Down on Tolstoi Point, the coat of snow that hugged the shoreline for seven months had given way to a den of fur seals laughing like teenagers. Nearby at Ridge Wall, a steep cliff where icicles clung thickly a few weeks earlier was now covered with a blanket of red-legged kittiwakes, a rare bird with white feathers and feet the hue of ripe apples. At Slope Hill, sheets of ice thick enough to skate across were gone, too, replaced by a patchwork quilt of lemon-drop-colored poppies and purple lupines. And everything down to the grains of black volcanic sand on the beach was bathed in soft light for 20 hours at a stretch, as if all the clocks in sight were suspended at 10 o'clock in the morning.
It was summer on St. Paul Island, Alaska.
No ordinary change of season, the passage out of the mirthless Arctic winter had performed a magic act on this isolated Bering Sea outpost. As the celebrated annual thaw crept across the icy waters of Alaska, these 44 square miles of frozen rock and barren fields were transformed into one of the last undiscovered strongholds of nature in America.
The largest of a cluster of little-known islands located about 770 miles southwest of Anchorage called the Pribilofs, St. Paul is to Arctic mammals and songbirds what the Hamptons are to the elite of New York City. Never mind that the temperature never climbs above 50 degrees in July and August (up from a typical 19-degree day in midwinter). If you're anybody in the world of exotic wildlife, you come out here to show off in the summer. From May to October, seals covered with glistening black fur emerge from the sea by the hundreds of thousands to breed and frolic on the rock-covered beaches. Thick-billed murres (deep-diving birds known for their wide, white beaks), tufted puffins, parakeet auklets, cormorants and dozens of other rare feathered creatures come, too, turning this into the largest songbird colony in Alaska. Not to be outdone, several hundred blue foxes--which live here year-round--make their appearances along the dirt roads, their eyes locked in a mysterious smile.
The allure of foxes smiling and similar displays of wildlife at play attract a small group of nature specialists to St. Paul and St. George (of the five Pribilofs, they're the only two inhabited by humans, with a combined population just shy of 1,000). Ever since Henry W. Elliott, a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution, arrived in St. Paul in 1872 and quickly turned himself into the first American specialist on fur seals, a modest parade of biologists, ornithologists and plain old gawkers have made their way here, cameras and notebooks in hand, to study the wildlife or simply soak in the mood.
A few months ago, I joined that parade. Along with a group of nine outdoor writers, photographers and environmental experts, I flew across the United States for a week in the Pribilofs and other Alaskan venues, a trip organized by the World Wildlife Fund, a Washington environmental organization. The group's overall mission was to document the ecological conditions of the Bering Sea, viewed by oceanographers and fishermen as the last of the seas still rich in fish and other bounty. My goal was to explore this far-flung corner of America as a possible travel destination for the ecological-minded. For $2,900, including air fare from Washington, I figured it was the kind of trip that might intrigue a handful of specialty travelers. At the Anchorage airport, squeezed in a wobbly Reeve Aleutian jet between a BBC film crew and a motley collection of inveterate travelers to little-known havens of nature, I had only a vague idea of what lay ahead.
As it turned out, the two-hour-plus flight to St. Paul delivered us to one of the quirkiest cultures I have ever encountered on U.S. soil. Since 1786, when Russian fur traders staked down their flag here, the influence of the motherland has hung heavy over the place. As a specialist in Russian language and politics who ran The Washington Post's Moscow bureau for four years, I was intrigued to see the earmarks of that culture in an American territory.
The Russians brought Alaskan natives from the Aleutian Islands as fur sealers and apparently closely intermingled with them. Though the Russians left 130 years ago, the 750 remaining residents are mostly ethnic Aleuts with starkly Asian features and names like Medvedev and Stepetin. The island's only cemetery, sprawled across a hillside near the center of St. Paul village, was also a poignant array of crosses made of wood and painted white, the kind of burial site I had thought only existed in rural Siberia. But the strongest legacy of almost 80 years of Moscow rule on St. Paul was the onion-domed Russian Orthodox church that claims every island resident as a member.
