It's been just over two weeks since I arrived in Gambell on the small prop plane flown by Bering Air. Since then I have had a truly unique Alaskan experience living in the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. Since my arrival, some things have changed while many things remain the same.
There's been some significant turnover in birders on the island. We've gone from nearly 30 people birding on Gambell to approximately 12. I've seen two different birding tour groups come and go, and met a handful of independent birders who arrived in Gambell with high hopes of adding to their robust life list of North American birds, but left with the same number of empty boxes on their checklist. Having less birders means there are less people looking for birds, but with unfavorable winds there hasn't been much to discover anyways. The two Siberian Accentors have been the highlight so far...
Since I arrived, the wind has been the biggest factor in seeing new birds on St. Lawrence Island. Today the wind is gusting up to 40 miles per hour from the North, which is about as far from ideal as it can get.
Today marks the first day I haven't birded, since it is just too windy to see land birds. They are reactant to flush, and the windchill makes land birding unpleasant. Instead, I went to the school and sat in on some science classes, helping students with Biology and in the process, learning about their culture.
I come from a background of teaching high school Biology at a private prep school, so I wasn't sure what I would find in the Gambell school. Similar to my high school, all grades K-12 are all taught under the same roof, and class sizes are small. When I stepped inside, the sense of community and school pride was strong. I was greeted with a smile and welcomed with open arms into the school community. Last week I enjoyed the time I spent in the science classroom with Mr. L and his students, and with poor winds for birding in the forecast, I returned today for more. In Biology I had the chance to share photos of some of the birds I've been seeing around the island, and students were eager to share the Yupik names for the birds, as well as their stories with the native wildlife they know intimately, since subsistence living is necessary for survival in this part of Alaska, and is crucial in maintaining their cultural heritage.
On Wednesdays students have an early dismissal. School ends at 2pm and all grades file into the gymnasium and sit in the bleachers with their class, or have the option to join their families. A row of folding chairs is set up in the middle of the basketball court where six seated drummers begin pounding on their round animal-skin drums, with thin curved mallets that appeared to be made of a rib or sliver of walrus tusk. The young boys, maybe 5 years old sprinted out to half court when the drumming started, and they stomped their feet and moved their hands in rhythm with the beat. Later, girls and women got up to dance, their fluid hand motions and coordinated movements telling a story. The strong cultural ties within this community was evident as elders and kids followed the same movements, and in the bleachers, feet tapped along with the drum beat, including my own. I felt like a part of things here.
The Internet connection has been in flux recently, possibly due to the high winds and heavy use on many devices (iPads, cell phones, and laptops). A couple days ago our router was borrowed, and now we are on a replacement that is equally as slow. I've been awake early in the mornings and late at night to try and stay up to date on things, which has been difficult. I'd like to thank everyone who has contributed to my GoFundMe page, which is allowing me to extend my visit in hopes of better weather in the coming week. I hope to get thank you notes out soon, since my account email isn't functioning with the limited bandwidth. If you're reading this and have contributed to my GoFundMe page, thank you so much! Your support has allowed me to stay as long as I have already. Also, I'd like to mention that a generous donation of air miles helped get me up to Alaska on this visit, making my Gambell trip possible. If you or someone you know has air miles they'd like to donate before they expire, I will put them to use before December! Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
I'm truly grateful to have such a strong community that has offered support so far this year!
There are many stories, birthday surprises, and great photographs I still have to share, but we will have to catch up after I'm off the island. I'm detailing these experiences carefully in a book, which I've spent the last few weeks working on. It's coming together!