GAMBELL, ALASKA -- Huddled on a frozen strip of tundra surrounded by frozen sea, the Eskimo village of Gambell appears to be hibernating through the rage of winter.
Savage winds, pushing blinding sheets of snow, whip the jumble of weathered gray houses. Doorways are draped with animal skins, protection from temperatures that routinely plunge to 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
This is the time of year when most of the 400 villagers on remote St. Lawrence Island, a barren piece of the United States far out in the Bering Sea, seek refuge indoors. While the winds blast outside, they while the time away carving tiny ivory whales and polar bears for tourists down in Anchorage, or stitching fur-lined parkas for their own families.
But, for the Eskimo Scouts, this bitter season is the time for training. They conduct military drills in weather so severe that metal cracks, radio batteries last five minutes and the icy barrel of an M16 rifle can rip the skin off an ungloved hand.
A highly specialized unit of the National Guard, the scouts use centuries-old Arctic survival skills to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions on U.S. terrain that lies at the frigid back door of the Soviet Union. Their place in the U.S. military is so unique that they sometimes train the Army's elite special operations forces sent up from the Lower 48.
"They are the eyes and ears of the North," said Capt. Timothy Wipperman, training officer for one of the three Alaskan Scout battalions. "No one can be trained to do the job they do in this environment."
The 1,500 scouts are drawn from 91 isolated Eskimo villages along the west coast and interior of Alaska. Most scouts are sustenance hunters and fishers who spend spring and summer pursuing the walrus, seals, whales, caribou and fish that provide their families with food, clothing and income.
Using the same skills for surviving in one of the world's least hospitable places, they lead snowshoe marches across miles of roadless white tundra while packing rifles and survival gear that includes body-warming chunks of whale blubber, muktuk, and strips of dried fish. They navigate the darkness of the treeless Arctic desert, relying more on instinct than compass, in a place where an unexpected blizzard can turn a military exercise into a real life-or-death survival test.
Most of their military combat training focuses on unconventional warfare and guerrilla tactics, and the best earn the guard's coveted "Arctic Warrior" badge.
But combat training is secondary to the scouts' mission of watching for any air, sea -- and sometimes land -- operations of military from the Soviet mainland just 37 miles west of here.
"We're not combat units," said Maj. Gen. John W. Schaeffer, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, the first Eskimo to hold that position. "We provide the early warning."
The scouts also do reconnaissance from nearby Little Diomede, a small U.S. island barely 2 1/2 miles from Soviet-owned Big Diomede Island, where the opposing superpower is expanding its military operations.
On those islands and the vast shorelines of western Alaska, the scouts perform their most important military mission as forward lookouts, witnesses to the growing Soviet military activity in the northwest region that has concerned Defense Department officials in recent years.
Pentagon officials have reported increased Soviet naval and air activity, with U.S. warplanes reporting 56 Soviet aircraft, many of them Bear bombers, intercepted near U.S. territorial airspace last year, compared with 34 in 1986.
The scouts are trained to report any aircraft overflights, submarine surfacings, suspicious persons, or items that wash ashore. Military officials said that rarely a day goes by without such a report from a scout somewhere along the hundreds of miles of Alaskan territory.
Alaskan-based military intelligence officials said reports of unidentified persons, particularly those in wet suits off the coast of St. Lawrence Island, also have increased, from one or two a year to about seven sightings each of the last two years.
Alaskan intelligence officials said they suspect Soviet special forces train on isolated Alaskan islands, but said they have no concrete evidence and have never positively identified a member of the Soviet teams, called Spetsnaz, on American soil here. Pentagon officials discount reports that the Soviets would use even uninhabited Alaskan territory for such operations.
But the reports persist. In a typical encounter, scout Michael Apatiki reported that while he and his family were boating in the waters off St. Lawrence Island, he spotted what appeared to him to be a man in a wet suit. The suspected frogman fled when he realized he'd been seen, according to Apatiki's report.
