Life in Gambell

by Marie Michelson

July 24, 2006

The following posting is from Carroll, who is onboard in the Bering Sea… 

St. Lawrence Island

On the morning of the 21st, we awoke off the southwest corner of St. Lawrence Island to the sound of thousands of birds. St. Lawrence is a major stopover in the flyway between Asia and North America. In addition to the murres, puffins and cormorants nesting on the sea cliffs above us, huge numbers of geese, eiders and cranes stop to rest and feed here each spring and fall before continuing their journey between east and west. As a result, St. Lawrence is considered a globally important bird area. Unfortunately for the birds, and for the Yup’ik Eskimos who live here, St. Lawrence is among the places where the effects of global warming are becoming most apparent.

The history of the Yup’ik on this island stretches back some 2,000 years. Walking through the gravel streets of Gambell, our first stop on St. Lawrence, there were testaments to that history all around us. Bits and shards stuck out from the ground everywhere we looked; and all day long, artisans came in to share their stories, offer carvings, and show us artifacts pulled from the fields and hills near the town. Needles. Harpoon heads. Even a snow shovel made of bone. I was a little dumbstruck that ancient Eskimos used snow shovels. But after a while, it kind of made sense. What with all the snow and everything.

Talking informally with people in Gambell, we heard how their environment and their lives are changing. There are little signs, of course, like the cranes coming earlier than before, and the arrival of new species of birds from the South that hadn’t been seen here before. But there are also larger, more troubling, signs. The ice is coming later now, and retreating sooner, not just on the sea but on the lake behind the village. And the very nature of the ice is changing—from thick, solid cakes pushed down from the north, to smaller, broken up chunks that are not safe to walk or hunt on. For people who make their living from the sea, and the ice, it’s an unwelcome and threatening change.

With the early retreat of the ice, gray whales are spending less time near the island, and more in the colder waters to the north. We asked about the humpbacks, as well, and began to understand the results of our own search. For a long time, in the wake of commercial whaling, few if any humpbacks came near St. Lawrence. Sometime after whaling for humpbacks was banned, the species gradually reappeared around the island, but never in large numbers. Then, about five or so years ago, one man told me, there were a whole bunch of them. But not so many since. People see humpbacks occasionally, but they’re still uncommon. Whatever brought the humpbacks to this region in 1999, they haven’t returned in the same numbers in the last few years. Ironically, while the rest of us were onshore in Gambell, James finally saw a whale—a minke—right from the ship. And two bowheads showed up just around the point. Our luck.

As for the killer whales, they come when the gray whales come, heading north in the spring then south again in the fall. There were lots a few weeks ago, people tell us. Two men from Gambell, Mika and Clarence, agreed to ride along for a day to show us where the whales are. There won’t be as many as in June, they told us. But maybe some. So, with their guidance, we headed down along the west coast then around to the south side of the island, where we’d been just the day before. As we made our way along the coast, through the ever-changing fog, we talked with Mike and Clarence about their environment, their culture and their lives as subsistence hunters. They told us stories about their families, about friends lost to the ice and waves, and their own narrow escapes. About their efforts to maintain a centuries-old way of life in a culture and a society awash in change. And to be honest, I didn’t mind so much that we didn’t see a whale.


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