After all that, the ambiance of St. Paul village, the island's sole residential settlement, seemed less like Russia than small-town Virginia, circa 1960. A part of America since 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska, this is a place where the speed limit in residential areas is 15 mph, kids go hog wild over Nintendo, Ricky Martin and softball, and parents spend the Fourth of July bobbing for apples and climbing a greasy pole. The cluster of one-story houses built of concrete and painted in pastel blues and yellows made it look like a disheveled suburb of Newport News, Va. For entertainment, just about every adult in town turns out at Perry's, a small, dark, wooden warren where Budweiser flows freely and karaoke singers belt out such tunes as "Car Wash" and "We Need the Bump" until the wee hours.
Clustered in one corner of the island, however, the village and all other man-made elements of the Pribilofs were easily dwarfed by the spectacle of flora and fauna unleashed in their summer of content.
During my second morning on the island, I realized why connoisseurs of pristine nature resorts may well want to opt for the Pribilofs over, say, the penguin-covered expanses of Patagonia in Argentina or the monkey-filled rain forests of Papua, New Guinea. While those locales probably will remain intact for a while, this particular paradise could someday be lost.
That thought hit me while on a wobbly catwalk, constructed just above Reef Rookery, where I had crawled for a close look at the fur seals sprawled by the hundreds along the rocks just eight feet below.
From that perch, the den of 400-pound mammals seemed as tangible as Rasta, the yellow tabby I kept for years as a house pet. I could count the fine black hairs standing along their backs like the bristles of a hairbrush, breathe in the scent of fur soaked in sea water and hear the cries--somewhere between the bleat of sheep and the yelp of new puppies--as if they were next to my ear. Some adults mated, a few pups nursed, but most of them just scrambled along the slick black rocks that lay at the edge of the sea. It was an affecting moment, but in the end, it sent a chill along my spine. Something told me that danger loomed somewhere among those seals.
Later, as the guide who had brought me there drove back in his white pickup, I shared my premonition. Terry Spraker, a Colorado veterinarian who had come to St. Paul to study seal mortality for the past 12 summers, is as much an expert on the island and its furry inhabitants as anyone.
"Since I first came here in the 1980s, I've picked up on some trends," he said. "First, the sea level is receding on the beaches. The area underneath the catwalk, now dry as a desert, used to be covered by water. Second, the young seal pups are scrawnier and there are fewer of them. They don't seem to be getting enough to eat."
The next day, during an outing to find kittiwakes and murres, I ran into an environmental scientist who underlined Spraker's observation. As a graduate student in the 1970s, Susan Massey had spent a lot of time in the Pribilofs, working on a dissertation on the islands' ecological habitat. "When I returned recently, I went straight to the rookeries and fell into shock," she said. "I had to ask, 'Where are the seals?' " she said, with a grimace. "They are clearly dwindling."
The populations of other wildlife on the Pribilofs already had suffered sizable losses. By the account of federal environmental officials, who closely track the region's precious natural resources, the number of songbirds on St. Paul fell by 40 percent during the late 1980s. Walruses and sea otters, once regular visitors, have not been seen in these parts for two decades.
In other areas of the Bering Sea, declines of certain species of mammals and birds have been even more dramatic. Stocks of king crabs collapsed in the early 1990s, sending a generation of fishermen scrambling. But stellar sea lions, the mustachioed cousins of fur seals, once considered the pride of the Bering Sea ecological habitat, have suffered a decline of more than 80 percent since the late 1970s.
The reason for the losses is unclear. Spraker, Massey and the other specialists we met could only speculate. Some think the problem is attributable to climate change, which has brought the region freaky weather conditions, including unseasonably warm days in winter, heavy rains in the dry season and more fog than ever. Others blame overfishing by vessels from the United States, Russia and other countries. If the big fishing companies haul in too many pollock and halibut, the seals would be robbed of part of their diet.
