A May 1 Magazine article about Savoonga, Alaska, incorrectly attributed a remark from the movie "Jaws" to Richard Dreyfuss. It was Roy Scheider's character who spoke of needing a bigger boat.
|The cemetary on the outskirts of Savoonga: Too many kids are buried there.(Michael Williamson)|
Only it isn't the end of the Earth. You can see that, right on the map. To get to the end of the Earth from Nome you would have to hop a small plane and head 130 miles out into the Bering Sea, where you would land on an island so remote that it is closer to Russia than the U.S. mainland. To the people of Siberia, this island is the middle of nowhere. On it, according to the map, is a village named Savoonga.
Savoonga. Va-voom. Bunga bunga. Funny, no?
I thought so, too, when I first saw it. It gave me an idea for a funny story. In the dead of winter, I would pack up and blindly head to Savoonga, unannounced and unprepared. No research at all, no planning beyond the booking of a room, if there was one to be had.
The whole thing was an inside joke, one with a swagger. It is a journalist's conceit that a good reporter can find a great story anywhere--in any life, however humble, and in any place, however unwelcoming.
That is how photographer Michael Williamson and I came to be in a small commuter plane in late February, squinting out onto a landscape as forbidding, and as starkly beautiful, as anything we'd ever seen. Land was indistinguishable from sea--the white subarctic vista, lit to iridescence by a midafternoon sun, was flat and frozen straight to the horizon. The first clue that we were over an island was when the village materialized below us. It looked as negligible as a boot print in the snow, the grimy, nubby tread left by galoshes. The nubs were one-story buildings, a few dozen of them, and that was it.
I'm back now, trying to make sense of what we saw, trying to figure out how to tell it. It's all still with me, except for the swagger.
LET'S PUT TO REST ONE CLICHE. You can sell refrigerators to Eskimos.
The people of Savoonga are Yupiks, the westernmost of the
Eskimo tribes, closer to Siberians than American Eskimos in their appearance, their customs and their distinctive, liquidly sibilant native language. And, yes, they all have refrigerators. In the winter, food gets freezer burn if left out in the elements. Eskimos need refrigerators to keep their food warm.
I was still unpacking in the small lodge we had rented (two refrigerators!), wondering how to find a funny story line that somehow would capture the otherworldiness of where we were. At that moment, there was a knock on the door. An Eskimo named Larry walked in and produced from beneath his parka, swaddled in a towel, two treasures to sell. They were bones of formidable size, polished to an impressive shine. Each was roughly the dimensions of the handle of a lumberjack's axe. I asked what they were.
"Walrus dicks," he said.