Vagabond writer Craig Childs on 20,000 years of wanderlust

  • A Yup'ik child in a traditional fur parka on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.

    Keri L. Scaggs / AlaskaStock
  • Handprints decorate a transformer box in the village of Savoonga.

    Loren Holmes, Alaska Dispatch
  • The rocky coastline of St. Lawrence Island.

    Craig Childs
  • New homes, with their above-ground sewer pipes and elevated walkways.

    Loren Holmes, Alaska Dispatch
  • Walrus carcasses hung to dry.

    Loren Holmes, Alaska Dispatch
  • Gambell residents Travis Kaningock, with son, Travis Jr. and fiancé Roxanne Campbell, dig for bones, ivory and artifacts on St. Lawrence Island.

    Loren Holmes, Alaska Dispatch
  • A walrus skull seen during an artifact dig east of Savoonga.

    Craig Childs
  • A bone scraper seen during an artifact dig east of Savoonga.

    Craig Childs
  • Paddling down the Porcupine River near the Arctic Circle.

    J. Harlow, Wilderness Inquiry
  • Northern Arizona hogan.

    Jim Board
  • A reindeer skull rests in a field on St. Lawrence Island.

    Craig Childs
 

Savoonga is the place to be on the Fourth of July. The village is a cluster of roofs on the north side of St. Lawrence Island, a treeless hump of capes and dormant volcanoes rising out of the Bering Sea, battered by Arctic weather. The Native Yup'iks here celebrate the holiday with more gusto than people in most small Western towns. On that clear and sunny morning, folding chairs were placed in front of the two-story plywood town hall. People of all ages came out of their small, boxy government houses, some walking in family groups, others arriving on four-wheelers from the other side of the village. They greeted each other with a spritely, "Happy Fourth of the July!"

St. Lawrence Island is Alaskan, though far out of view of the American mainland and barely within sight of the mountainous Siberian coast. Villagers told me they celebrated the Fourth because it was better than being Russian. Savoonga holds foot races that day, and bike races, and hot dogs are served on paper plates with bags of Doritos and a little stack of cookies for dessert.

Out came the old, red fire truck, siren wailing in celebration. A PA system announced the raffle winners' numbers. I listened for my own, but it was hard to tell the difference between English and the Siberian Yup'ik tongue spoken on this island. Besides, I didn't want to hear my number called; I was a stranger in this subsistence village, and I dreaded the embarrassment of having to get up in front of everyone to claim a prize.

I was here for other reasons. I had come with questions about the Yup'ik sense of place. This sea-hunting culture has survived on these desolate sub-Arctic capes for 2,000 years, ever since its Siberian Eskimo ancestors first crossed the Bering Strait. Home freezers are stocked with walrus and seal. Even though they also rely on canned meat, deep-fried pork rinds and Pop Tarts from the cavernous village store, people still go out in small aluminum skiffs and harpoon the occasional whale by hand.

You don't come to visit empty-handed, according to scientists who'd worked here, so I'd brought gifts: fresh fruit, bags of vacuum-packed coffee, Celestial Seasonings blueberry tea as a special request. When I arrived by plane on their gravel strip several days earlier, handshakes welcomed me, and if I stayed in one place for too long, women brought me fresh baked bread or cookies wrapped in foil. Conversations flourished around kitchen tables and over hot coffee in front of woodstoves.

A vagabond myself, I had come to Savoonga hoping to learn what it means to belong to one spot on the map, to say that this place is your home and always has been. Many described how the island is changing. They spoke from a perspective of generations: Seasonal weather patterns shifting, new pelagic fish species and migratory birds appearing that are unlike anything ever seen in their history. They saw the world in longer timeframes than I was used to, and they were oddly unfazed by the idea of climate change, as if they already knew that the only thing one could do on an island this remote was adapt to whatever came next.

I wondered what it would be like to know an island that well, to remember it through stories that recede over a horizon of centuries ––  not just what you learned from your folks or in school, but what was remembered and preserved by the land itself.

That evening, I went to the high school gym and sat in packed bleachers while men on the floor struck walrus-gut drums. People left the bleachers and danced. They knew their places, every gesture, every footstep memorized. Toddlers came onto the floor and tried to imitate what they were seeing, while little boys stomped for their grandfathers, and little girls painted the air with their arms for their grandmothers.

A man snatched fur-lined mitts from the floor, tugging them on as he dropped into a boot-stomping promenade. He swung at the air with his mitts in swift, ritualized gestures, using expressions I didn't know. I imagined these same movements repeated generations or centuries or thousands of years ago, danced not in a gym, but out on a gray cobble spit. Women in one line, men in another, they would have scuffed the ground with their steps. Dressed in skins and furs, living on a rock in the cold and wild Bering Sea, they began something that still hasn't ended.