town center, an enormous smokestack looms above a still-standing statue of Lenin, resolutely striding into a future that's now dead and gone.
That's the scene we woke to the next day approaching the port city of Provideniya, on Russia's Chukotka Peninsula. Founded in the 1930s and once the Soviet military center in the province, the city is now a veritable ghost town. From the dock, we could see two border guards patrolling the dock -- the only sign of life.
After the 1916 Revolution it took nearly four years for the new Bolshevik regime to become established here, but it took far less time for things to fall apart when the USSR collapsed in 1991. Under the Soviet system, the Russian Far East was considered a hardship post, and workers there were paid considerably more than those in heartland, with vacation and supply benefits to match. When the communist system was replaced by a market economy, though, those subsidies disappeared overnight. Provideniya was once home to 10,000 people, with 30,000 troops billeted nearby during the height of the Cold War. Today the city is desolate, with only 2,400 residents. Half its 1950s buildings stand broken-windowed and empty.
Despite this, life carries on. Stylishly dressed women still walk the dusty sidewalks with their children in tow, and lace curtains still hang in windows of the inhabited apartment blocks. Down by the waterside, a Native man dressed in traditional garb has set up a stand selling souvenirs to the occasional tourists, while a few blocks inland the Provideniya Museum preserves artifacts of the region's Native and Russian cultures, and of their collectivization during the Soviet period. On one wall, a reindeer-skin flag proclaims "Lenin is our banner!," the words in the Yu'pik Eskimo language, the script Russian Cyrillic.
At the city's still-impressive Palace of Culture, Cruise West's passengers saw one of the USSR's positive legacies in the form of a remarkably professional presentation by local youth, mixing Eskimo song, folk dance, ballet, and iconic Soviet-era songs such as "Katyusha," about a girl longing for her beloved, off fighting on the distant frontier.
"That was one thing the Soviets did well," remarked Georgian-born passenger Nina Krafft of Minnesota. "They kept the folk traditions alive."
Siberian Native Reality, Circa 2004
From Provideniya, Oceanus's passengers took six-wheel-drive buses along a sixteen-mile gravel road to the Yu'pik village of Novoye Chaplino. Novoye means "new," an indication that the village was another product of Soviet collectivization, its populace drawn from formerly nomadic Siberian peoples and small regional villages. Hugging the waterline along Tkachen Bay, the village is a veritable lab specimen, buffeted for nearly 100 years by outside economic forces. Our guide, a physical education instructor, pointed out decaying Quonset huts and the ruins of a fox-farming operation ordered by Moscow, which wanted to retrain Chukotka's nomads from a traditional subsistence economy to modern industry. Little is left of that effort now but rusting cages, but nearby, row upon row of bright new single-family houses stand testament to Russia's current political reality -- a gift, every one of them, from Chukotka's billionaire governor, Roman Abramovich. The construction of these prefab homes provides work for some of the village's people, while others fish and hunt sea-mammals -- the traditional occupation of their people, now an economic necessity again.
Stepping into our guide's home we passed fish drying on hooks, then entered the warm, welcoming kitchen. On the living room wall hung an athletic medal from the state, while in his teenage daughter's room hung a poster of Canadian rocker Avril Levigne. Ten minutes later, across town, we witnessed a demonstration of traditional Eskimo athletics, followed by music that echoed the songs from Little Diomede, across the water.
It was a scene echoed in visits to other Native villages over the next few days, on both sides of the border.
In the reindeer-herding village of Yanrakynnot, Oceanus's guests mixed with Chukchi villagers on a spit of land near town, its periphery defined by sun-bleached whalebone. In a picnic atmosphere, under a cloudless blue sky and with temperatures in the low 50s, guests vied with locals in traditional wrestling matches, cast lassos at reindeer antlers on a post, and took a taste of whale meat prepared by village women. Children, dressed in tiny fur parkas, blew soap bubbles from a bottle brought from the ship, and when it was time for the guests to leave, villagers and local dogs walked them to their boats as the sun dipped slightly on the horizon -- as dark as it gets here in midsummer.
In and Out of Civilization on Alaska's Western Islands
When the ocean waters swallowed Beringia 14,000 years ago, its volcanic peaks remained above water, becoming stony outposts inhabited by animals who climbed their slopes to escape the flood. On St. Paul, in the Pribilof Islands, populations of woolly mammoth survived 3,500 years longer than their cousins on the mainland. In time man came here as well, and in the 19th century animals such as reindeer and musk ox were introduced for food and trade.
On St. Lawrence, the largest of the Bering Sea islands, Oceanus's passengers visited Savoonga, a substantial village known for its traditional artwork, while the twin Aleutian Islands towns of Unalaska and Dutch Harbor offered a full-up dose of western civilization. Home to the most productive fishing fleet in the U.S., the towns also boast a small museum, numerous displays of local World War II history (two outer islands in the Aleutians were held by the Japanese during the war), the fine Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and the Elbow Room, once the second-roughest bar in the United States but now considerably more welcoming, if still on the raw side.
