You’ve heard those Sarah Palin-inspired jokes about seeing Russia from the shores of Alaska, but there are, in fact, a few places in the Last Frontier where this is actually true. And one of our favorites is Wales, a historic Inupiat Eskimo village on the Seward Peninsula, where Alaska stretches toward Siberia. During the Cold War, Soviet and U.S. submarines played cat-and-mouse games beneath the icy waters while fighter jets chased one another above. The Soviets manned a radar station on an island in the strait. The U.S. Air Force watched from an outpost near Wales. Next to the village itself, the U.S. Navy operated a submarine research facility.
Today, Wales, population 145, is more known for its culture and history than its strategic location. Wales takes on a dreamy and timeless feel on clear days, the sub-Arctic sun shooting over the sea, hues of blue and green and gold shining everywhere. Two tabletop islands (Little and Big Diomede) rise in the center of the Bering Sea, and the International Date Line slices between them -- you can watch today’s and tomorrow’s sunset sink over the purple mountains of Siberia.
In 1778, English explorer Captain James Cook named it Cape Prince of Wales. Eskimos called it Kingigin, or “high bluff,” and called themselves Kingikmiut, “people of the high place.” A steep bluff plunges into the water below, and the sea laps at a giant slab of granite shaped like an axe blade. Some villagers in Wales today say this is where Paul Bunyan left his axe after chopping down all the trees in the Arctic.
The people of Wales are very friendly and welcoming of visitors, but it’s best to plan ahead. Just getting to the village requires flying to the frontier town of Nome, where -- provided the fickle weather cooperates -- you board a prop plane and head west over the Seward Peninsula. Summer is the best time to visit Wales. The village often puts on a traditional dance festival in summertime, inviting dance groups from across Alaska. At the school, where the festival is held, you may be invited to feast on caribou and seal oil, bowhead whale and moose.
There are also plenty of hiking opportunities around Wales, including the intriguing rock formations above the village. The ridges and outcroppings are littered with old graves and animal bones, as in ancient times villagers buried their dead on the ridges. But please leave the bones where you found them. There is also a big lagoon worth exploring just north of the village. You may see reindeer roaming around the area during your visit, too.
When planning a trip to Wales, call the city and village offices and introduce yourself. Limited lodging is available, and it especially fills up quickly during the summer dance festival. For a more culturally enriching experience, stay with a family in Wales. Some residents rent out rooms, and they might feed you a traditional meal.
For more information, contact the City of Wales at 907-664-3501 and the Native Village of Wales at 907-664-3062. Also check out the village's community profile.
Contact Tony Hopfinger at tony(at)alaskadispatch.com.