National Geographic : 1954 Jan
Cliff Dwellers of the Bering Sea 129 Teaching ABC's to Eskimo Youngsters on Alaska's Lonely King Island Is a Heartwarming Experience for an American Couple BY JUAN MUNoz With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author T HIN ice on the Snake River mouth crackled as our umiak, a walrus-hide boat, rammed through it. The lights of Nome, Alaska, twinkled behind us in the clear, cold October night; above shone the northern stars, dimmed by a beautiful aurora. Surrounded by Eskimos returning to their village on King Island, my wife Rie and I huddled shivering on our piled belongings. The Alaska Native Service ship, the North Star, lay at anchor three miles offshore, wait ing to take us to our winter home. Cut Off from the World for Months Our destination, rocky King Island, with a total area of two and a half square miles, lies off Seward Peninsula in the Bering Sea, 85 miles northwest of Nome (map, page 130). Its village, Ukivok, clings to cliffs on the south side of the island. During summer months King Island's Eskimos move to Nome for seasonal jobs and to carve walrus ivory for the tourist trade. In the fall they return again to nine months of isolation. This time my wife and I were to share their lonely life; we had been em ployed by the Alaska Native Service to conduct a school for King Island's children. As we drew alongside the North Star, the hoist was lowered; our skin boat and its oc cupants were swung aboard. The forward hold had been cleared of freight to make room for King Island's entire population of 150 Eskimos, together with several dozen travelers from Little Diomede Island. Each camped for the night amidst his piled belongings.* Since there is no means of transportation to and from the island during nine months of the year, everything must be bought in Nome before this annual fall departure. In jealously guarded piles we saw seal pokes full of fresh berries picked on the mainland and preserved in seal oil, walrus-skin bags bulging with newly acquired dry goods, radio batteries, and cigarettes. Supplies taken on the boat would have to last until July, when the Eskimos would return to the mainland. Early the following morning we were on deck. Behind us snow-covered hills of Alaska vanished in the distance. To the north Bering Strait and the Siberian mainland made a spec tacular backdrop for the brilliant blue water. Directly off the bow we had our first view of King Island, rising abruptly from the sea. The 1,196-foot crest of the island was covered with snow, but the steep sides were still bare. At last we were able to distinguish the village that would be our winter home. It looked for all the world like a prehistoric settlement. Closer view did little to destroy this illusion. Only two buildings, the church and the schoolhouse, had vertical lines and coats of white paint. Everything else clung to the cliffs at random angles (page 131). The North Star dropped anchor a few hun dred yards offshore. Umiaks were lowered, and unloading began. Ukivok's Eskimos worked for three days to move the mass of personal belongings and the winter supply of food and fuel. Dogs Meet Returning Islanders Eager to see our new quarters, I went ashore in the first skin boat. Immediately we were surrounded by packs of barking, tail-wagging dogs. They had been left behind to shift for themselves during the summer months. Foraging among the rocky crags, they had hunted puffins, auklets, California murres, and gulls. All appeared in the best of condition. The large three-story schoolhouse was my first objective. In the basement were work shop, storage space, and engine room. A narrow stairway led to the second floor. Here I found a large classroom; separated from it by a hallway was the living-dining room and kitchen we were to use. The third floor was taken up mainly by attic space and our bedroom. Across the front of the building, in both the living room and the classroom, windows afforded a view of King Island's restlessly changing seascape. *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "North Star Cruises Alaska's Wild West," by Amos Burg, July, 1952, and "Alaska's Russian Frontier: Little Diomede," 18 illustrations from photographs by Audrey and Frank Morgan, April, 1951.