Theyve seen the pyramids, skied the Alps,
sipped wine in a Paris cafe and spied on seal pups in the
Galapagos. Whats left for educated, well-heeled clients to do?
Thats what Cruise
West offers aboard its flagship Spirit of Oceanus. The ships 13-day
Bering Sea cruises sail a wide, 2,500-mile semicircle between Nome
and Anchorage, exploring Russias Chukchi Peninsula; Bering Sea
islands such as the Pribilofs and St. Lawrence; and the long arc of
the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula.
Its Alaska for
the jaded, a trip off the edge of the map, where each day
passengers and their naturalist guides take inflatable Zodiacs to
explore half-abandoned Soviet cities, tundra-covered subarctic
islands, Alaskan fishing towns, coastal wilderness and native
subsistence villages rarely visited by outsiders.
Four of these
cruises are offered each summer in June and July. Prices start at
approximately $7,200 per person.
luxurious 4,200-ton, 114-passenger
Spirit of Oceanus was built in 1991 for now-defunct Renaissance
Cruises and sailed briefly for Star Cruises before going to Cruise
West. Its far larger than the lines other ships, with stabilizers
and cabins almost twice the size of those on many mainstream
Oceanus in 2001 enabled Cruise West to begin planning long cruises
in the open sea, beyond the coastal and river itineraries it has
offered since the mid-1980s. And since Alaska has always been the
lines bread and butter, it only made sense to plan trips to the
states most remote edge.
Over the past
three centuries, the Bering region has been both a treasure-trove
of natural resources and an anthropological puzzle box.
Between the 1750s
and 1880s, Russian traders nearly wiped out the Berings sea otters
and northern fur seals. Nineteenth-century whalers also took their
toll on the regions humpback, North Pacific right whales and fin
whales. One hundred years later, crabbing made Unalaska (one of
Oceanus ports in the Aleutians) a veritable boomtown, and though
the rush is now 30 years past, it remains the No. 1 commercial
fishing port in the U.S.
Strange to think,
then, that little more than 14,000 years ago the Berings seabed was
a rich, grassy flatland stretching from Siberia to the Alaskan
coast. Laypeople call it the Bering Land Bridge, but it was far
more than a bridge. Covering some 580,000 square miles -- an area
more than twice the size of Texas -- it was a land all to itself, a
place scientists now call Beringia, through which Siberian hunters
first pursued woolly mammoth, mastodon and steppe bison down into
North America and eventually populated the continent.
When the great
ice-age glaciers melted and worldwide sea levels rose, Beringia
drowned as surely as Atlantis. Volcanoes such as the Pribilofs
became islands and were so cut off that mammoths survived here
3,500 years longer than their cousins on the mainland.
Man was better at
keeping up family ties. For centuries, native peoples on both sides
of the sea maintained cultural and linguistic connections. But what
nature couldnt set asunder, politics could: After World War II,
what people here call the Ice Curtain divided the regions natives
just as the Iron Curtain divided families in East and West
middle of nowhere
Nowhere was this
more evident than on Little Diomede Island, a two-square-mile
pyramid of rock jutting from the Bering Strait little more than a
mile from Russias ocean border. This was our first port call, one
day out from Nome and following a brief crossing of the Arctic
Circle -- just to say wed done it.
two-and-a-half mile channel, on the other side of the border, sits
sister-island Big Diomede. It once was home to the Diomeders
nearest relatives, but its been deserted since the 1940s, when the
Soviets moved its villagers to the mainland to make room for a
Today the big
island is empty save for border guards, while on Little Diomede a
U.S. border station sits amid the towns ramshackle buildings, its
high-powered binoculars trained always across the
We never go over there anymore;
they wont let us, said Patrick Omiak, one of Little Diomedes 160
Inupiat residents, expressing just how cut off the islanders are.
They live quite literally in the middle of nowhere, with the most
isolated region of Russia on one side and the most isolated region
of America on the other.
Its a hard life.
The island itself looks unlivable, its hillsides rising
precipitously from the water to a long backbone ridge some 1,300
feet above sea level, thick grasses growing among its unforgiving
rocks. Barges and planes bring fuel and mail, and satellite dishes
bring contact with the outside world, but other diversions are
Thus when the
Oceanus 100-plus guests stepped from their Zodiacs onto shore,
several found themselves adopted by local children, who held their
hands during a quiet tour along the villages narrow stone
Afterwards, at a
performance of traditional music and dance, children clambered on
our shoulders and erupted in laughter at seeing their images on our
digital cameras. Dancers enacted stories of the hunt and other
aspects of traditional life; singers provided accompaniment on
large walrus-gut drums.
