Seth Kantner: Nothing tops Little Diomede when it comes to remote

Around AlaskaMay 25, 2013 

LITTLE DIOMEDE -- I pull up the monofilament line as smoothly and carefully as I can, looking down the hole in the ice, into green-black water. I keep seeing a bright triangle down there. I get excited and then disappointed. Shucks, it's only the reflection of my sunburnt nose.

"Now to the center!" Opik murmurs beside me. It's her hand-line, her bait. She's smiling, perfect pearly white teeth in a tanned and pretty face.

Hand over hand, I pull the brown line, and now in the dimness the big pale underbelly of a king crab is rising steadily, gripping the tomcod bait, not willing to let go of her fortune -- same as me -- as I draw her up into the hole in the ice, into my hands.

On the ice, the crab settles onto the points of its claws on the snow. Tenuously it angles sideways, toward the nearby open lead. I snatch it up, turn it upside down and add it to Opik's catch, pinning it with a chunk of ice across the body as I've seen her do.

We're on smooth ice, a couple hundred yards off Little Diomede Island, sheer rock cliffs behind us and, 30 feet away, the cold black waves of an open lead -- the edge of nowhere, or right in the middle of everywhere, depending on your perspective. To the south is the dark water that showed up last night when the wind rose; to the north white jumbled sea ice. The only thing to the western horizon: rock, Russia and tomorrow.

There are no willows on Diomede, no trees, no trucks, no trails that lead to anywhere else on the planet. Back around the corner of the cliffs, in the tiny village, I've seen only one spot possible to even turn a sno-go around. Houses are on stilts, plugged into the rocks. This is a bird-nest community, a handful of houses clinging to cliffs.

I've lived my life in the Arctic, in igloos and tents, heard a thousand candlelit conversations about lonesome, wild and remote. But nowhere from the Florida Keys to Point Barrow is remote like Diomede. Those places are metropolitan, contiguous, connected. This is beyond the edge.

In late April I flew south to Nome, carried my heavy duffle bags to the Evergreen hanger. I had frozen caribou in those bags, bear fat and muktuk -- I was worried about going hungry. And worried about my commitment to coerce kids into writing art that could go on the walls of the Diomede school.

Inside the cluttered hanger, a tall man named Simon with a black ponytail stuffed my luggage into the cargo hold of a helicopter. I was excited to fly over sea ice in a chopper, a link in the Essential Air Service -- the most expensive mail service in America -- to Diomede.

The flight, it turned out, was on hold for weather. (In order to make it way out there to the international date line the mail chopper has to be able to refuel on the return in Wales, which means all three communities must have weather above legal minimums.) I'd already heard that nothing was simple about helicopters. Now I was learning that about Diomede.

In the morning we again loaded the chopper. I even got as far as putting on the orange life vest -- before the weather dropped again. Luckily, word came that Bering Air was launching in a fixed wing aircraft to attempt the ice runway. They agreed to hold the plane a few minutes while we scrambled. A day or two late to Dio -- apparently that means right on time.

After a hundred miles or so droning northwest in the Caravan, ahead in the pilots' window came the first view of gray rock rising out of white sea ice and the black zigzags of open water. The Cessna dropped lower, swept around the shoulder of the island. Below tiny gray rectangles of a handful of buildings clung to the rocks.

Alarms went off as the plane dropped toward the ice and a mechanical voice repeatedly warned "Don't sink! Don't sink!" The GPS system didn't believe there was a runway under us. Peering down, who could blame it?

On the ice, everyone moved fast. Strangely, it reminded me of leaping out of a plane at 11,000 feet -- skydiving -- time sort of compressed, and the community way over there like tiny boxes across the ice. People rushed around getting the plane unloaded, climbing on a sled, sno-going half a mile to the island, hauling bags up a steep drift and into a shoveled trench to the school.

Inside, the modern building buzzed, a warm and confusing maze of doors and hallways and the smell of breaded chicken nuggets and canned corn. A room full of Mac computers hummed, people moved in and out, classrooms were messy. Out all the front windows, below the porch rail, was sea ice.

I wondered where to put my bags. Where should I lay my sleeping bag? Where should I put my frozen caribou? Who on this rock would want to listen to a word a strange white guy had to say? After months of emails with the principal, Willis, and reservations, plans and proposals, suddenly it was time for me to do magic, to pull paragraphs out of village kids.

Quickly I met the four teachers, in their mid-20s, and a young aide from Unalakleet named Don Masters. Everyone was helpful but busy. On top of that was a water shortage -- no showering, please, and don't drink the water because it tastes like bird poop. But who could complain -- the rest of the community hauls water by hand, and dumps honey buckets directly below the school on the sea ice.