Later that evening, I returned to Reef Rookery to bid good night to the seals. I found them scooting back and forth along the rocks in their usual summer frolic. But my perspective was utterly changed. At first blush, they had struck me as robust as baby elephants. Now they seemed vulnerable, more than ever remindful of the tabby that used to sleep at the edge of my bed.
On an isolated rookery at the calmest end of the island, Eric Galaktionoff and Candace Stepetin slid on their bellies over a field of poppies and cornered a seal. While one held the disgruntled mammal at bay with a 10-foot pole, the other approached him with a long hook.
I had met the 21-year-old Aleuts earlier in the day, when they invited me and two other visitors along for this spectacle of man and beast coming together. Wary of incurring the wrath of the seals--they are said to have tossed humans the length of a football field--we decided to keep our distance. Crouched 40 feet away in a field of grass and flowers, we looked on breathlessly.
As I watched the face-off, my thoughts turned to the long-standing saga of relations between the Aleuts and the seals. Brought here by the Russians more than 200 years ago to harvest seals, the Aleuts mastered the brutal work of slaughtering the mammals and removing their pelts. After U.S. administrators took over the Pribilofs, the Aleuts carried on, turning the furs over to the federal government for a pittance. In the early years of the century, when nothing could turn heads on Park Avenue easier than a woman in a fur stole, the government stepped up its pressure on the Pribilofs, one of the country's biggest sources of fur. More than 19,000 seals were yanked from the islands' rookeries in 1921. Since then, the harvest has gradually declined.
By 1985, commercial sealing was banned altogether. No longer able to skin pelts for their livelihood, most of the island's residents have turned to fishing, hauling in boatloads of halibut and processing crabs.
Over time, interest in sealing has gradually given way to a conservationist ethic. "We have a stronger sense of the importance of all the natural life of this region," said Debbie Bordakovsy, a St. Paul-bred Aleut who is developing a program to battle pollution throughout the Bering Sea. "We have a stake in their survival."
George Stepetin, a 78-year-old former priest I met standing at the edge of the harbor, concurred. A stout man with Asian features and the forbearance of a village elder, he was holding a vigil for the local fishermen, his two sons, who were expected soon with the day's catch. "We have to protect the seals, and the rest of the life of the Bering Sea," he said. "Once they die away, we'll soon be gone, too."
One remnant of the sealing heyday is the small harvest that takes place in the Pribilofs every summer. Earlier in my trip, I had stumbled on the event in progress one morning and watched from a distance. A band of locals had rounded up a den of young seal pups and beat them with clubs. Later they would slice away the meat and divide it among the townspeople.
Sanctioned by the federal government and controlled by local officials, the harvest is the center of a vicious debate. On the one hand, conservationists argue that the practice is an anachronistic form of animal cruelty. On the other, St. Paul residents point out that seal meat is an integral part of their diet, needed for "cultural" subsistence. They view their annual take, limited to 2,000 seals a year (though the average consumption is about 1,200), as a minuscule portion of the estimated million seals that arrive on St. Paul every summer.
During six generations of sealing, the activity became an ingrained part of Aleut culture in the Pribilofs, Bordakovsy explained over dinner. "Young boys would wait until the day they could go out fur sealing. It was a badge of honor."
But earlier, on this particular Saturday, the two young Aleuts grappling with the burly seal on the beach had their minds on an honor of another kind. Rather than slaughtering the seal they had cornered, they were trying to save its life.
As leaders of a small group of ecologically minded young Aleuts, Eric and Candace have devoted the past three summers to scouring St. Paul's beaches for seals bound in netting or some life-threatening debris left by fishermen or thrown overboard by ships.
As we ambled around the island in their black pickup truck, Candace had spotted a seal lying apart from a small den with a green rope bound around its neck. Now they were faced off against the frightened creature, working to remove the bond.