During the past few years, scouts also have found Soviet rubber rafts anchored under sand on the beaches as well as a set of Russian batteries at a site inland, according to Sgt. Reynard Nichols, intelligence officer for the scout battalion that includes St. Lawrence Island.
Military officials said that some of the unidentified-person sightings may be ivory pirates illegally hunting walruses for their valuable tusks. But U.S. authorities were concerned enough about the prospect of Spetsnaz-type activity that the Alaska National Guard's biennial "Brim Frost" statewide military exercises in 1986 were based on scenarios of small Soviet guerrilla unit attacks.
Most of the material that floats onto the beaches is a sampling of the garbage of ships from a dozen nations as they pass through the Bering Sea. Occasionally, however, there are significant military findings. A Soviet mask found recently on the shore provided valuable information about new chemical warfare agents being developed by the Soviets, military officials said.
The frequently nomadic life styles of the natives, as well as the isolation of their villages, which often can be reached by air only in winter when frozen seas and rivers form icy runways, create some problems for the military.
Distance and atmospheric phenomena such as the aurora borealis often make radio communications unreliable. Some findings and sightings may go unreported for months because it is so difficult to contact the scouts, particularly when they are miles from their villages at summer hunting and fishing camps.
One commander sometimes asks local commercial radio stations to broadcast a message that a particular scout telephone headquarters collect. "Sometimes he gets the message, and sometimes he doesn't," the officer said.
Because hunting and fishing are so critical to Eskimo survival, the National Guard conducts training only in the most bitter winter months when it will create the least disruption to village life.
And modern technology has eased some of the distances and other handicaps. Snow machines -- snowmobiles in the Lower 48 -- have replaced dog teams as preferred ground transportation. For larger-scale troop movements, all-terrain vehicles pull long lines of scouts, M16 rifles slung over their backs and skis strapped to their boots. Many scouts, particularly those on the islands nearest the Soviet Union, have recently been issued night-vision equipment for surveillance.
Other changes imposed on the scouts are less welcome. One of the most controversial issues is the National Guard's new demands that all its officers obtain a college degree by 1991 to qualify for promotions to the rank of major and above. Eskimo officials said the rules are exacerbating an already serious lack of native officers.
"Formal education is low on the list of priorities," said 3rd Scout Battalion training officer Wipperman. "It does not contribute significantly" to the survival skills of hunting and fishing. That has left the scout units with a shortage of officers. The 1st Scout Battalion based in Nome, for example, has only 14 college graduates among its more than 390 Eskimo members.
"We produce so few native officers we have to fill the slots from outside," Schaeffer said.
According to Wipperman, that has created an almost colonial system of white outsiders leading native Eskimo troops, breeding resentment in some units. Lt. Gen. Herbert Temple, the National Guard Bureau chief who ordered the new education standards, said he will consider granting temporary waivers to some Eskimos who cannot meet the deadlines.
For many young Eskimos, participation in the National Guard historically has provided them with short spurts of relief from the boredom of long winters and more importantly, provides significant income. The $2,400 to $3,000 a young enlisted scout earns in a year can almost double the family income in a region that has one of the highest poverty levels in the nation. In the 1st Scout Battalion, which includes Gambell, almost every member is eligible for federal food stamps, according to Maj. Fred Haynes, commander of the unit.
Many villages, like Gambell and neighboring Savoonga, are visited by a physician twice a year and a pharmacist, dentist and eye specialist once a year. Alcoholism and suicide rates are high in many villages, authorities said, but family counselors and mental health specialists visit only twice a year. Most supplies are brought to the villages by "cool barge" once a year.
But the irreversible impact of a new era is bringing changes to most villages. Despite lingering reluctance, a few more young people, particularly women, attend college. More women are joining the National Guard; about 7 percent of the scouts are women, serving as radio operators and in other jobs.
The slowly increasing emphasis on education and emerging reliance on modern technology may mean a loss of some of the native-taught skills of the scouts valued so highly by the military.
"Now we'll have to do some of the training that had been left up to the fathers and grandfathers," Schaeffer said.