In the first class, the kids stare at me. Half of them have the same last name; but my ears are ringing from the plane ride and I can't hear it. The English teacher, Jori Grant, is female and twice as tall as me. I ask the kids how they feel about writing. "We hate writing," a boy mumbles, head across his elbows.

In my head alarms go off. "Don't Sink!"

"Good," I say. "Me, too."

To introduce myself and con them into believing I'm fun and easy, I show photos of, ahem, "normal" Alaska -- dog teams, grizzly bears, mountains, spruce, caribou. I ease toward writing. "OK. Paper on your desk. Don't worry, you don't have to think. You don't have to write anything good. Spelling doesn't matter. Grammar doesn't matter."

A pretty girl wanders in, late and unapologetic. She trades the teacher, Miss Grant, one of her shoes for a pencil. I notice other kids are wearing one shoe. "We're writing," I say.

The late girl says, "I love to write." A girl in the back groans, crumples her paper and throws it.

"Pencils in your hand. The prompt is, ah, Dead Seal in the Road. I want no thinking. Keep your hand moving and writing. Any words. Three minutes. Go! No thinking!"

The seconds tick by. All I do is think that out the windows loom the cliffs of Big Dio -- the only thing in sight besides sky and ice -- and against the law, even to visit. What was I thinking? -- thinking I could come to the most barren landscape in Alaska to farm words?

But pencils are scratching. I catch a girl staring around the room. "Don't think!" I repeat. "Keep your hand moving."

The writing is good, bad, shocking. Kids come and go, groan and throw things. One middle school boy eats scraps of his paper. Blank stares often are all I get when I ask questions. Occasionally, one of the girls along the wall flashes a hopeful smile.

In the last class of the day -- third-, fourth- and fifth-graders -- the little kids love my way of making them write, fast and with torn paper prompts, and counting their words. "More!" they say. "Let's write more!" Their teacher, Mr. Moses, can't believe it. I'm pleased -- until I read what they've written -- about death, killing, strangling. And birds, boats, bullets and more shooting. One boy has a maniacal expression and repeats: "Kill kill kill die." They have something called Xbox 360 that I know nothing about.

The teacher, Mr. Moses smiles, admits he plays it too. "But I know it's not real," he adds.

I go out to breathe, out on the porch rail. The wind is gusty. The ice is so big and beautiful, so unpredictable. The return of helicopter in a week is unpredictable. The weather. And what else? The sea underneath I'm sure. There's no building a fire out there to get warm, anywhere. No caribou coming for food. I turn and go back inside.

After school, Don and Moses head for their holes in the ice to catch king crab. Jori and Katharine, the women teachers tag along. I'm grateful to go, to sno-go even for a half mile along a plowed path, and chip ice, and stare down into the dark water. All I catch is teenaged crabs. I throw them back.

Days run together. Evening we all eat dinner together in Jori and Katharine's apartment inside the school. They and the two young men, Kevin Moses and Mr. Dave, seem like siblings, and their hospitality is complete. Moses and Don boil king crab and I fry caribou. The apartment is messy and cluttered, with big sofas and a huge flat-screen television, but no TV -- I guess the village dish blew in the ocean years ago. Moses gets out his toy helicopters and a blowgun. We clown around, play beer pong on Wii while we drink water. Outside the wind rises. Moving snow is furry gray across the jumbled white ice. The sunset is orange fire, over Russia.

During the days, I look at the boys in class and read what they write, and fear for their futures. I look at the girls with their beautiful eyes, and I fear for their presents; I'm afraid of what they might write. Nights, I lay in my sleeping bag in a classroom, rereading their writing. Some of it is so amazing. Birds and bird eggs are a recurring theme -- the millions of birds that will appear here soon. In just a few days I'm supposed to have the students come up with writing and photographs to hang on the walls. I'm starting to believe it's going to happen.

On Sunday a woman named Opik Ahkinga offers to take me out on the ice. She's capable and self-confident, and I want to learn. She steers her sno-go around a huge circle of blood, a dead polar bear a man killed and skinned the previous day. Sea gulls stand on the head and peck the eyes. The world is so huge, out along the edge of the new open lead, the cold dark waves lapping the ice. Seabird flocks are dark smudges out on the horizon. I wish I knew more about this amazing place. I wish I could see summer here.

I help Opik chip crab holes down through three feet of ice. The hard work is just in time for me. It's great to be out of the school. I love being on this big ice. It all makes me wonder, how can I convince these kids that learning and writing and working hard all matter, here and out there beyond the ocean, too? And now it's time to check the lines again. To feel the gentle heaviness of sweet life all those fathoms down.

 


Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska; email him at sethkantner.com. His column usually runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

 

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