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Question: What is the loneliest place in Alaska?
Unless you are a seabird, Alaska’s loneliest place may very well be St. Matthew Island, a hump of talus and tundra smack in the middle of the Bering Sea.
The island is more than 200 miles away from the nearest permanent human settlement, the village of Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island. Unlike the Pribilof Islands, St. Matthew Island is pretty much alone. A smaller nearby island, Hall Island, is also uninhabited.
“St. Matthew Island is a good contender for most remote in that it is not only a long ways from other human settlements, it’s also out there all by itself,” said Steve Delehanty, manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses St. Matthew Island and a lot of other less remote but still secluded islands, islets and reefs and rocks in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering and Chukchi seas.
It matters, of course, how you define loneliest. If loneliness is a feeling, the loneliest place on earth could be a nursing home no one visits, or a barstool with a heartbroken person sitting on it.
With the lowest population density of any U.S. state, Alaska contains more lonely places than any other U.S. state. But if you’re talking about sheer geographic isolation, St. Matthew Island is probably the winner.
In the late 1990s, University of Alaska science writer Ned Rozell and Fairbanks geographer Dorte Dissing tried to determine the most remote spot in the state.
Using GIS analysis, Dissing identified a bend of the Etivluk River roughly 130 miles from Ambler or Atqasuk as the most remote spot in mainland Alaska. Dissing also identified St. Matthew as the furthest overall from human settlement.
More than 20 years later, the story still gets attention, Dissing said. She’s not sure if she’d define it exactly the same way today.
“I was like a first- or second-year graduate student, and I cooked up this method,” she said. “There are a hundred million ways of looking at this.”
It’s probably not possible to precisely know what place in Alaska is the loneliest, in terms of human visitation, Dissing said.
There are ways to tell the places furthest from infrastructure markers of human presence such as roads or snowmachine trails, but there’s no real data for the quieter ways people in Alaska move on the land: Subsistence hunting and fishing camps, canoe voyages.
And then there are mountain peaks and other places that verge on inaccessible to humans. The “vast majority” of Alaska peaks remained unclimbed, according to the Mountaineering Club of Alaska.
Archeologists have found scant evidence of human occupation on St. Matthew Island, though Nunivak Island hunters are thought to have made the long journey. A few Russian and Unangan fur traders occupied the island. During World War II, the island was the site of a U.S. military weather and navigation station.
St. Matthew may be an extraordinarily isolated island, but it remote does not necessarily mean least visited, Delehanty said.
Scientists go to St. Matthew by boat occasionally to study the rich bird life on the island, which includes auklets, kittiwakes and the McKay’s bunting, a bird that breeds only on the island and nowhere else. High-end expedition style cruise ships, like one sponsored by National Geographic, have brought tourists for brief visits to the island. One sailing expedition in 2013 documented beaches full of fishing jetsam.
Delehanty visited once, for about 10 days. He remembers the fog and the wildflowers and the short carpet of tundra vegetation. The only sounds were waves on the shore, birds like auklets and kittiwakes and the squeaky call of the singing vole, unique to the island. It was cold, with snow patches even in July. When the sun came out, bumblebees filled the air.
“It’s wondrous,” he said. “It can be very lonely, but at the same time it’s just very special. You’re standing on a knob of land and your sweep of vision is a mile all around you. And there’s not another human being to be seen.”