First Impressions of St. Paul Island

May 11, 2017

I’m sitting next to Barbara on the plane. She’s an Aleut elder, grew up on St. Paul Island, and is returning home from Anchorage. She crosses herself before take-off, and again before landing, and points out that one of our fellow passengers is Father John, the priest from the island’s Russian Orthodox church. I’m not sure if I should feel reassured or concerned by all the praying, but decide to go with the former.

A tiny gap opens up through the fog, enough for the pilot to land, apparently, and for a moment I see white-capped water from the plane window. Turbulence makes the plane shake and shudder. The edge of the island is clad in winter-brown grass. Sand dunes remind me of the Great Lakes shoreline, but there are no trees. We touch down. Everyone sighs with relief, and jokes around with the flight attendant and pilot as we leave the plane. As we shuffle down the narrow isle, Barbara tells me that she lives in the senior housing up on the hill, and says, “So, now you have a friend on the island!”

I follow the crowd through a warehouse/garage/storage area with a mothballed firetruck and other equipment inside, and down several hallways to a receiving area and gift shop. Big smiles and handshakes from my new co-workers, Dennis and Barbara (not the same Barbara as my friend from the plane). Everyone is friendly and welcoming. Barbara has a facial tattoo, a line of wave-like shapes across her cheekbones. I see in her face the strength and endurance of generations of Aleut people. People of Sea. People who survive.

Dennis drives me to town, on the dusty main road. In the lee of a building, a little clump of Sitka spruce trees hunker down; they are about three feet tall, and look more like a single juniper shrub than trees. “That’s the St. Paul National Forest!” Dennis jokes. Beyond the buildings, we see the reindeer herd, way back against the hills. Tawny brown to match the dried grasses, with dark velvet antlers, and small calves chocolate brown, they blend into their surroundings surprisingly well. Dennis stops the truck so I can take a look. “You might not see them again for the rest of the year,” he tells me.

Town is dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church up on the hill, and the Trident fish processing plant down by the waterfront. The first has a golden onion-dome on the steeple; the second has four smokestacks. This is an island town, a couple of hundred miles from the nearest land, out in the middle of the Bering Sea. It’s village Alaska. It’s bush Alaska. At first glance, it’s rough around the edges. Rust, broken window panes, piles of stuff – sheet metal, buckets, shingles, plywood, lumber, metal drums, crates, tires – scattered everywhere. Plastic trash (packing material, shrink wrap from palletized cargo, junk food wrappers) blows in the wind, and gets wrapped around satellite dish supports. You can tell how hard and which way the wind is blowing because of the trash. I remind myself that it’s early spring, the “snow on the north side/trash in the yard” time of year. And with no trees, everything is visible. What you see is what you get. There’s nowhere to hide.

I haven’t been here for twenty-four hours yet, and have heard about how the kids will go inside any unlocked space, will take stuff, will vandalize things. How anything that isn’t locked down will walk away. There’s a padlock on the fridge in the tourist hotel; otherwise the islanders come in the back door and help themselves to the beer and wine. There is a safe house in town for women to get away from abusive men. I’ve heard two stories about recent suicides.

And this place has a history of slavery. The island was uninhabited until the Aleut people were brought here by the Russians to harvest fur seals. When they purchased the Alaska Territory from Russia in 1867, the US government then took over the seal industry, and kept the Aleuts enslaved. Kids were sent away to boarding school, not allowed to speak their native language. Everyone was forcibly evacuated during World War II – “twenty-four hours’ notice, only allowed to take one bag,” Dennis tells me – and sent to an internment camp in Southeast Alaska. People died. During this time, some of the island men enlisted in the US Army and were off fighting for America, while other US military men occupied the island. When the islanders returned from the war and from the internment, their houses had been trashed by the military. It’s a dark past, a vicious history, and an enduring legacy of injustice.

And yet, the strength of these people, and of the land itself, shines through. I see it in Barbara’s beautiful tattooed face. I see it in the Church, glowing up there on the hill. I see it in the agile, joyful kids playing basketball across the street from my house. I see it in the hunter who walks along the top of the cliffs. I don’t know what he’s after, but the community’s subsistence foods include sea birds, sea lion, seal, halibut, and reindeer. Life is persistent. Against the wind and the surf, only the strong survive.

And the birds? So far, I have caught glimpses from afar, without my binoculars, on the drive into town. Shorebirds and a few gulls in the lagoon. Grey-crowned Rosy-finches right outside the dorm where I will be living. Auklets and snow buntings. But I have been busy unpacking, getting settled, trying to process all this. I feel a bit like a fraud. If I was a real birder, a real guide, the first thing I would have done is get my ass out there to see what there is to be seen. After I go to the store and have lunch and unpack a bit more, that’s what I’ll do.

This entry was posted in Alaska, Birds, Culture, Fauna, History, Islands, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife, Work and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to First Impressions of St. Paul Island

  1. carolyn doe says:

    Hi Cindy.

    I just want to tell you how much I love your stories!
    If you ever write a book I will buy it.
    Just saying.
    You write what I love to read.

    And you have the courage to experience new things.
    I am a fan.


    Sent from my iPhone


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