A man from the St. Lawrence Island community of Savoonga remains stranded in Russia after traveling there through a unique visa-free travel program for eligible Alaska Natives. Despite not needing a visa for the trip, Sivoy Miklahook now finds himself on the wrong side of the Strait as his Russian papers inch closer to expiration and residents in Western Alaska rally to bring him home.
Miklahook flew just over 230 miles across the Bering Strait -- from Nome, Alaska to Provideniya, Russia -- in mid-August. He's now in a small village called New Chaplino. His trip was following up with some Russian relatives after they visited his home in Savoonga back in May.
"This is what he wanted," older sister Carol Miklahook said from Savoonga Monday. "He wanted to go over there for the experience … to visit friends and family."
That "experience" includes a shared language and culture that dates back thousands of years. But it's only in the last few decades that travel has become problematic. Political tensions make crossing the border -- a couple hundred meager miles -- no easy task. Since 1989, eligible Alaska Natives from the Bering Strait and Kobuk regions, as well as native Chukotkans, have been able to use a unique visa-free travel program to visit family on both sides of the Strait.
The program was unofficially mothballed for the past few years as political tensions between the U.S. and Russia became strained, but in August -- with little explanation from either government -- the program resumed.
Miklahook was the first visa-free U.S. citizen to travel to Chukotka since the program resumed. But even without visas, the travel is no easy task, requiring a Chukotka border pass as well as an invitation from a Russian host.
Vera Metcalf organizes Alaska-Chukotka travel for the Bering Straits Regional Commission. She said in an email Tuesday that approval has to come from commissioners on both sides of the Strait, and only authorizes a 90-day visit.
Bering Air is the only carrier in western Alaska with the clearance to make the flights across the international dateline to Russia. They have no regular trips to Russia. Every flight is a chartered plane and can take up to three weeks to prepare.
Pilot Ryan Woehler flies the charters and said visiting Russia is far from straightforward.
"I don't even think they use fax, it's usually telex," he said with a laugh. "You have to get permission from Moscow, and somebody in Vladivostok has to sign off on it, and Petropavlovsk, and the military, and the customs and the border guard, and each of these different agencies have to be part of the permission process, and it's a big deal."
Complicating Miklahook's trip is his uncertain return. Nina Wideman runs the Russian Travel Desk for Bering Air. She said he left Alaska with no return flight, and no other charters on the schedule. She said he was "optimistic" a charter would come up to take him home. A group charter did get booked for Oct. 7, Wideman said, but it was for a trip to Anadyr, another 275 miles west of Provideniya.
Miklahook's family nonetheless tried to book him a seat on that flight's return to Nome, but the group ultimately canceled the trip for reasons unknown. Wideman said there are other pitfalls: border pass applications can take from 60 to 90 days, and can be rejected arbitrarily; combined with high costs, shifting timelines and unpredictable weather, she said it's not uncommon to see charters delayed or canceled.
The busy season for charters -- and the time when solo travelers can reasonably expect to buy a seat on someone else's charter -- is a brief window during the summer months.
"Basically, at this time of year, we have no scheduled charters until next summer," she said.
Miklahook's sister Carol said his three-month window is rapidly closing. He has to leave Russia Nov. 14.
"There was a flight that was supposed to come beginning of this month that was supposed to bring him back," she said. "He needs to pay for his own charter now."
But those charters are expensive -- really expensive.
"From Nome to Provideniya it's $5,450, one way," Wideman said. Those costs have a lot to do with what Russia requires visitors pay for.
"We need air navigation permissions, we need our landing permissions … Russian customs for landing, the fuel that we have to buy over there … all of those things, they charge us for all of that stuff," she said. "We get charged for all of it."
Friends and family are doing what they can back on St. Lawrence Island to help, mostly with bake sales and small donations. Michelle Kubalack is from St. Lawrence Island but now lives in Kotzebue. She said, after seeing Miklahook reach out on Facebook for help raising money to charter a flight home, she got his permission to start a donation page on the popular crowd funding website Go Fund Me, letting anyone with internet access chip in toward the $4,000 dollar goal.
"My concern, was I don't want him to get deported or get into any kind of trouble," she said. "I think if anybody else had the opportunity to go visit relatives and family in Russia, they would take it, but not knowing that you would get yourself into this kind of circumstance and situation … I just hope that he can get home without getting in trouble."
While efforts are underway to pay for a charter home, Metcalf with the Bering Straits Regional Commission is working with U.S. State Department officials and their Russian counterparts to formally extend Miklahook's visa-free invitation. Metcalf did not say how likely that effort would be to succeed, or if it's worked in the past.
Bering Air pilot Woehler said, despite the friendly and welcoming locals, he knows Russia's not the kind of place you want to be with expired papers.
"The Russians don't see a lot of opportunities around, 'well, your visa expired, I'm sorry,' " he said with an ironic laugh. "They don't see a lot of solutions. If it's expired, it's expired. You're basically in trouble."
Trouble is exactly what Miklahook's family say he's trying to avoid, as they scramble to raise money for a flight to bring him home.
This story has been updated with clarifying details about Miklahook's travel.