As I watched, Eric and Candace moved closer to the seal. In one swift stroke, Eric slashed the cord from its throat and sent it happily galloping along the beach.
"When I got closer, I could see that the string had been around that seal's neck for a long time, at least three years," he said later. "He looked relieved to see it removed. And that made me feel happy."
Deeply curious about this place, even as my trip neared its end, I took notes about everything, from the consistency of the sand along the beaches (fine black granules left from a volcanic eruption hundreds of years ago) to the flying distance to Anchorage (767 miles) and the color of the grass covering almost every piece of earth (kelly green). Pulling aside the heavy curtains in my hotel room, I recorded when darkness fell (at about 3 a.m.) and when the soft light of day reappeared (around 6 a.m.). Using my tiny recorder, I taped the slow caw-caw of cormorants as they circled the cliffs.
On reflection, my interest in taking stock of the tiniest facts about the island probably stemmed from an awareness that I would not be back soon--and a sense that when I did return, the place, so vulnerable to environmental changes, might be utterly transformed.
Whatever the motivation, the indulgences in detail were apparently shared by other visitors. Rushing about with notebooks and cam corders, they seemed anxious that no aspect of St. Paul go undocumented. The photographers tried to capture everything they could, too, but groused that the dearth of sunlight hindered their efforts.
But then, early on the last morning of our stay, shortly before we were to make our way to the airport, the brilliant orange light of sun at daybreak hit the island. Eager to seize the moment, the photographers dressed hurriedly, grabbed their Minoltas and Canons, and raced to capture what they could before the clouds settled in.
Afterward, I asked several of them how they had fared during that 10-minute photo-op. George Pepper, who was working on a book project, reported that he had raced up to the Russian Orthodox church and snapped it engulfed in light, the best shot he took during five days on the island. Evereen Brown, who specializes in 360-degree photos, managed to get the cemetery, a fox and the sea at daybreak, all in one image. Ralph Jones, a nature photographer, captured a red-legged kittiwake in mid-flight.
At the time the sun made its cameo, I was out for a morning jog, clunky Canon strapped around my neck, near the seal den at Reef Rookery. Focusing my lens, I managed to capture a couple of the seals, wearing hopeful, toothy grins and dappled by the first light of a new day. Later, I reflected on that moment, wondering if that last blast of sunlight illuminating that rare and fragile place had been some kind of sign.
DETAILS: St. Paul Island
The short tourist season and limited accommodations on St. Paul Island make it important to plan a trip as far in advance as possible.
The easiest and cheapest way to visit the island is to book a tour through Reeve Aleutian Airways (1-800-544-2248, www.reeveair.com), an Alaska-based carrier. The tours are prepared in conjunction with TDX, the corporation of local Aleuts on the island. The packages include air travel from Anchorage, various nature tours with adept guides, and accommodations at the King Eider, the island's only hotel. Rooms are clean but simple, with shared baths. The packages are offered mid-June through late August--though the best time to see the island's wealth of wildlife is July--and range from a two-night stay for $1,069 per person to seven nights for $1,999 from Anchorage. Meals, which are not included, are served buffet-style in a cafeteria near the hotel. The food is basic but hearty. Three meals a day cost about $40. For the Washington-Anchorage leg of the trip, Northwest is quoting a round-trip summertime fare starting at $750.
For a detailed overview of St. Paul and neighboring St. George islands, I recommend the book "Islands of the Seals, the Pribilofs," available for $19.95, plus postage, from the Alaska Geographic Society, P.O. Box 93370, Anchorage, Alaska 99509, or 1-888-255-6697, www.akgeo.com. For pointers on how to respect the ecology of the island, write for the Environmental Etiquette Guide at P.O. Box 306, St. Paul, Alaska 99660. Or fax a request to 907-546-2210.
INFORMATION: Alaska Division of Tourism, 907-465-2012, www.dced.state.ak.us/tourism.