The Island That Humans Can’t Conquer

The most remote place in Alaska is St. Matthew Island, halfway between the North American mainland and Siberia. The nearest town is a 24-hour boat ride away. The island was “discovered” several times, and there is evidence of a prehistoric home, but no one ever stays there long. Once a home for polar bears, it still teems with wildlife, both on land and in the water. But no humans call it home.

Even after the bears were gone, the archipelago remained a difficult place for people. The fog was endless; the weather, a banshee; the isolation, extreme. In 1916, the Arctic power schooner Great Bear ran afoul of the mists and wrecked on Pinnacle. The crew used whaleboats to move about 20 tonnes of supplies to St. Matthew to set up a camp and wait for help. A man named N. H. Bokum managed to build a sort of transmitter from odds and ends, and climbed each night to a clifftop to tap out SOS calls. But he gave up after concluding that the soggy air interfered with its operation. Growing restless as the weeks passed, men brandished knives over the ham when the cook tried to ration it. Had they not been rescued after 18 days, Great Bear owner John Borden later said, this desperation would have been “the first taste of what the winter would have brought.”

U.S. servicemen stationed on St. Matthew during the Second World War got a more thorough sampling of the island’s winter extremes. In 1943, the U.S. Coast Guard established a long-range navigation (Loran) site on the southwestern coast of the island, part of a network that helped fighter planes and warships orient on the Pacific with the help of regular pulses of radio waves. Snow at the Loran station drifted up to around eight meters deep, and “blizzards of hurricane velocity” lasted an average of 10 days. Sea ice surrounded the island for about seven months of the year. When a plane dropped the mail several kilometers away during the coldest time of year, the men had to form three crews and rotate in shifts just to retrieve it, dragging a toboggan of survival supplies as they went.

Sarah Gilman visited this inhospitable island, and gives us an almost poetic tour along with the history of the Alaskan outpost of St. Matthew Island. -via Smithsonian

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Source: neatorama

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