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.
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!
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
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
'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
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?!'
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.