Chapter 16 A New World
St. Lawrence island is located in the Bering Sea, 125 miles west of the coast of Alaska and 40 miles from the coast of Siberia. The international dateline runs just a little to the West of it. In theory the Eskimos were able cross the dateline into tomorrow to go hunting in their skin boats and come back to today with their catch.
The island is about the size of the state of Connecticut, but had a population of only about 600 Yupik Eskimos, originally from Siberia–two villages of 300 inhabitants each.
On the northern tip of the island is the village of Gambell, an ancient site that has been continually occupied for at least 2000 years. Then halfway down the coast on the Northern side is Savoonga, a village grown from a much more recent hunting camp. I was assigned to teach here.
As the little plane flew over the Bering Sea, I looked down at the waves. It looked really cold even though it was just the beginning of September. I was glad the plane had two engines in case one gave out.
An hour later we approached the island, which appeared at first as only a thin black line on the horizon. I looked for the village and was amazed at how small it was, just a tiny cluster of plywood houses on the shore, dwarfed by the empty vastness of the island sweeping up to the low volcanic mountains that made up its backbone. When I climbed down the ladder onto the runway, I stepped onto crushed black volcanic rock. I was now in a different world.
The principle teacher, Jim, met me and helped to load my baggage into the decrepit Ford pickup left over from the construction of the runway. Then we climbed in next to the Eskimo driver and rattled down the single dirt road into town.
Actually it didn’t go into the village, only to the edge where the road ended. All the houses were built on short stilts on the Tundra and boardwalks ran between them; there was no room for roads.
Jim got some of the Eskimos to help and we carried my stuff through the village to a little house on the point of land overlooking the water’s edge.
“Here’s where you’ll live,” said Jim. He patted the stove, “This is both for heating and cooking; it runs on kerosene. The barrel for it is outside. The janitor from the school will help you fill it when it runs out. The refrigerator also runs on kerosene, so you’ll have to keep your eye on that and refill it about once a week.
“Your water is stored in some barrels in an insulated shed behind this wall.” Jim tapped the wall that faced inland towards the mountains. “It’s brought here by dogsled from a spring two miles from the village. You can drink it, but should boil it first as there are liver parasites in it.
“And here’s your toilet,” Jim pushed open a plywood door to a little cubical in the corner. “As you can see, it is a ‘honey bucket,’ a chemical toilet. When the bucket is full, you have to take it out and empty it in the sea.” I nodded, somewhat surprised.
Jim turned and pointed to a ladder leading up into the attic. “Your bed is up there. We insulated the roof this summer; hopefully it will be warm enough for you when it’s 50 below 0.”
“What about taking a shower?” I asked
“You have to come to the school. There’s a place there where you can wash but there’s no shower. Water is a precious commodity here. There’s also a wringer washer in the utility room of the school you can use to wash your clothes.”
Life was about to become very different. In addition to all the changes of living in an Eskimo village and teaching school, I had to learn how to cook for myself. Beyond bacon and eggs I had very little experience in that department. I’d already written to my sister and asked her to send me a cookbook. Hopefully I could follow the directions.
Jim looked around, and seeing that he’d covered all the essentials said, “Ok, get your stuff unpacked and come over at five for supper.” He pointed through the big window to the white building further along the water’s edge. “That’s where I live–at the back of the main school building.”
Picture: village of Savoonga from the air