It was a scene
reflected in mirror image the next day in Novoye Chaplino, a Yupik
village in the Russian province of Chukotka.
Chaplino is a
microcosm of Siberian native life today. Our guide, a physical
education instructor, pointed out decaying Quonset huts and the
ruins of a Soviet-era fox-farming operation -- part of a plan to
settle Chukotkas nomads and retrain them to modern
Little is left of
that effort except piles of rusting cages, but nearby, row upon row
of bright new, single-family houses -- gifts from Chukotkas
billionaire governor, Roman Abramovich -- stand testament to the
new Russian reality.
Stepping into our
guides home we passed fish drying on hooks, then entered the warm
kitchen. On the living room wall hung an athletic medal from the
state, while in a teenage daughters room hung a poster of Canadian
rocker Avril Lavigne.
Ten minutes later
we were witnessing a demonstration of traditional Eskimo athletics,
followed by music that echoed the songs from Diomede, across the
water in another land.
dance, Soviet song
This mix of old
and new, coexisting in a nearly Mad Max kind of postindustrial
reality, was overwhelmingly on display in the port city of
Provideniya. Founded in the 1930s and once the Soviet military
center of Chukotka, the city is now a veritable ghost town of only
2,400 souls, with half its 1950s buildings standing broken-windowed
After the 1917
Revolution it took nearly four years for the Bolshevik regime to
become established here, so its no surprise that elements of Soviet
life are still palpable today: On a grassy hillside, near a tall
smokestack, a statue of Lenin still strides purposefully into the
At the citys
Palace of Culture, a remarkably professional presentation by local
youth showed one of the Soviet Unions positive legacies, mixing
Eskimo song, folk dance, ballet and iconic Soviet-era songs such as
Katyusha, about a girl longing for her beloved, off fighting on the
That was one
thing the Soviets did well, remarked passenger Nina Krafft of
Minnesota, who was born in Georgia, the former Soviet state. They
kept the folk traditions alive.
The next day, the
Oceanus guests got a deeper taste of folk culture at the
reindeer-herding village of Yanrakynnot, 50 miles north on the
Chukchi Peninsula. There, traditionally clad villagers and guests
mixed in a picnic atmosphere at a field near town, its periphery
defined by sun-bleached whalebone set upright in the
All around were
the kind of moments true travelers cherish: A group of Chukchi
cowboys demonstrated how to lasso a reindeer while biologist-guide
Rupert Pilkington participated in a traditional test of
Two young Chukchi
girls blew bubbles from a bottle brought from the ship as local
women served whale meat to adventurous passengers and others rolled in the grass with a sled dog
enjoying his day off.
When it was time
for the guests to leave, villagers walked them to their boats as
the sun dipped slightly on the horizon -- as dark as it gets here
It was not all
cultural exchange. On the Alaskan islands of St. George, Nunivak
and Unga, passengers got a chance to explore the subarctic
landscape on hiking, tidepooling, and wildflower expeditions. On
Nunivak, biologist Pilkington led a hike into the high tundra in
search of musk ox.
In Unga, a dozen
passengers climbed the seaside cliffs for a five-mile trek through
thick tundra, then made their way along a beach dotted for miles
with petrified trees.
On St. George,
groups walked into a fine mist to see sights that have made it and
the other Pribilof Islands world-famous: cliffs where some 2.5
million seabirds nest and beaches where thousands of fur seals
return yearly to birth their young.
National Park, brown bears are so abundant that one group reported
seeing eight within an hour.
The next day, off
Kodiak Island, the Spirit of Oceanus came to a stop when several
humpback whales appeared within a few yards of its hull. The great
whales, swimming in graceful circles and letting off clouds of
bubbles from below the surface, were using the ship to help them
corral schools of tiny krill, which danced on the surface in the
On Kodiak Island,
200 miles south of Anchorage, Kodiak town was Russias first
permanent settlement in Alaska, though today presence is more
cultural than ethnic.
At the Kodiak
Baranov Museum, visitors can see re-creations of early Russian
settlers homes, while nearby the Holy Resurrection Church is the
oldest Russian Orthodox parish in America, with a congregation made
up largely of Alaska Natives.
entrenched is the Orthodox faith among the states native peoples
that when the Soviet Union fell, many Alaskan priests traveled east
to help the Russians reclaim their church traditions.
At the Monks Rock
Coffeehouse, operated by the Orthodox seminary, the Kodiak Russian
Balalaika Players performed for a group of Oceanus passengers --
undeterred by the fact that none of them is really
We just feel a
connection to the music, explained one player as the group launched
into its next number -- Katyusha, the same song wed heard in
Provideniyas Palace of Culture just eight days, 2,000 miles and a
whole world away.
the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].