Final Thesis Boards_2012 University of Michigan
I will be presenting my thesis tomorrow at 10am on my research and architectural intervention in the Bering Straits between the Diomede Islands. A bit nervous.
By JOEL GAY
Anchorage Daily News
Published: April 17th, 2005
Last Modified: April 17th, 2005 at 05:38 AM
With armed guards watching for polar bears and the Bering Sea gurgling below their feet, dozens of young Western Alaska cross-country skiers raced across the sea ice this weekend in Diomede’s first home athletic event in a generation.
Then, after the races and a night of Eskimo dancing, after a scavenger hunt for polar bear fur and king crab legs, after french toast in the gym, the 50-odd first- through fifth-graders from Wales, Teller and other tiny villages bundled up against the sub-zero cold and walked to tomorrow — crossing the International Dateline, which passes just off the edge of Little Diomede Island.
“All in all, a successful meet,” said Diomede teacher, ski coach and event organizer Ben Seymour.
Putting on any type of event on the edge of tomorrow is a trick. Diomede is the only village on Little Diomede Island, a speck of rock in the Bering Strait where the wind rarely quits and winter lasts half the year. It has no airstrip until the sea ice freezes into a runway. Helicopters deliver mail once a week, and villagers still use skin-covered boats to get groceries from Wales, 28 miles to the east.
Between the fog, wind and snow, travel to Diomede is a gamble, said Jeff Erickson of the Bering Strait School District. “We always know going out there there’s a reasonably high likelihood we’re going to stay longer than we want,” he said.
Two years ago, Erickson was stuck for a week in May, missing his son’s graduation. “It’s a terribly unique place,” he said. “It’s fun to go, but you’re always happy when your plane takes off.”
Which helps explain why Diomede hasn’t been the host team for an athletic event since at least the 1970s. Mayor Pat Omiak Sr. remembers a wrestling tournament back then, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran the school.
So there was a measure of faith involved when planning began for the elementary school cross-country ski meets several months ago. Diomede was selected, but Brevig Mission was the fall-back site.
The town leapt at the opportunity, Omiak said. “I told them we’re going to need all the help we can get,” with youngsters from six villages doubling Diomede’s elementary school population for two days — or perhaps more if the weather turned bad.
Though Diomede residents often catch king crab through the ice, Omiak said the cooks wouldn’t force any on the visitors. “These kids are probably not used to our food,” he said, “but they’re not going to go hungry.”
One particular need for a Diomede ski meet was polar bear guards. The bears are the largest carnivores on earth, weighing up to 1,300 pounds and prowling the edge of the ice looking for meals. Guards with high-powered rifles helped assure the visitors’ parents that the skiers were safe.
Longtime Bering Strait ski coach John Miles returned from Nicaragua to act as race marshal. It was his 27th consecutive meet, he said, which made planning easy.
He always starts with a scavenger hunt, he said. He teams local kids with visitors, then gives each team a list of specific goods to find, customized for whichever village is hosting the event.
The Diomede hunt included polar bear hair, which should have been easy. Drying hides of bears shot by subsistence hunters hang from clothes lines in the village of 140.
Other items on the list would require going door to door: a dead housefly from somebody’s window, an elder’s signature, a bead, some dried macaroni and the Inupiat name of the island — Inaliq.
Just traversing the village would be an adventure for kids from flat coastal villages on the mainland, Miles said. “It’s all small houses perched on rock. When you walk around in town, you walk on tiny cut-out steps in the ice,” he said. Homes are built on stilts, with steep stairways and boardwalks.
Somewhere near the middle of the village is a tiny spot on the rock, two feet square, Miles said, called the Standing Place. “It’s where you can meet people,” he said, perhaps Diomede’s equivalent of downtown.
The kids arrived Friday on the school district’s airplane, nine at a time. They started with the scavenger hunt, but by mid-afternoon the weather had warmed to about 10 degrees and all the grades had races on the sea ice. In elementary school races, the fun is in participation, not competition, Seymour said. No school wins, and no school comes in last.
That night everyone turned out to watch the Diomede dancers, fresh back from the Camai festival in Bethel.
After Miles’ french toast in the morning, the kids slipped and slid down the steep, snowy bluff, then set out for the International Date Line. It’s a little over a mile from the village and halfway to Big Diomede — Russia.
They were greeted at the edge of tomorrow by a homemade banner, stitched by Diomede moms, then stepped into Sunday and wrestled around a bit. Seymour told the kids they had just ventured into Russian territory. “I can only imagine who was watching them,” he said.
Russian troops are posted on Big Diomede, and just a week ago fired warning shots in the air when a Diomede boy ventured too far over the date line, Seymour said.
By late afternoon Saturday, the students headed back to their home villages, tired but a little more worldly than when they left.
Said Mayor Omiak, “I’m pretty sure it’s something they’re going to remember for a long, long time.”
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4310.