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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Expedition Log: August 17, 2001

David Koester

Cape Dezhnev and Lorino Village, Russia

Our daily plan and disembarkation schedule announced that we would be going ashore at Cape Dezhnev. It did not mention the surprise that awaited us -- that we would be seeing the site of the former village of Naukan. It was clear as we landed and looked up the treeless hillside that this was an impressive site of previous inhabitance. Housepits and meat caches alongside remnants of Soviet era construction dotted the sloping landscape. Sergey Frolov, who had arrived on an earlier boat, sat overlooking the narrow expanse of the Bering sea as we climbed the hill. As we turned back in the direction he was facing, the Diomedes were clearly visible and in the distance, at the horizon was the coast of Alaska. We were at the point where the mainland of North America was visible from Asia!

Naukan

Site of former village of Naukan - dark structures are house pits. (Photo by David Koester).
Click image for a larger view.

Sergey explained that we had landed at the site of Naukan. It must have been a bustling place, a large Eskimo town that once was home to as many as 600. The housepits and meat caches stretched for over a half mile. Soviet era construction was mostly above the house pits or at the north end where there had been a military outpost.

Many of the housepits were large, 9 or 10 meters in diameter. The rock walls of the houses were circular or oblong, about a meter to a meter and a half high. Some were deep enough into the soil that the wall was almost level with the ground; others rose above the ground almost their full height. There were both driftwood and whalebone remnants of roofs and in one case a relatively intact roof on a meat cache. This expansive site left us to pause at its importance in Eskimo/Inuit history. Sergey noted that the site is thought to have been inhabited for 2000 years. In the stretch of the Inuit/Eskimo world from the northeast of Asia across North America to Greenland, this site represents the home of a unique subgrouping. It was the focal point of the Naukan language, one of three Siberian Yupik languages. Now, the remains are important historical monument to Eskimo culture.

House pits

Example of a large stone house pit in Naukan. (Photo by David Koester).
Click image for a larger view.

High above the village was a Soviet built monument to Semen Dezhnev, the Cossack traveler who is the first Russian explorer known to have traveled around the cape at the far northeast corner of Asia. The inscription on the monument tells that in 1648 Dezhnev traveled past this spectacular point. If, in good weather, he had climbed the hillside where we stood, he would have been the first to report the sighting of North America from Asia.

From Naukan we set sail south along the coast of Chukotka, heading for the Chukchi village of Lorino. As we arrived and the Clipper Odyssey dropped anchor offshore, people from the village streamed down the steep sand bank from the village to the beach below. Some set up tables with their wares to sell, others spread them out on the beach.

Lorino dancers

Lorino, Chukotka - dancers ready themselves to greet the next incoming Zodiac. (Photo by David Koester).
Click image for a larger view.

From the boat we could only make out that there were groups of people and that clearly they were expecting us. We headed ashore in Zodiacs and quickly the arrivals were attracted by the items for sale: seal skin slippers with beaded decorations, fur hats of fox, seal and reindeer calf, ivory carvings and dolls. Many were disappointed to learn that we could not purchase sea mammal products to bring back into the U.S. Sales,nevertheless went forward at a brisk pace, as virtually all importable items were purchased. As the sales slowed, everyone gathered for a dance performance by a local dance troupe. After the performance there were more festivities on the beach, including a boating race in umiaks.

Many of us walked up the hill to visit the town. We walked around, asking our way to the local store, not because we wanted to buy anything, but the see what was available. We stopped to speak with a school teacher named Natalia. She was Russian, originally from Kazakhstan, and had worked in the village school for 25 years. She generously stopped and answered numerous questions from the interested crowd that gathered around. The school had ten grades and there was also a huge day care and kindergarten facility. The town had both 24-hour electricity and heat from a coal burning central steam plant and she credited the new governor, Abramovich, for the fact that these were in full operation. We asked about the store and she said that there were actually three in town. All, though, were closed at the time. We stood outside a building that said cafeteria (stolovaia), but she told us that it now served as a clubhouse.

streets of Lorino

The streets of Lorino. (Photo by David Koester).
Click image for a larger view.

As we left, a woman approached asking if anyone wanted to purchase reindeer antlers. One person did and she took a couple of us to her apartment where we met her husband who showed us in. The apartment was much like Soviet apartments elsewhere. The woman apologized profusely in advance for its humble appearance. She brought us into a narrow kitchen with a small window, stove and washbasin, a table and two stools. Six small mushrooms were drying on a string over the countertop. They were the only sign of food in the kitchen. She invited us to sit down while her husband went to retrieve the antlers. She wanted 200 rubles for them but was faced with a dilemma. We had no rubles because we had had no opportunity to change money. She did not feel confident that she would be able to change dollars. We then went in search of someone who would be willing to change but quickly found that the town was simply lacking in cash. A good exchange rate meant nothing -- people, even some of the business people, simply did not have any money. In the last minutes before departure we found a merchant on the beach who was willing to exchange at a very unfavorable rate and the purchase was made. The woman was grateful and said that the money would help them to fix things in their kitchen.

As we boarded the boats some villagers ran to the shore attempting to make last minute sales and many of us wondered what would be the lasting impact of this invasion of the people in Zodiacs. Would the infusion of dollars do anything to stimulate the local economy? Would there be anything other than vodka and sweets for people to buy in the stores? We left to the stark contrast of our ship of luxury and hoped that this had been a positive touristic encounter for at least some of the people of Lorino.

(View the day's photos)


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