Bering voyage: A trip off the edge of the map

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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?

How about Siberia, comrades?

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.

The surprisingly 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 vessels.

Buying the 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.

Move toward isolation

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 Germany.

In the 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.

Across a 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 military base.

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 channel.

A Chukchi cowboy demonstrates a traditional lasso game in Yanrakynnot, Russia. 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 rare.

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 pathways.

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 industry.

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.

Eskimo 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 and empty.

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 future.

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 distant frontier.

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 grass.

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 strength.

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 in midsummer.

Culture and ethnicity

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.

In Katmai 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 thousands.

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.

So deeply 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 Russian.

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.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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