A full day in an open boat filled with 14 men and women leaves little room for privacy, comfort, and the niceties of life. This was my first experience in open communal living and, with the brashness of youth, I dived eagerly in and shared. The women boiled water (carefully) over Sterno stoves to make the indispensable tea that Eskimos crave. We shared hardtack, biscuits dripping with jam, and pulled and twisted at the tough rind of last year’s sun-dried salmon. The men continually watched to make sure we neither encountered ice nor strayed too far from the Alaskan coastline. We all told stories and shared experiences of the past, sang songs (I was not very helpful in that activity), and met personal needs.
It still amazes me how matter-of-factly those personal needs were attended to over the gunwale of an open boat, in full view of others, by both men and women, and still have modesty served. There is an Oriental practice which can only be described as “seeing what one wishes to see,” wherein one’s eyes not only skim over someone without consciously observing that person, but the person being “not seen” can tell it by the glaze, or dis-focus, of the other’s eyes, and is able to treat these “not eyes” as a screen or wall. And, after all, is not the Eskimo of Asian origin?
The weather cooperated beautifully, the water was calm, and we rounded the southern end of Little Diomede Island around midnight. A few lights from the village stood out in the semi-dusk, and we soon scraped to a stop on the shingle of the narrow beach. The sudden stillness from some 18 hours of almost-constant outboard motor noise pressed in on me, and for a few minutes I seemed to hardly hear the happy greetings and laughter as almost the entire village surrounded us and hauled the boat onto the beach. I clumsily climbed out of the boat onto shore, almost fell from the absence of motion, and stood looking westward into tomorrow at Big Diomede Island, hulking only two and a half miles across the International Dateline. Fascinating! Although I had been here several times before by ski plane in the winter, I stood at the water’s edge and gazed at the Soviet island and at the mountains of Siberia, just rising above the far horizon beyond. I remembered elderly Eskimos telling of the past freedom of unrestricted passage between the two continents, when family could visit family and hunters knew no international boundaries. I automatically searched for the Soviet military installation located in the saddle between the two hills on each end of Big Diomede but saw nothing.