Russian Views From Alaska
Little Diomede Island, Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, and Wales
By: Courtney Dowd-Stanley
Russia and Alaska are divided from one another by the Bering Strait, which is located in the Pacific Ocean and bordered by the Chukchi Sea to the north and the Bering Sea to the south. At its narrowest point, the Bering Strait is only 53 miles wide, making it easy for the neighboring countries of Russia and the United States to observe each other. In the extremely isolated Western Alaska communities of Little Diomede, Wales, and the St. Lawrence Island village of Gambell, a clear day presents residents with the uncanny ability to view the Russian territory of Siberia. The map below shows just how close the two countries are. [caption id="attachment_8256" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Flickr - TZA[/caption]
Rewind a bit to the idea of being able to see Russia from the great state of Alaska, which originally flooded international headlines back in 2008. It was at this time when former Governor Sarah Palin was discussing foreign policy during her Republican Party nomination for the position of Vice President of the United States. After the infamous Saturday Night Live skit aired where comedian, Tina Fey, mocked Palin’s statement saying, “I can see Russia from my front door” – the world had a heyday. Before we knew it, life-size billboards and yard signs popped up all over the country with the cringe-worthy phrase. [caption id="attachment_8255" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Flickr - Jeffrey L. Cohen[/caption]
The silver lining that came out of all the wacky media coverage is that we started talking about (and paying attention to) the remarkable places in Western Alaska where you can, in fact, see Russia from your doorstep. [caption id="attachment_8253" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Flickr - Andrew Petersen[/caption]
Big Diomede Island (located in Russian territory) and Little Diomede Island (located in Alaska) sit in the middle of the Bering Strait only a little over two miles apart. They form the closest points of land between Russia and the United States. [caption id="attachment_8263" align="aligncenter" width="962"] Wikipedia - NASA Original Photo (2)[/caption]
Both of these rocky islands have distinct “tuya” formations, which are essentially flat-topped and steep-sided volcanic land areas that are formed when lava erupts through a thick glacier or sheet of ice. [caption id="attachment_8259" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Flickr - Andrew Petersen[/caption]
The border separating the two islands was created in 1867 when the United States purchased Alaska from Russia. Residents traveled freely between the islands until the Cold War when the border was closed and nicknamed the “ice curtain.” The islands are also separated by the International Date Line, which puts Big Diomede 21 hours ahead of Little Diomede, which is the reason why Big Diomede is sometime referred to as “Tomorrow Island” and Little Diomede is called “Yesterday Isle.” [caption id="attachment_8267" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Wikipedia[/caption]
During the Cold War the residents of Big Diomede were relocated to the mainland of Siberia, so other than military units, the island remains uninhabited. Unlike Big Diomede, Little Diomede (also known as Iŋaliq) is home to a year-round population of roughly 100 Native Alaskan residents. [caption id="attachment_8266" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Wikipedia[/caption]
The community is carved into the only area on Little Diomede Island that doesn’t have near-vertical cliffs shooting straight down into the ocean. The total land area of the island is only 2.8 square miles which makes for a very close-knit community. [caption id="attachment_8257" align="aligncenter" width="679"] Flickr - Weston Renoud[/caption]
While there are no hospitals or airports on Little Diomede Island, there is a heliport. During the harsh winter months that are normal for Western Alaska, the Bering Strait freezes, forcing locals to manually carve a runway in the ice for bush planes to deliver supplies. [caption id="attachment_8252" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Flickr - Weston Renoud[/caption]
Because residents on Little Diomede Island are unable to have television, they keep themselves busy by enjoying outdoor activities such as kayaking. Fishing and hunting are crucial methods of survival as the community relies heavily on subsistence practices to feed and clothe their families. [caption id="attachment_8258" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Flickr - Weston Renoud[/caption]
Another place where you can see the Russian territory of Siberia from Alaska is the tiny village of Gambell located on St. Lawrence Island. Located west of mainland Alaska and slightly south of the Bering Strait, Gambell is home to roughly 700 permanent residents. Although the community is extremely isolated, it does have an airport, clinic and a K-12 school. [caption id="attachment_8264" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Wikipedia - St. Lawrence Island[/caption]
In 1952 the former Northeast Cape Air Force Station opened on St. Lawrence Island. This military base was used during both WW2 and the Cold War. There was also a White Alice Communications System site that operated from about 1952 to about 1972 on St Lawrence Island. [caption id="attachment_8265" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Wikipedia - U.S. Army Corps of Engineers[/caption]
Last but certainly not least on our list is the community of Wales, Alaska (population 145) which can view Russia from their doorstep as well. Located in the Nome census area, Wales is the very westernmost city on mainland North America (Cape Prince of Wales) and perhaps the only place on mainland Alaska where you can view Russia on a clear day. [caption id="attachment_8260" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Wikipedia - Alexrk2[/caption]
Wales is another extremely isolated community in Western Alaska, with challenging means of accessibility. Its location on the western tip of the Seward Peninsula is at the northern end of the Continental Divide where the Pacific and Arctic oceans collide. The town is roughly 111 miles northwest of the larger neighboring community of Nome.[caption id="attachment_8254" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Flickr - Bering Land Bridge National Preserve[/caption]
Long story short; if you’re willing to travel to these remote Western Alaska communities, you’ll definitely have the opportunity to see Russia from the great 49th state. To see the unique terrain and visit the people that live in this isolated region of the Last Frontier would be an unforgettable experience.
