by Doug Prince
The Farthest Shore
By Jennifer A. Villeneuve '01
"You can see Siberia today," Chris Koonooka said as we watched the seal hunters returning across the dark blue water of the Bering Sea. Ice floes like miniature islands bobbed in front of the hazy peaks of the Siberian Chukotski peninsula, 35 miles away. The sunlight on the ice and snow was so bright that each blink was like turning on a floodlight in a dark room. The wind was mercifully light; usually it blows in gusts of 20 to 40 miles per hour, pelting your skin with particles of snow.
Chris was born and raised here in the village of Gambell, Alaska, on the northwest tip of Saint Lawrence Island. I had met him in the fall of 1999 while studying at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks through the National Student Exchange Program. We talked frequently about his village, and when he invited me to visit Gambell, I accepted. That is how I found myself on the edge of the Bering Sea in the third week of March, watching hunters struggle with their boats.
Ten men, their burly arms straining, grabbed a rope and tugged an aluminum boat with four men inside it up the steep bank. There were no docks, no cleats or pulleys to help them, and the water was a three- to five-foot drop from the ice. These men were returning from a bearded seal hunt. They had been out for several hours in their open 18-foot boats, armed with rifles, knives and harpoons, pursuing their prey across the slapping waves. Now they were returning with slabs of deep-red seal meat, a nutritious and savory staple in the diet of the Yupik people.
Gambell looks like most arctic villages. The houses are simple one-story boxes, wood-framed and vinyl-sided. Sheds, as they are called, form the entrance to every house. It seems to me that the story of the whole village can be found in these sheds. Inside, the smell of the sea and its animals saturates the air. Seal skin parkas, hand-sewn boots and harpoons share space with plastic bags, oil cans and rifles. The dominant feature in most sheds is a large freezer, packed with the meat of many hunts. The hunt has always been at the center of arctic life and culture, but this traditional way of life is threatened by a thoroughly modern danger: environmental pollution.
When I visited Gambell in March last year, snow encased the entire village, covering the frozen ground and tons of waste discarded by the U.S. military. In 1942, a base was constructed in Gambell so the U.S. Army, and later the Air Force, could keep an eye on the Soviets. When the base was abandoned in 1960, the detritus of 18 years was left behind: twisted cable, spilled oil, rusting metal, broken concrete, collapsed Quonset huts, hundreds of 55-gallon barrels and several 300-gallon fuel-storage tanks, unexploded ammunition, tractors and a crane. All of this and who knows what else lies buried in the frozen soil and the nearby lake.
The military waste is just the most obvious piece of a larger environmental crisis. Pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, heavy metals and radioactive compounds from the industrial world travel up the food chain and accumulate in the fat of the marine mammals eaten by the Yupik and other people of the arctic. Talk to anyone who lives in Gambell: every villager can provide you with a list of relatives or close friends who are or were victims of various kinds of cancer. The burden of proving that pollution is a key factor lies with those who are affected. In the meantime, each storm washes up more ammunition, barrels and other debris that the military "disposed of" decades ago.
My visit to Gambell left me shaken. It pained me to see how little concern my nation shows for its indigenous people and the natural world. Alaska has a long history of exploitation, first by the Russians, then by the Americans. But this history is washed over, filtered and changed in the sea of nature videos, travel brochures and gold-rush myths that form our image of Alaska.
So I swallow hard and promise to do what I can to make the remote not so remote and the truth not so obscure. In many ways, Alaska is still a vast wilderness, where every day the mind is confronted with the incomprehensible: the sheer mass of Denali, the unforgiving cold, the strength of the people, the awesome power of the grizzly and the mystic lights of the aurora borealis. But Alaska is also strategic, fragile and too conveniently remote. ~
Jennifer Villeneuve '01 majored in environmental and social science journalism. She is currently an intern at Outside magazine.
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