Travel Alert Alaskan Style

by Larry Stratton


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




After a hard day's work we would get together in the local Elk's Club, often discussing the trials and tribulations of life in America's last frontier. One evening 'Red', then principal of the big Indian/Eskimo boarding school in Sitka, regaled us with one of his early travel experiences.

Red was a teacher/administrator with the US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school system and had been transferred to Nome as principal of the BIA school there in the 1946-48 time period. The BIA was originally set up as a trustee for native lands, native education and social services, and encompasses all native Americans.

One day early in Red's first year, an emergency radio request was received from Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. Seemed as though an Eskimo woman was in the early throes of an appendicitis attack, and in his role as BIA administrator it was Red's responsibility to organize an airlift.

On the spur of the moment, he decided to board the charter float plane flight to Gambell and give himself the opportunity of visiting the remote outpost, fully intending to return on the once-a-week scheduled flight by Wein Alaska the next day. The BIA had a small building in Gambell that would afford overnight accommodation. An inspection tour of the said facility was to be the official reason for the trip!

The flight came off without a hitch and the woman received her medical attention. Red had a really interesting afternoon, taking pictures of the rather novel domiciles in Gambell and other photo treats the village offered. At that time a fair amount of the population still lived in sod houses, covered with hides and so on.

Toward the evening, the wind began to blow from the North. This rapidly turned into a real arctic screamer and it was two days before Red could get out of the building. The ice pack was in, the radio facility antenna had been blown away and, in short, real winter had arrived for St. Lawrence Island.

The next order of business was to find Eskimo Charlie, who was Wein's 'station manager' in Gambell. Red found him down on the beach where Charlie was intently gazing seaward looking for seals on the new ice pack.

'Charlie, I understand you take care of business for Wein here in Gambell?'
'Yes, dats right, Red.'
'Charlie, when do you think the next Wein flight to Gambell will come about?'
Charlie, after a bit more intent scanning seaward over the ice, responded: 'Oh, winter come now - airplanes all go away - come back next summer.'
'WHAT was that you said Charlie?!'

Charlie's response was the same as his first statement. At this pronouncement Gambell started to glow in decidedly 'different light' for Red - and it wasn't a rosy one!

In short, Red hired an Eskimo dog team for transportation to the then new DEW Line site at Northeast Cape. This called for a couple of day's stop-over at the village of Savoonga for celebration and recoup from bad hangovers; then onward to Northeast Cape, where he radioed for an airplane to ferry him back to Nome.

As I remember, Red said this little quickie trip to Gambell stretched into about a half-month's operation.


© Larry Stratton 2003. Larry first went to Alaska in 1963 as project engineer for the construction of Barrow airport. He then moved on to Sitka where he worked as city engineer, eventually becoming director of public works for the City and Borough of Sitka. He left Alaska in 1977 to return to his home state of Oregon.




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