Tuesday, August 14, 2012

St. Matthew

I've had a map on my wall of St. Matthew Island for years. I tacked it up after writing that it was Alaska's most remote place, 209 miles from the nearest place with people. This summer, thanks to the good folks at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and their 120-foot boat the Tiglax, I traveled to St. Matthew with a bunch of scientists. We increased the island's population from zero to nine after we arrived on a 25-hour boat ride from the island of St. Paul.

 We landed near Bull Seal Point, picking a flat spot recommended by my friend and neighbor Dave Klein, who first visited St. Matthew before Alaska was a state.

Camp. Four Bomb Shelters, tents with poles as thick as a broom handle, and a white dome for cramped group encounters.

The view from our Bomb Shelter.

My agreeable tent partner, Dave Klein. First came to the island when he was 30. That was 55 years ago.

A few minutes after we first landed on St. Matthew, Dave found a hunk of petrified wood. He donated it to the visitor center of the refuge, located in Homer.

Wildflowers! Coated the island, which was great hiking — no knee-deep grasses like the Aleutians nor the tussocks of the North Slope.

Some of the loveliest creeks in Alaska. None packraftable nor likely to kill you.

Lapland longspurs have a song that cheers the foggiest day.

The snow-white McKay's bunting is a version of the snow bunting few people have seen outside the island.

How many pups? The largest remaining mammals on St. Matthew, which used to feature polar bears, even in summer, and reindeer.

Reindeer lived on the island from the 1940s to the 1980s. The U.S. military barged 47 over from Nunivak Island as an emergency food source to a few coasties stationed at a radar site on St. Matthew. When WWII ended, the guys left. The reindeer, with no predators, increased to 6,000 before crashing to zero by the 1980s because they ate most of their lichen and got whacked by a harsh winter.

There was at least one white bear on the island.

People have lived on the island a few times. Here's anthropologist Dennis Griffin of Oregon checking out "the Eskimo House," a pit on a hillside with a great view and the jawbone of a whale.

Dennis was stoked to find this walrus tusk cut for tools by someone about the time the Pilgrims were eating dinner.

Monte Garroutte collected plants on the island, and also on smaller Hall Island, background.

Monte, a fun guy, also scored this glass float, while searching for . . .

an iris, first seen by Dave.

Monte, taking a break from collecting 200 species, in the food tent.

Rich Kleinleder, Dave's son in law, and Dave at the site where they pulled up a core of muck that tells a tale of the last 12,000 years or so and what sands and pollens and maybe insect wings rained out on St. Matthew.

At work.

St. Matthew is one of the incredible bird islands of Alaska. And the world.

Lots of awesome places for birds to nest where foxes can't go.

Blocky basalt.

A ship that wrecked off Glory of Russia Cape in 1989 and now rusts there.

Grad student and insect person Casey Bickford had the beachcombing score of a lifetime. Tiglax crew = jealous.

Our crew on the island, minus photographer Derek Sikes. Standing are Tony DeGrange and Steve Delehanty. From left on the log are Monte, Rich, Casey, Dennis, me and Dave.

Also standing to pose, the island's singing vole, found only on St. Matthew.

My buddy Rich, island veteran and most likely to survive a winter on St. Matthew, on one of our awesome hikes.

Rich, smiling again, after getting soaked helping to launch the skiff.

Rich hiking a knee-buckling load that included a car jack back to camp.

After a week, we pass Cape Upright for the last time on the way back to St. Paul.

For the sixth time, Dave says goodbye to St. Matthew.


The Schuldt Family said...

My eyes teared up just now; could be because of the amazing pictures, but more likely that I'm really really jealous. Amazing!

Karen said...

One word: INCREDIBLE!!!

moose_lover said...

What a wonderful experience! Thanks for sharing it with us.

moose_lover said...

What a wonderful experience! Thanks for sharing it with us.