On Unga, part of the Shumagin Islands group, biologist Rupert Pilkington led a dozen passengers up the seaside cliffs for a five-mile trek through thick tundra, returning along a beach dotted for miles with petrified wood. On St. George, in the Pribilofs, groups walked into a fine mist to see sights that have made those islands world-famous: cliffs where some 2.5 million seabirds nest, and beaches where thousands of fur seals return yearly to birth their young.
At Nash Harbor on Nunivak Island, a dozen Cu'pik Eskimos from the village of Mekoryuk greet the island's rare visitors, showing them the ruins of a traditional village and offering opportunities to explore the surrounding hills and see traditional crafts. In one shelter, local artist Abraham David displayed stunning carvings made from whale vertebrae, while women sold scarves and hats made from qiviut, fine wool from the undercoat of the musk ox. In another shelter, visiting Washington boat builder Skip Snaith wore just such a hat ("I traded a boat for it") as he explained methods of building traditional skin kayaks and open-topped umiaks.
Traditional boats are made from walrus skin and driftwood, both because they perform better in icy waters and because wood is such a great rarity here. Oceanus's arrival in Katmai National Park and Kodiak Island over the next two days was thus a startling transition, the stark mountains and flat tundra of Siberia and the western islands giving way to tall boreal forests. Brown bear roam these woods in such numbers that one group, exploring the coast in a motorized launch, reported seeing eight bears within an hour.
Kodiak, located 200 miles south of Anchorage, was an equally startling return to normalcy. The island became the first permanent European settlement in Alaska when Russian fur traders established a presence here in 1784. Today it's one of Alaska's largest population centers (with nearly 14,000 residents), but the Russian presence is more cultural than ethnic. On Marine Way, the Kodiak Baranov Museum occupies the oldest Russian building left standing in North America, with displays of Russian and Native artifacts. Across the street, the Holy Resurrection Cathedral is Alaska's oldest Russian Orthodox congregation, established in 1796. The current church building replaced one destroyed by fire in 1945.
Nearby, at the cozy Monk's Rock Coffeehouse, the Kodiak Russian Balalaika Players perform for visitors -- undeterred by the fact that none of them is really Russian.
"We just feel a connection to the music," explained one player as she led the group into its next song: "Katyusha," the same melody we'd heard eight days before at Provideniya's Palace of Culture, seemingly a million miles away.
Spirit of Oceanus offers Bering Sea cruises four times each summer, beginning in early June. Prices start at approximately $7,200 per person. Voyages may either be southbound (between Nome and Anchorage) or northbound (between Anchorage and Nome). For more information contact Cruise West (888/851-8133; www.cruisewest.com).
For more information on Beringia and the history of Russian Alaska, see the U.S. Library of Congress's "Meeting of Frontiers" website (http://frontiers.loc.gov). For more information on bears, see the website of the Ursus International Conservation Institute (www.ursusinternational.org). Experts from both sites were among Cruise West's featured lecturers in summer 2004. For more on the history and sociology of Chukotka Province, see www.chukotka.org and click on "English." For more on traditional boat builder Skip Snaith, see www.kayakway.com. For more on the Elbow Room bar in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, see http://arctic.net/~elbowrm.
Built in 1991 as Renaissance V, one of the original vessels of now-defunct Renaissance Cruises, the 114-passenger, 4,200-ton Spirit of Oceanus sailed briefly for Star Cruises before Cruise West bought and refurbished her in 2001. Today, she's the line's largest and most luxurious ship, with more public rooms, a small gym, an elevator, and even a pool and hot tub on the top deck. All 57 staterooms are outsides with picture windows or (in a few cases) portholes, and range in size from 215 to 353 square feet, which ranks them among the largest in the small-ship world. Decor is a far cry from the usual off-white walls and modular furnishings of most small ships, instead boasting dark, polished wood-grain paneling, with rich carpeting and comfortable couches giving an almost boutique hotel look. Each stateroom has a walk-in closet or wardrobe, a marble-topped vanity, a lounge area, an in-room safe, a minifridge, a TV/VCR, and satellite telephone access. The twelve suites on Sun and Sports Decks have private teak balconies.
Public rooms include the main Oceanus Lounge -- the venue for frequent lectures and slide presentations by the ship's large staff of naturalists and historians -- and the smaller Oceanus Club, a combo piano bar and reading room. A game room and a small book and video library open off from the Club. Passengers go off-vessel most days via inflatable Zodiac landing boats, with rubber boots provided by the line. Bring rain gear, though, as trips ashore are often wet.
All meals are served in single open seatings in the Pacifica Restaurant on the Main Deck. For breakfast and lunch, passengers also have the option of going to the buffet-style Bistro on the Sun Deck -- a very pleasant perch in most weather, offering great views of the surrounding scenery.
Sprit of Oceanus Specifications: size, 4,500 tons; passengers, 114; passenger-space ratio, 39.5; crew, 59; passenger-crew ratio, 2 to 1.