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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Expedition Log: August 18, 2001

Shelia Nickerson

Itygran Island and Yanrakino Village, Russia

Having moved south and west down the Russian coast overnight, the Clipper Odyssey pulled into Itygran Island at eight in the morning under clear, bright skies, with frost on the ground and wild flowers in profusion. There we visited an archaeological site of great interest and some intrigue. "Whale Bone Alley," as it has come to be known, was discovered by Soviet archaeologists in 1976, but has remained untouched since and little is known of this strange and compelling place. What we encountered was a long double line of bowhead whale bones -- jaws and ribs -- running parallel along the shore for hundreds of yards. Many of the bones, especially the enormous jaw bones, are still standing, propped up by lichen-covered rocks. At intervals along the "alley" are found the huge skulls of the whales and some square pits. The location is thought to have been used in about 1300 as a ceremonial site, perhaps for a men's secret society, or perhaps as a feasting site for the region, an area which is still extraordinarily rich in marine mammal life. It is estimated that approximately 40,000 walrus live across the bay. Unlike anything else in the region, it recalls thoughts of Athens and Stonehenge.

 

whale ribs

"Whale Bone Alley" notice the bowhead whale ribs in the foreground with a rocky pit - possibly used in ceremonies - in the background. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

Adjacent to the lane of bones -- but not related to it -- is the site of a village abandoned in 1950, which had stood for approximately 200 years. Reportedly, no one in the village -- nor anyone in the vicinity -- knew the origin or meaning of the ceremonial site. The village itself now consists of house pits, subterranean meat caches, and middens, all covered by beach rye grass, wormwood, and flowers such as Jacob's ladder and rose root. Marine mammal bones litter the entire area. Continuing down the beach to the left of the ceremonial site, we found an abandoned hunter's cabin with a leg-hold trap, tin basins, and a boot. The second boot was on the beach, near a green enamel tea kettle with gull feathers inside and gull feathers and bones surrounding it. A dead, headless walrus -- a young male -- lay in the surf line. Walrus bones literally covered the beach, not surprising given the proximity to such a large rookery.

Hunter's cabin

Abandoned hunter's cabin on beach of Itygran Island.(Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

After leaving Itygran, the Clipper Odyssey continued south, stopping in the early afternoon at a small Chukchi Eskimo village named Yanrakino, with a population of approximately 200. We came ashore, again, under clear, sunny skies, and this time to a warm welcome. Villagers filled the beach landing site and the green field on top of the bluff where the town is located. They greeted us not only with waves and cheers but also with much hospitality. After we had walked up the steep path, through grass bright with forget-me-nots, they offered us drumming, dancing, hot fish soup, and whale meat. They displayed wares for sale, mostly fashioned from reindeer antlers and hides. They then displayed their prowess with games of jumping over sleds, wrestling, and lassoing reindeer antlers on the ground. Two members of our expedition -- Devon Ducharme and Bob Butt -- proved themselves worthy competitors by succeeding on their first-ever attempt at northern lassoing.

Village of Yanrakino, notice the cats playing in the street. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

After the games, an exchange of greetings was made. The shipboard community provided the village with school supplies (bought in Seattle with funds donated by passengers on an earlier trip) and clothes (collected aboard ship), to be distributed at the school. We were told by the village spokesperson that we were the second group of visitors in three years. After the formal greetings and exchanges, we were invited to wander about the town as the villagers and their many friendly dogs accompanied us. Most of the residents live in small houses, though there were some modest-sized apartment buildings as well. Sleds, racks of drying fish, and lines of washed clothes appeared on numerous roofs, and plants in many windows. Although Yanrakino in the Chukchi language means "Hard Place," the residents appear to do relatively well with a diversity of wildlife resources: marine mammals, fish, reindeer, and foxes. Electricity was evident. Rock music blared from one window. Two boys played on a small outdoor basketball court. In the background, beyond them, was tundra reaching to the horizon in one direction, acres of rusted fuel barrels in another. One family was pleased to show us young puppies and a kitten, while across the empty intersection, two pet cats played in the sunshine (we had seen no cats in the larger, starker town of Lorino the day before). A nearby hospital, housed in a small weathered building, was temporarily closed for painting. Our ship's doctor, who was given a tour, reported a "birthing chair" near the front office. A group of whale hunters told us of their difficulties with wolves, especially in the fall and winter. Almost no English was spoken. Scholar David Koester translated wherever he could. In one instance, a Christian missionary from the town of Sireniki provided a Russian-English dictionary to make a simple conversation possible. Towards the end of our visit, dog sled races were performed on the beach, with wheeled sleds.

dog sled race

Dog sled race in Yanrakino. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

It was hard to leave, not only because Yanrakino was our last stop on the Russian coast but also because its people had greeted us so warmly and given us so much to ponder. Setting out to cross the Bering Sea to Nome, we were accompanied by gray whales as well as followed by our Russian escort boat to the pelagic border. There, the red, white, and blue-striped Russian flag came down, and once more we sailed under the stars and stripes toward home.

(View the day's photos)


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