Questions Frequently Asked by Tourists on St. Paul Island, Alaska

One reason I haven’t posted much lately here is that I’ve been working on this FAQs document for my job with St. Paul Island Tours. The idea was that, as a newbie tour guide, I would learn the answers if I had to do the research myself and write a “paper” to share with future tour guides. The catch-22 is: how do I know which questions are most frequently asked until I’ve been here for a season? Nonetheless, certain patterns have emerged after just two-and-a-half months here. I thought I’d share the questions, and answers, with you. This is certainly not creative writing (and I’d even say it’s still in draft form) but there might be some tidbits in here you’ll find interesting. I’ve done my best to make sure these are true facts, but bear in mind that tour guides are known to make shit up now and then.

So far, the tourists seem most interested in me, their tour guide. I feel a bit incredulous about this — “What’s the big deal? Why don’t you ask me something about the island?” I want to say — but usually there’s a barrage of questions like this at the beginning of every tour: What’s your story? How’d you get to be a guide? How’d you get this job? Where do you live when you’re on the island? Where do you live in the winter? Where are you from? How did you end up in Alaska? What do you do for work in the winter? What do you do on your days off? How did you end up on St. Paul Island? How long will you be on the island?

By this time, I’m already talked out, but now we move on to more pressing matters (and unanswerable questions) such as: Where are all the boats that I see on Deadliest Catch? Why aren’t there any puffins, auklets, or red-legged kittiwakes on the cliffs? Does the sun ever come out? Is it always foggy? Where is my luggage? When will it get here?

(Sigh… Please ask me something that’s more cut-and-dried…)

 

What are the meal times? (that’s more like it)

Breakfast 7:00-8:00; Lunch 11:30-12:30, Dinner 5:00-6:00.

 

What time zone are we in?

Alaska Standard Time (AKST), which is UTC -9:00 hours. This is the same time zone as Anchorage, and is one hour behind Pacific Standard Time.

 

How much does it cost to mail a postcard?

Small postcard $0.34; Large postcard or US letter $0.49; International for both sizes of cards, and letters $1.15.

 

How big is St. Paul Island?

St. Paul Island is 42 square miles in area. This is about twice as big as Manhattan Island, NY, and half the size of Martha’s Vineyard, MA. By contrast, the island of Oahu, Hawaii, is 14 times the size of St. Paul. The island is 12 miles from Northeast Point to Reef Point; 9.7 miles from east to west; and 4.6 miles from north to south.

 

How many people live here?

About 430 (in 2017), and in decline. The population is 76% Native Alaskan, 11% white, 13% other (or mixed race).

 

Why is the population in decline?

Halibut and crab fisheries are in decline, and those are the main economic resources here.

 

How many kids are in the school?

St. Paul Island school is pre-K thru 12, and has about 60 students.

 

What do people do here? (How do they make a living)

They work for TDX and the Tribal Government (Environmental Conservation Office, the clinic, the grocery store), the City (public works, power plant, maintenance, gas station, police), the airport, Pen Air, the Post Office, and fish for halibut. TDX shareholders receive an annual dividend (I think, but I don’t know how much this is). As Alaska residents, they are also eligible to collect the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend ($1,000 per person in 2016). The locals don’t work for Trident, probably because the pay is Alaska minimum wage ($9.75/hour in 2016). Trident employees are mostly seasonal Filipino workers. Tour company guides, Fish and Wildlife (seabird researchers), and Fisheries (seal researchers) are generally not locals, either. Other seasonal workers include construction contractors in the summer and crab fishery workers in the winter.

 

What do people do here? (Local art, culture & recreation)

There are several artists who sell their art locally. The Community Advocacy Center (CAC) has art classes and open studio hours. There’s an Unangan (Aleut) drumming and dancing group. Kids play basketball and ride bikes (mostly between 9 pm and midnight). People watch satellite TV, and have Facebook, smart phones, and video games. For kids, there’s SCUBA camp, Seabird Camp, and a Summer Enrichment program. There’s a tavern (beer and wine, pool, darts, shuffleboard) and sometimes the local rock band plays. People drive around, ride ATVs, go beachcombing, have bonfires, potlucks and barbeques.

