There aren’t many people east of St. Mary’s who have heard of Stebbins. It’s a village of about 600 souls perched on the northern edge of the Yukon River delta.
Stebbins is a close neighbor to the better-known town of St. Michael. St. Michael achieved a fair amount of recognition during the rush to Nome in 1901. Steamboats and sailing ships anchored at St. Michael because of its well-protected harbor and proximity to the Yukon River.
St. Michael was established by the Russian American Company in 1833 as a gateway into the Interior via the Yukon River. Stebbins, on the outside corner of St. Michael Island, is “Tapraq” in Yupik. The name Stebbins, which first appeared on maps in 1900, means “dweller among tree stumps” in old English. The Yupik village of Atowak was recorded just north of the present village site in 1898 by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.
When you first arrive in the town, whether by skiff or plane, there doesn’t seem like much to recommend the place. There is the standardized HUD housing and a few aluminum skiffs pulled up on the beach in front of town. It looks as if one good wave could take the place out –- Stebbins is just a few feet above sea level.
The north wind that blew you in from Nome 125 miles away greets you with a vengeance. The wind blows in this place; if you spit here, it had best be to the south. The guy who designed the runway must have had it in for the village, because the 3,000-foot strip of gravel runs dead crosswind to the prevailing wind. Folks who live here told me the wind used to come down the runway. They figure the plates of the earth must have shifted them a bit easterly. Maybe. There are no mosquitoes in this town, and most of the kids wouldn’t recognize one.
There are a lot of youngsters in this town. Forty-five percent of the population is under 20, and more than one-third is under 14. As is the case in many Alaska bush communities, jobs are scarce. Employment is seasonal and closely tied to commercial fishing. The lifestyle is heavily subsistence oriented.
Stebbins/St. Michael has a fair-sized reindeer herd which is managed for the benefit of the communities. There are no caribou in the area so the local deer herd serves to supplement villagers. Berries are plentiful on St. Michael Island, and the ocean yields a decent bounty; there are walrus and seal in the area, as well as herring and salmon. A few moose make their way across the tundra and occasionally run afoul of a village hunter.
Stebbins villagers are resourceful and outdoorsy. A week ago, when I was there, I played with a group of kids ranging in age from 6 to 10 who were playing in a mud puddle barefoot. It was 40 degrees and raining, with the normal breeze. I kept my X-tra Tuffs on.
Thirty-five years ago, a couple of Stebbins boys walked a herd of reindeer down from Shaktoolik in February. It seems one of them, Theodore Katcheak, had bought the herd from the owner in Shaktoolik, and walking was the only logical way to move reindeer, so that is what they did.
It didn’t seem like much of a big deal in the 1980s, but how many would do that today? I got a first-hand account of the trip from the herd owner, now in his 70s, and would have to say I was envious.
Reindeer first arrived in Alaska in the late 1800s, but Stebbins didn’t get deer until a couple decades later. Katcheak’s reindeer are now mixed in with the original herd. The reindeer, owned and managed under a Tri-Party agreement, compose one of the largest deer herds in Western Alaska.
The reindeer are valuable to the village of Stebbins, and though not native to the area, they have become an integral part of life in this remote community. As climate change creates uncertainty in ocean conditions and the availability of marine sustenance, the deer will play an increasingly important role in the health of Stebbins and the other villages of Western Alaska.
Stebbins is a place that may not be widely known in Alaska, but I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to visit this unique environment and her people of the deer.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.