Thursday, August 7, 2008

So far West it's almost East

The Bering Strait at midnight.(©Scott Weidensaul)

Look closely at that photo. Yes, it's a beautiful sunset, but the important thing is that you're looking into tomorrow. Quite literally.

That's an uncommonly tranquil midnight sunset on the Bering Strait, taken from the beach at Wales, Alaska – the westernmost point of the North American mainland, where it all but kisses Asia.

How close? The small "island" to the right is East Cape, the tip of the Siberian mainland. The larger "island" on the left is really two landmasses in one – Little Diomede, part of the U.S., which lies about 25 miles from land, and a mile beyond that is Big Diomede, which is Russian.

The International Date Line runs between them, so while it was Saturday where I was standing, it was Sunday over in Big Diomede. As I said, tomorrow.

I'm just back from spending a week in Wales, one of the most remarkable places I've ever visited. An Inupiat village at the tip of the treeless Seward Peninsula, it has been home to humans for at least 10,000 years, and the sense of history is palpable, whether it's the finely worked artifacts like harpoon tips and net frames that one can find along the beach; the countless seal, walrus and whale bones that erode out of the bluffs, speaking of feasts millennia old; the pre-Christian human burials scattered on the rocky hillsides above the village; or the huge wooden cross that marks the mass grave of hundreds of victims of the Spanish influenza in 1918.Walrus bones erode from the bluff above Wales, where people have been living for 10,000 years. (©Scott Weidensaul)

The hundred and fifty or so people who live in Wales today retain a traditional, subsistence lifestyle. Almost every house has musk-ox, polar bear and bearded seal skulls lying about outside. In the middle of the village, the huge curved jaws of a bowhead whale lie next to the dirt street.

I was in Wales at the invitation of Anchorage artists Joe and Catherine Senungetuk, to join them in leading a writing workshop for both villagers and those from outside. Joe, who was born in Wales in 1940, is a noted Inupiat artist and the author of an autobiography about growing up Native in Wales and Nome, while Catherine is an accomplished watercolorist originally from California.Wales, Alaska, on a quiet evening. (©Scott Weidensaul)

This was the second year they'd conducted the Wales Writing Workshop, and of the dozen participants from outside the village (most from Anchorage) there were several veterans of the 2007 venture. We were also fortunate to welcome villagers like Winton Weyapuk, an accomplished poet and prose writer, who joined as their schedules allowed.

Our base of operations was the village community center, which houses a large multi-use room and several tribal offices; some of group spread their bedrolls on the floor, while others bunked with families in the village. Worried that if I snored I'd keep people awake, I pitched a tent just outside, in the lee of the building and a large metal shipping container where supplies are stored – the winds that roar through the Bering Strait can be ferocious, and I figured I'd need the extra shelter.

The community center sits at the north end of the village, hard against tundra and marsh. Dunlin, dowitchers, red-necked phalaropes and western sandpipers were almost always visible foraging in the sedges, and pairs of red-throated and Pacific loons shuttled back and forth from the nearby ocean to their chicks in shallow freshwater ponds just inland.A red-throated loon splashes into the air. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Up the hill toward Cape Mountain, and the weird, jagged hill known as Razorback, we could often see herds of musk-oxen grazing, forced close to the village by grizzlies. The semi-domesticated reindeer herds the village manage, however, had moved off to their summer grazing range – although one generous villager dropped off a reindeer roast for our dinner one evening.

Over the following days, we alternated between writing, roundtable sessions at which we shared our work, and hands-on instruction by noted master bookmaker Susan Share as we learned to fold, cut, stitch and decorate small but increasingly complex books.

But the evening of our arrival was gorgeous – tranquil, with low, golden sunlight bathing the peninsula. At 1 a.m., the village was busier than at noon, with guys reroofing homes and teens playing basketball. Up here, you don't waste a nice day, and this was the first sunshine, they told me, in three weeks. The fact that it was midnight sunshine, barely south of the Arctic Circle as we were, didn't matter.

Some of the workshop participants combed the wide sand beach, which runs for more than 30 miles north of the village along Lopp Lagoon, and onto which storms had cast millions of sea stars, or chatted with villagers trying to catch hundreds of pink salmon jamming the entrance to Village Creek – something the elders said they'd never seen before.

I walked south along the rockier part of the shore, watching king eiders, common murres and pelagic cormorants in the surf, and yellow wagtails and snow buntings feeding on insects by the tide line. Then I headed up onto the flanks of Cape Mountain, staying a cautious distance from the notoriously touchy musk-ox.
Inupiat kids play on "Arctic Arc," a sculpture mirrored by another on the Russian mainland, almost 60 miles west. (©Scott Weidensaul)

As the sun came close to the horizon, a couple of kids were playing on a huge sculpture of an open hand releasing a bird, which dominates the hill above town. A joint project by Michigan sculptor David Barr, who did the hand, and Joe Senungetuk, who did the bird, it mirrors a similar sculpture across the strait on the Russian side - a symbol of friendship between two countries often at odds.

We knew the weather couldn't last, and it didn't – but it was a glorious way to start our time in Wales.

* * * * *

If you're curious what the weather's like in Wales right now, you can take a look via the Wales StraitCam, mounted in a front window of the Kingikmiut School in the village and looking out past the playground onto the Bering Strait; on a rare clear day you can see the Diomede Islands, but don't count on it most of the time. (The webcam is mostly used by villagers now living in Nome and elsewhere to monitor snow depth and sea ice in winter, to judge when best to come back home to hunt marine mammals.)

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