Also, June 14th is the Evacuation Day memorial and walk to East Landing. Fourth of July is one of the biggest events of the year, with softball games, a community barbeque with halibut, reindeer, and crab, The Grease Pole, horseshoes, a dance, and other festivities. TDX has their Annual Meeting after the Fourth. There’s a craft and food fair in mid-August. (Homemade fish pie by Zee is the main attraction.) Folks participate in subsistence harvests: wild celery harvest, murre egg collection, fur seal harvest, reindeer hunting.

 

Where are we, exactly?

57 degrees North latitude = Drawing a line at this latitude around the earth, we’re actually south of Juneau, more in line with Sitka, Alaska, and northern Scotland and Denmark. An equivalent latitude in the southern Hemisphere would pass through the Southern Ocean between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula.

170 degrees West longitude = Going north, you’d hit mainland Russia a bit west of the Bering Strait. Going south, you’d be west of the main Hawaiian Islands, east of Midway and New Zealand. Otherwise, there’s just water on the 170th meridian (until you hit Antarctica).

 

How far away is the nearest land?

It’s approximately 230 miles north to Nunivak Island, 250 miles south to the Aleutian Islands, and 300 miles east to mainland Alaska. Anchorage is 770 miles away.

 

How far away is Russia?

About 500 miles to the nearest point of mainland Russia, going north. Traveling west to Kamchatka, Russia is about 975 miles away.

 

Who owns the island?

Tanadgusix Corporation (TDX) owns the vast majority of the island. The US Department of the Interior owns the seabird cliffs and US Fish and Wildlife manages them as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Other US government properties include the research station on Salt Lagoon (Dept. of Interior and Dept. of Commerce), the US Coast Guard LORAN station by Pumphouse Lake, and the National Weather Service Station. Lots and houses in town are privately owned.

 

What is TDX?

The local tribal corporation, Tanadgusix, which was formed as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA).

 

When did the seabird cliffs become part of the AMNWR?

In 1981 US Deptartment of Interior acquired the seabird cliffs from TDX in order to establish the Pribilof Islands Subunit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. The Secretary of the Interior paid TDX (and St. George’s Tanaq Corp.) $5,200,000 for “specified shoreline from mean high tide to a point 150 feet inland from the top edge of the cliffs as well as other lands on St. Paul and St. George Islands, and the entireties of Walrus and Otter Islands.”

 

Where is the town water supply?

Pumphouse Lake, between the Airport and Telegraph Hill.

 

Where does the town get its power?

City diesel generators, located behind the gas station (near the crab pots and Black Diamond Hill).

 

What’s the story on the wind turbines?

The wind-diesel power system was installed by TDX Power and Northern Power Systems of Vermont in 1998 to run the industrial facility and airport complex on the island, for the cost of $1.2 million. Currently TDX is working with the community of St. Paul on a plan to bring a lower cost energy source to all members of the community, with a goal of eventually reaching 80% of all energy consumed on the island to come from renewable energy sources by 2025. (TDX Newsletter, May 2017).

 

How old is the Russian Orthodox Church?

A chapel was built out of driftwood around 1821, when the Russians first started transplanting Aleut people here to harvest the fur seals. This was replaced with a larger chapel, built by the Russian American Company in 1840. A more substantial church was built in 1873 by island residents. This one could not withstand the elements, and the current church was built in 1906 and restored in 2001. It did not get its large golden “onion dome” until sometime between 2001 and 2017.  Church services are in English, Aleut, and Slavonic and occur on Saturdays at 6 pm (Vespers) and Sundays at 10 am (Divine Liturgy). The church plays a strong role in the Native community; for example, it was the only place the Aleut people were allowed to speak their own language. Church tours are available. Preferred times are non-flight days, either before or after lunch.

 

Where did the Aleut people who were brought here by the Russians come from originally?

Atka and Unalaska.

 

Russian history & influence

Although the Aleut people knew of the islands, no permanent settlements or villages were here prior to 1786 when Russian fur trader Gavrili Pribylov traced the fur seals to their rookeries on St. Paul Island. In 1788, the Russian-American Company enslaved and relocated the native people from the Aleutian Islands to the Pribilofs.