Looking for more where that came from? Check out this story on Portage, the sunken Alaska ghost town that nature is reclaiming. Also, check out the Pioneer Stories, A One Dog Man. If you are living and loving The Alaska Life – share your adventures with us on our Facebook page HERE, and they might just end up getting featured in one of our next blog posts.
Written by Courtney Dowd-Stanley
I was on Gamble 1955, I had a lot of pictures of the town and people that I lost,
would like to see any photo’s from that time you might have
At the time I was in the air force
Erwin (Bill) Huber
I understand are 24 time zones.so 1 hour is ok ,but not 3.
The international date line passes between Russia and Alaska
I I understand in one place can be Monday and in another place Thursday,but are 3 hours more.this is a lot
Why are 3 hours difference from Alaska to Russia? When the distance is Soo short?55 miles between.please explain
Just out of curiosity….if you can have cell phone or computer service, why are the people on these Islands not able to have TV?
Addl thought….By the way, there are folks who are just not built for COLD climates, like me….but here’s friendly Hello from Southwest Florida….yes, we too have Islands….Sanibel/Captiva are the largest in an area that has been called the 10,000 Islands Area. I can cross the Causeway and see Dolphins playing in the surf. From beginning to the end of this Island, its 35 miles.
I’m not a flat earther, but the official flat earth map has Antarctica in the center of a huge circle and the Bering strait is still there, Russia and Alaska are still right beside each other.
Tina Fey is dead sexy but she ain’t funny!
The community center in savoonga has two room for overnite use set up like hotel rooms
I’ve been delivering cargo to the places via tug and barge, and Landing crafts!??
I am from Gambell. It’s really cool to see. Sometimes their mountain looks like a bowhead whale.
Not a bush plane from Nome (which served by Alaskan Airlines with 737s), but twin props like a Dash-8 or a single turbo prop like a Cessna Caravan operated by a regional carrier like Rav’n, PenAir, etc. Prices can be high, it’s worth checking if a mileage-award ticket on Alaska is a better deal.
well that proves the earth isn’t flat.
The joke was dumb, you’re uncultured and small-minded, and Tina Fey is slightly amusing at best.
Great story. Love it that there are multiple areas that can view all the way to Russian coasts. I’ve always thought Tina Fey was an idiot anyway.
Let it go, the joke was funny. Sarah Palin is a moron and Tina Fey is hilarious.
Gamble has a hotel and is located at the runway. Savoonga has no place to stay except the school. When did you teach there?
Katie, you are correct that you would have to fly to Nome first. Flights to Gambell on St. Lawrence Island are expensive, around $500 round trip. Gambell gets birders every year, so there is a place for guests to stay. Look up the Sivuqaq Inn.
No places to stay on St. Lawrence Island unless you know someone to stay with. No not get on a plane for these remote locations unless you have someone to meet you when you arrive on the island. (I taught school in this area of Alaska, so do know what I’m talking about>)
I’d love to travel to Saint Lawrencetown Island! To get there you get to Nome and fly to the island. From there would there be somewhere you could stay or how would I figure that out.
This font is pretty light. Hard to week. My eyes work pretty well.
Hi Jake! Thank you for your question. These locations in Western Alaska are all remote, so your best mode of transportation will be via airplane. Nome is the nearest major airport, so you could fly in there and then book a flight on a smaller bush plane to access the small communities listed in the above article. If you need any more help, please reach out! Thanks so much.
Great. How to get to these places from Alaska?
Thank you for clearing up the stupid joke Tina Fey was famous for, never liked that joke.