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Expedition Log: August 15, 2001

William Cronon

Gambell, Saint Lawrence Island

We awoke this morning at around 6:30 A.M. to overcast skies and a moderate swell rolling the ship. My roommate Richard Nelson and I spent half an hour lying in our beds and sharing reflections on our recent doings before getting up for breakfast. Our days are often so packed with activities that, curiously, Richard and I have seem to have some of our best conversations not at night, when both of us are so exhausted that we go right to sleep, but just at the moment when both of us first rouse in the morning, with curtains closed and the room still so dark that we can't even see each other. The morning grayness is itself one of the odd proofs of how far we've now traveled: clock time and sun time are strangely out of sync with each other out here. We're far north in the Bering Sea, roughly 64 degrees north latitude, which of course makes for long days, but the much more important reason that the sun isn't rising until after 7:00 A.M. is that we're at the extreme western end of the immense Alaskan time zone, which packs three or more ordinary time zones into just one to produce huge variations in the times of sunrise and sunset at opposite ends of the zone. This morning, we talked about the awful shipboard cold that has bedeviled Richard (and seemingly half the other passengers) for the past couple weeks, drifted from that topic to the peculiarities of the immune system, and wound up reflecting on the linguistic conservatism of human communities on islands in contrast to the evolutionary dynamism one typically associates with island biogeography. I doubt that either of us could retrace the conversational steps that carried us among these and other topics, but I came away again feeling immensely grateful for Richard's companionship on this voyage. It is surely one of the things I will remember most about this extraordinary month in Alaska.

After breakfast, we had a morning of lectures and conversations. David Koester offered some illuminating reflections on "Cultures, Local Ecologies and Political Histories in the Russian Far East" to prepare us for our visit to Russia tomorrow. He offered extended readings from several key documents about the communities we'll be visiting, including a fascinating textbook from the early days of the Soviet Union when the government in Moscow was working hard to transform the cultures of these remote Yup'ik Eskimo communities to bring them into the modern era (with some striking parallels to earlier efforts by the United States government to do the same thing in American Indian communities). He closed with some sad and disturbing comments on how much the Russian government has abandoned these Yup'ik communities since the collapse of the Soviet regime. David's talk was followed by a panel discussion about the challenges of conservation in modern Alaska, in which it was great to see how engaged and concerned our shipmates have become about Alaskan issues as a result of what they've seen.

During lunch, we arrived offshore of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, but the strong waves and current required a repositioning of the ship which delayed our arrival onshore by half an hour. It was one of the most dramatic Zodiac landings we've had, with large waves breaking on a pebbled beach as we passengers dashed to get onto land as quickly as possible so the boats could get out of the surf without taking on water. We were met at the shore by dozens of the all-terrain vehicles that residents of the Eskimo community now use to get around on the loose beach gravel (after walking a mile or more on the stuff, I can certainly see why they find ATV's attractive). Some of us were taken to the cooperative store where local ivory carvers sell their art, while others of us walked the three-quarters of a mile through the town before ending at the community center for some Native dance performances. I walked in with Richard, Kim Heacox, and Kathy Frost (all of whom have extensive experience in these northern Eskimo communities), and we were soon joined by a Native woman named Karen who accompanied us as we strolled through her community. She took us to a house where an elderly woman was working with four men to cut the walrus skin for a new umiak, a fascinating process involving quite incredible skill --- not least, because walrus skins are too thick and heavy to use in their original tanned state, so have to be carefully split in half before they can be attached to the wooden frame of the boat. A couple of Eskimo toddlers were running around outside the house where the boat was being assembled, and seemed to take great delight when they managed to draw me into a game of peekaboo and hide-and-seek in which they peered out around the corner of their house to catch my eye, then dashed back into hiding with a great roar of laughter when I smiled and made clown faces at them. The kids here have such incredible smiles: so playful, such easy joy. I could easily have spent the whole afternoon playing with them and their dogs, and was sorry, as always, that we had so little time to spend here.

riding atv

Passengers riding an ATV from the shore to the town of Gambell. (Photo by William Cronon).
Click image for a larger view.

We next wandered past an enormous pile of whale bones where Kim and I indulged our photographic impulses, and I then spent some time looking at the carved walrus ivory in the craft cooperative before heading over to the community center for the Native dances. The whole event had a casually spontaneous feeling that made it feel not like a piece of theater for a group of alien tourists -- Gambell sees almost no cruise ships like ours -- but a enthusiastic expression of their genuine pleasure in the hospitality they were showing us. Best of all was the closing "invitational" dance in which they asked members of our group to come join them, so that even in the confined space of the quite-small room into which 150 or more people were packed, a couple dozen members of our group joined in the dance and everyone -- visitors and hosts alike -- clearly had a great time. There were lots of big smiles on everyone's faces (once again, the kids were just wonderful to play with) as we milled around outside the building before being taxied out to the beach on the SUV's for our very wet Zodiac rides back to the ship.


bones

Whale bones drying. (Photo by William Cronon).
Click image for a larger view.

Of the many communities I've visited and admired in Alaska, Gambell surely stands high on my list of personal favorites. Here are folks living in a very harsh environment where I suspect most people in the Lower 48 couldn't imagine spending their lives--and yet I have no doubt whatsoever that in the midst of whatever hardship they experience here, they find great joy, not least in each other's company. I hope someday I get the chance to come back.


gambell boy

One of the friendly Gambell childern sitting on the front of an ATV.(Photo by William Cronon).
Click image for a larger view.

Once back on shore, we scholars had a meeting to talk about the essays we will be writing for the book about this trip, and I think all of us came away feeling excited at the prospect of trying to capture as best we can with words and images what this trip has meant to us. It won't be easy, but I think we're realizing both the seriousness of the challenge and the creative possibilities.

But now it's after 11:30pm and time for bed. I'm looking out the window to see that the sun has only just set and the western sky is still glowing bright yellow. There's a gray bank of clouds on the far horizon, but a smaller cloud glows dark orange above the gray, and overhead the sky is clear. The ship is making its way through eight-foot swells, and great sheets of white spray are shooting out onto the dark blue water just beneath our window. Our cabin is at the extreme forward end of the fourth deck, so we get a good shaking each time the ship crashes down onto one of these waves. I can't think of a better way to fall asleep.

Another wonderful day. I would not have believed that there could be so many, or that some of the very best would be out here on the cold waters of the Bering Sea.

Postscript: I awoke at 2:30am to feel the ship rolling more vigorously in the swell than ever before on this trip. Richard was also awake, and we both marveled at the immense and exuberant water bed on which we were lying. We finally got up to peer through the curtain that ordinarily shields our slumber from the long Alaskan twilight. Despite the early hour, the eastern horizon was filled with a yellow-gray light that cast an eerie glow on the steely green darkness of the deep. Northward, low clouds and fog scudded along the horizon as the ship lurched over the swell, whitecaps and spray churning wildly in its wake. Perhaps because it was so early and unexpected a morning gift, it lingers before my eyes even now, hours later, an icon of sublimity and untameable wildness.

(View the day's photos)

(Community Profile: Gambell)


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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