The United States purchased the Alaska Territory from Russia in 1867, for 7.2 million dollars. Known as “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox” the purchase price has been repaid many times over by the fur trade, gold rush, timber extraction, oil boom, and fishing industries. The government’s revenue for a  single 20-year fur seal lease to the Alaska Commercial Company (1870-1890) netted over $6 million, paying for the total Alaska purchase. Alaska became the United States’ 49th state in 1959.

 

What are those structures on the beach?

Catwalks and towers so researchers can safely study the fur seals.

 

What kind of research are they doing?

Counts of adult males. Counts of dead pups. Pup production estimates. Satellite tracking of females to determine foraging behavior relative to prey distribution. Flipper tags to assess survival and reproductive rates. VHF tags to assess migration rates and attendance patterns (time at sea and on land).

 

How many fur seal researchers come to the island?

Maybe six? It varies depending on project demands.

 

How many northern fur seals are in the rookeries on St. Paul Island?

Approximately 350,000.

 

Where are the seals when they’re not here?

They leave Alaska rookeries in October-November and remain offshore until March-June. Adult males overwinter in the North Pacific. Females and subadult males spend the winter offshore from SE Alaska to California.

 

How many pups does each female have?

One per year. Pups are born within 48 hours of the female arriving in the rookery, in mid- to late-June. Mating occurs immediately afterwards. Gestation period is 11.8 months. Mothers nurse pups for about 4 months.

 

How much do fur seals weigh?

Male fur seals weigh 300-600 pounds; Females 65-110 pounds; newborn pups 11-12 pounds. Potentially, a large male could outweigh a small female by almost ten-to-one.

 

How is the fur seal population doing?

In serious decline. Since 1998, pup production in the Pribilofs has declined by 45%, or at an annual rate of 3.7%.

 

Why are they in decline?

No clear answer, but it is likely a food-supply issue. “Significant data gaps still exist in our understanding of relationships between northern fur seals and their primary prey, walleye pollock.” (Alaska Fisheries Science Center, 2016). Walleye pollock is one of the primary target species for the Bering Sea industrial fishing fleet.

 

What other marine mammals are around in the summer?

Steller’s Sea Lion and Harbor Seal. Orcas appear occasionally, more often in the fall when the seal pups start learning to swim.

 

Are there walruses here?

No, although they may occasionally be sighted in the winter.

 

What’s the water temperature of the Bering Sea?

34°F (1°C) in the winter to 50°F (10°C) in the summer.

 

Are the reindeer native to the island?

No.

 

Then how did the reindeer get here?

In 1892, the idea for introducing reindeer to Alaska came from US Revenue Cutter Captain Michael A. “Hell Roaring Mike” Healy with support from Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson. This was meant to be a humanitarian effort to save Native Alaskans from starvation. Throughout the mid to late 1800s, whaling ships moved up and down the Bering Sea coast of Alaska.  By the time they left, the local populations of marine mammals had been severely impacted, leaving the Alaskan Natives without some of their major food sources. In 1911, the US Bureau of Fisheries introduced twenty-five reindeer from Russian stock to St. Paul Island. The herd increased to over 2,000 reindeer by 1938, triple the carrying capacity of the island. By 1950, the herd became severely depleted (down to 8 individuals) due to harsh winters, poaching, and starvation. In 1951, thirty-one reindeer were brought to the island from Nunivak Island. Nunivak’s reindeer were also of Siberian stock, but had been crossed with Alaskan caribou. So, St. Paul’s reindeer have more caribou blood and are larger than typical domesticated reindeer. The herd, as of 2017, is about 300-400. They are seen more often in the spring, moving between Pumphouse Lake and Antone Lake area and Southwest Point. They are harder to find later in the season as hunting is allowed by permit and the reindeer stay more to the interior of the island, out of view of the roads. The meat is an important subsistence food source for the local people. Since introduction, the reindeer have depleted almost all the lichen on the island, and now graze on grass and dig for roots.

 

Aren’t reindeer and caribou the same thing?

