“You can see Russia from my house!”

Wales, AK sunset w/ feint outline of Big Diomede island, Russia

–Tina Fey as Sarah Palin

(The blog post photo reveals the feint outline of Big Diomede island.)

Heading to Nome, AK tomorrow, and will greatly miss this tiny community of 143 people on the mainland tip of the Seward Peninsula, the closest village to mainland Russia. Out in the middle of the Bering Sea lies Little Diomede (USA) and Big Diomede (Russia), only 2.7 miles apart.

This struggling community has a lot of spunk & a lot of heart. None of the other places in Alaska have given me as much welcome. From the first moment I stepped off the plane, I was greeted by a giant panda bear named Sherman, the town hipster & an awesome Eskimo dancer. His wife Meliya & their three kids are just super cool people. I’d love to be their neighbor!

Anyhow, all week long people have been willing to give me interviews. The only time they didn’t work out was when the person had to leave town for something or I was late & missed the appointment. This happened twice these last two evenings, but oh well.

Everyone is related to each other here. Literally. On the village phone list, only 6 or 7 main families are listed. Everybody else is either at their house, or next door. You just have to know who lives with whom to track folks down.  I even got the scuttlebutt that there are two young couples who are first cousins who are dating.  With slim pickins’, what can you do?

There are no toilets or running water in the houses; only the school & teachers’ quarters have plumbing. Water is outside of town, and requires a truck or ATV to get to it so that a large cistern can be filled. It has very high levels of uranium, but still considered “safe”. At least it’s not brown.  Several windmills were put into town to help off-set energy costs. But then a disagreement broke out about which native corporation would maintain them, and so they are now all broken & idle.

But don’t let these things taint your image of Wales as a backwater village in the “bush”, as Alaskans call it. Ok, so it is in the bush, but the people here are just fantastic. Folks complain a lot about squabbles in the city/native council. However, to me, that’s an indication that people care. If folks didn’t care, they wouldn’t complain.  Besides, who _doesn’t_ have a family that squabbles? In essence, that’s what happens in Wales: family members bicker to decide what’s right for all. Not unusual.

That being said, the village is in transition, and will need to start handing down the reigns to the younger generation. Only 1-2 people under 40 have shown interest. But, the tide is slowly turning.

The wind is pretty abominable. Apparently with climate change, winds come earlier and last longer than before. This greatly affects subsistence living.

On that note, Wales is a tough little village given all they’ve been through. Wave after wave of illness hit the village starting in about 1890, going through the Spanish Flu of 1918. Population plummeted from 500+ to its current level of 140. The village simply never recovered. Many elders died too quickly for native hunting & gathering habits to be passed on. Ironically, it took a white man, a school teacher, to bring back whaling in the community around 1970. From there, several crews were formed in the village.

Wales has had moderate success in whaling over the years. Not as plentiful as Point Hope. The two factors from what I can tell are: expenses to run a crew, thinner & less flat ice (ice freezing in waves caused by the horrible winds which didn’t use to be so horrible) making access to whales in the open water as they migrate through the straight more difficult.

This is in addition to the alcohol and marijuana problems that plague all Alaskan native communities.

That being said, I met several wonderful people who are active in their kids’ lives. They take them to school every day, and are saving for their college educations. They are active in pursuing work, and they want to sustain themselves off welfare. They scold not only their kids, but other people’s kids, too. The now overly used phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child” actually happens here & I’ve witnessed it.

Wales is proud to be known as friendly, open folks who welcome outsiders, and who raise polite and respectful kids. Booze & dope or not, everybody I’ve met in town, young or old, has been polite, helpful, courteous & nice. If Wales could just find a way to bottle this & sell it, they’d be bazillionaires. One elder grandma told me today that she was really happy I came, and it was nice to have me around for this last week. She said she’ll miss me being here. Wow! What sweetness…

Expeditions of all kinds come through Wales. Kite surfers trying to kite surf across the straight, folks from California jet skiing all the way up to Alaska, swimmers doing the Diomede section of the channel, etc. Not only has Wales been exposed to such diverse groups, but also they embrace this specialness about their land & welcome people in to share it.

Wales is also getting back to their cultural roots, via a bi-lingual class at school, a dance troupe, and inviting elders in to the school to demonstrate native food prep & crafts techniques.

I was going to write about the dance festival here, but realized there was too much to say, so will make it a separate post. 

 

***

Today there was a muskox on the road. It’s a cool, hairy, big animal with horns. I didn’t get very close.

Also, the yearly clam washup happened on shore. Clams, starfish, crab, sea worms, etc. all wash up on the flat shore in calmer waves. The wind had died down enough to allow the material to be deposited. In borrowed rubber boots, I squished along the shoreline, stepping on starfish, clam shells, crab, and other detritus from the sea, sometimes 6 inches thick!

It was like nothing I’d ever seen. People have been out clamming since dawn, and they were out at dusk tonight. Folks boil them, and eat some, then pack the rest away for winter, to help add variety in the cold, long Winter months.

Other items eaten were some kind of fat sea worm that had a thick black outer casing on it. Inside was a bright orange. I tried eating a sea worm raw, on the advice of a lady. She said they were “sweet like snickers”. Um, not exactly. Essentially, you bite off the head, squeeze out the innards, then eat the outer casing. It was pretty chewy, only got a little sweet after chawing on it for 5 minutes, had the consistencey of boiled rubber bands, and nearly made me gag when I swallowed. I felt sick for several hours after that. Only when I was offered “tundra tea” at Sherman & Meliya’s did my tummy begin to feel better.

“Tundra tea” is made from some kind of evergreen-ish ground covering. Bushes & trees don’t grow here, like in Point Hope. So, it’s just a ground covering, but has an evergreen smell, much like a Christmas wreath. The tea is really nice, and perfect with a dollop of honey.

***

Goodbye, sweet, Wales! May your strong heart bring you forward into the future with the same grace, hospitality, and generosity that you showed me.

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