National Geographic : 1952 Jul
North Star Cruises Alaska's Wild West When I went squishing off across the wet tundra, I found that early summer's exotic quilt of flowering plants was gone. But gone also were the clouds of hardy mosquitoes that incubate in fantastic abundance in the many tundra lakes and the round-the-clock sunshine of summer. A strange sight here is the whalebone grave yard, fenced entirely with whalebone ribs; large bowhead jawbones mark graves of the greatest hunters. People who die during the winter are kept in unused cabins or caches and interred about the Fourth of July, when the thawed ground permits grave digging. In a one-room house I visited, whalebone ribs formed the 25-foot-long entrance tunnel. Halfway in, a dog greeted me with an inhos pitable snarl. A little boy of eight booted my toothy antagonist into a yelping retreat and invited me in. I sat by the seal-oil stove in anticipation of a hot cup of tea. But the Eskimo woman who was my hostess, assuming all tourists to be antique collectors, ambled out and soon re turned with a handful of the artifacts that natives are always scratching out of the ruins of the ancient village on Point Hope.* On the beach, where 21 dog teams were now sledging supplies up from the shore, I noticed two Eskimo girls in finely tailored parkas of imported white rabbitskin. They watched the toilers like privileged aristocrats. There are no clothes-cleaning shops along the coast north of Nome, so I asked one of the girls how she kept her parka so white. "I roll my parkas in oatmeal," she replied. Possessions Pose Storage Problem We anchored next off Kivalina, 65 miles southeast of Point Hope (pages 67, 68). Kiva lina is a poor village, laid out as if somebody threw a handful of stones, then built a cabin where each stone fell. When the ice breaks up about June 1, the natives move to summer camps along the beach, where they hunt ducks and seals, in cluding the bearded seal, or square-flipper. They crowd into small tents, using the ubiqui tous primus stove for cooking. The Eskimo doubtless stored the simple implements of his primitive state with a sem blance of order. Civilization, however, has so swamped him with gadgets and clothes that he usually solves the stowage problem by throw ing everything into a miscellaneous heap at one end of his tent. The overflow is strewn, junk-yard fashion, outdoors. Looking out over the bleak sea, soon to be covered by the returning ice pack, and upon the treeless, barren tundra, all seemingly bereft of any living creature, I marveled at the ingenuity and fortitude of the Eskimo, who has wrested a livelihood for centuries from this grim setting. The Eskimo works with Nature, adheres to her laws, and is harmoni ously adjusted. Above all, he possesses faith, believing as he burns his last stick of drift wood that there is more where that came from. From Kivalina the North Star voyaged southeast to Deering, on the south shore of Kotzebue Sound (pages 66, 77). Many local Eskimos work in the gold-mining operations along the rivers that flow down the northern slopes of Seward Peninsula. There were no gardens; Arctic Eskimos are food gatherers, not food producers. Racks red with drying salmon resembled immense necktie stands (page 64). My young Eskimo guides munched con stantly on candy bars; their teeth were badly decayed. When Eskimos lived on a meat diet, tooth cavities were almost unknown. Two Continents in Sight During the evening of September 14 the North Star coasted along Seward Peninsula to ward Bering Strait, and early next morning I was roused for a sight that anyone would be lucky to see once in 20 voyages. A spectacular panorama of the 53-mile-wide strait lay be fore us: far to the right, the tip of Asia at East Cape, and to the left the westernmost reach of North America, Cape Prince of Wales. The Diomede Islands lay between. From the masthead I gazed for an hour on this scene, as our ship crawled over the dark waters toward Little Diomede. The rugged headland of East Cape still held snow patches. All the visible land was barren of discernible vegetation. An Arctic tern flew down the chilly wind, and scoters threshed the sea. This was the scene the great English ex plorer, Capt. James Cook, saw in 1778 on his third world voyage, when he became the first white man on record to sight the two conti nents at once. A year later, after Cook's death in Hawaii, one of his captains returned to this region and described the scene: "The weather becoming clear, we had an opportunity of seeing, at the same moment, the remarkable peaked hill, near Cape Prince of Wales, on the coast of America, and the East Cape of Asia, with the two connecting islands of Saint Diomede between them." Sweeping wide of shoal waters, we steered for Cape Prince of Wales. We anchored off Wales at noon. Here 35 tar-papered shacks, a few government buildings, and an airfield make up the westernmost mainland settlement in the Americas. Wales sits under * See "Discovering Alaska's Oldest Arctic Town (Ipiutak)," by Froelich G. Rainey, NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1942.