Yes, sort of. Reindeer and caribou in Alaska are the same species, Rangifer tarandus. There are seven subspecies found globally. Alaska’s native mainland caribou are the barren-ground subspecies, Rangifer tarandus granti. The introduced domesticated reindeer are the Siberian subspecies, Rangifer tarandus sibericus.

 

Are the Arctic foxes introduced?

No. They made their way here over pack ice/floating ice, and are a native species. The Pribilof fox is actually considered to be its own unique subspecies. They were here when the Russians arrived, and between 1871 and 1930s, foxes were harvested for their fur, with up to 1,000 animals taken annually.

 

Do the foxes have any predators?

Not really, although circumstantial evidence in 2017 (plucked fur pile and half a fox carcass) would indicate that White-tailed Eagles eat them now and then. People can get a permit to hunt or trap foxes.

 

What other land mammals are here?

Pribilof shrew – Sorex pribilofensis, is a St. Paul Island endemic. May find under boards out on the tundra.

Domestic cat – big & fluffy!

Rats — not here. There are on-going prevention, monitoring, and control efforts to keep them away, as they would devastate seabird populations if introduced.

House mouse – introduced in Russian times.

 

Why aren’t dogs allowed?

The US Secretary of Commerce banned dogs in 1917 “In order to prevent the molestation of the fur-seal and fox herds.” Also, dogs can transmit disease to seals and foxes. These include rabies, canine distemper, canine hepatitis, and leptospirosis.

 

Will I find any Woolly Mammoth tusks here?

Probably not, although St. Paul Island was one of the last strongholds of Woolly Mammoths. Radiocarbon dating shows that they were here as recently as 5,400 years ago. Only on Wrangel Island, off the coast of Siberia, did mammoths last longer, until about 4,000 years ago.

 

Who owns Trident?

Trident Seafoods is an American company, based in Seattle, WA.

 

How is the fish/crab shipped out of St. Paul?

On barges.

 

When is crab season?

February.

 

Are these the boats they use for crab fishing?

No, these are halibut fishing boats.

 

What kind of rock is this?

The island is volcanic, and formed about 14,000 years ago. It is the youngest eruptive center in the Bering Sea basalt province. The last eruption was at Fox Hill (west side of island) approximately 3,200 years ago. The island has scoria and spatter cones, and “hoodoo”-shaped vents. Because St. Paul was never glaciated these features are still present. By contrast, St. George Island was glaciated and doesn’t have any cones.

 

How many plant species are on the island?

Approximately 195.

 

Are there any invasive plants on the island?

There are approximately 11 non-native, common weed plants on the island, but none are considered particularly invasive or a threat to the ecosystem. These include common dandelion, Kentucky and annual bluegrass, chickweed, common buttercup, white clover, and common plantain.

 

Why aren’t there any trees here?

In order for them to reproduce, trees need a minimum number of warm days annually. There aren’t enough warm days here per year. Climate change might make a difference, though. (No, it’s not because it’s windy, or cold, or too far north, or because of salt spray.)

 

Were there ever any trees here?

No. Pollen cores show that this has always been a tundra environment.

 

Where does all this driftwood come from?

Most likely from Southeast and South Central Alaska. It is brought north on the Alaskan Stream Current, which flows from the Gulf of Alaska and then west along the south side of the Aleutian Islands. It then passes through several breaks in the Aleutian Island Chain, and joins the counterclockwise Bering Sea Current.

 

Is there any radiation from Fukushima in the water or seafood here?

No.  Check out this Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute page.

 

How many species of insects are here?

About 276.

 

What’s this beetle?

Carabus truncaticollis. Its range is Russia and the East Palearctic.

 

And finally: this is the one question we tour guides wish someone, anyone, would ask, but no one has yet: Would you like us to leave you this extra whisky?

 

 

 

 

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

2 Responses to Questions Frequently Asked by Tourists on St. Paul Island, Alaska

  1. Nancy Fowler says:

    Hey there kid, this was fascinating. and made me think about better questions to ask on a tour :-)! and to bring an extra bottle of whiskey.

    Like

  2. Dede Higman says:

    Thanks, Cindy! Sounds like you’re having a very interesting summer. Look forward to seeing you back in Seldovia!

    Like

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