St. Paul Island, Alaska is by far the most remote place I’ve ever lived, or maybe even been to. Located in the Bering Sea, it is one of the two inhabited Pribilof Islands. It is about 40 square miles, and has a population of about 450 people. On the island, there is one post office, one very expensive grocery store, and one bar.
Many of my friends and family would cringe at the idea of living so far away from home, and sometimes I do too. I miss Jesse and our house and friends in Anchorage, and our cats. With only 3 flights a week, I worry about my ability to get home if I needed to quickly. Cell phone service can be sketchy so I can’t always talk to people easily. The second week I was here, Jesse told me our cat, Susan, had run away and I couldn’t do anything about it because I was nearly 1,000 miles away (she came back the next day, btw. But it was still scary.) And nights like last night, after a bad day, when the wind was loudly howling at 50 miles per hour and shaking my house, the vastness and loneliness can creep in.
I knew when I moved out here alone that this feeling would come and go. It has happened to me every time I have moved to a new place. I have a few strategies for this. Sometimes I call my family and cry, that always helps. It is ridiculously dramatic, but they always cheer me up. Sometimes I remind myself of an important motto I have: just because an experience isn’t great, or even if just parts of it are not good, it does not mean it’s not worth having. I remind myself that I won’t feel that way forever, it was just a bad day! Those happen everywhere. Lastly, and try to remind myself about the wonderful things about the place I live.
For this post, I want to highlight just that- the things I have come to love about this place.
1. The Lunch Break– When I worked at YWCA Alaska, I would slug away at my desk all day and skip my lunch break to keep my work day at 8 hours. Though I would take short breaks throughout the day, and I would eat lunch at my desk, I always left the office feeling spent. Here, a lunchless day is not an option. The entire town closes down from 12:00-1:00 for lunch. Even the school closes. I sometimes enjoy lunch with my co-workers, or I go on a walk, or I work on my graduate school work. Either way, it is a break from teaching, and a sweet hour in the middle of my day where I can do whatever I want.
2. The Routine– Every day, I work with the same kids at the same time. I eat lunch at the same time. I walk home at the same time, have my herbal tea at the same time, go to bed around the same time. On Friday nights, I drink beer at the bar with my friends. On Saturdays and Sundays I lounge and do lesson plans and graduate school work. While this might seem monotonous, it hasn’t gotten old yet! I like almost all of the things I do, so it’s always fun. There isn’t much else to do, so I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. By the time I’m tired of working, the weekend is just around the corner. When I’m tired of doing grad school work or being alone, the kids are there to greet me on Monday. It makes the weeks go by really fast.
3. The Simplicity– I am busier here than I have ever been. I’m holding a full time teaching job for which I’m responsible for preparing 5 classes a day while also taking 2 graduate level classes. However, my stress level is generally low. It may come with the routine, or it may come with the fact that I live alone. Maybe it’s that I actually really enjoy what I’m doing with my time. However, I think that the simplicity of life here definitely helps. I never feel like I’m missing anything. There are fewer choices to make. There are simple pleasures all around that I actually appreciate because there is less going on around me.
4. The Scenery– Speaking of simple pleasures, the scenery here is breath-taking. I often find myself sitting on my couch with a book in my hand or a computer in my lap just staring out of my window. With no trees or tall buildings on the island, dramatic views are abundant. Huge waves crashing into cliffs, fishing boats coming into the harbor, birds landing in the salt lagoon, the small town with rows of little colorful houses in the setting sun. At almost every point on the island there is an ocean view, often times you can see the ocean in more than one direction. The stretches of sea are so vast it almost makes my eyes hurt. Every view is more beautiful than the last. And it’s winter! The fur seals and killer whales aren’t even here yet!
5. The Culture– along with a new place comes a new culture to learn about! The island is populated by the Aleut tribe. They are Alaskan Natives who have lived here for generations. The island was first colonized by Russians, so their religion and many of their traditions were learned from them. Russian Orthodox is the religion practiced. While they speak English, and our life styles have a lot in common, there are many cultural difference which I’m still learning about. Just like how I grew up, they gather for potluck meals for birthdays and there are cake walks at carnivals. On weekends, they spend quality time with their friends just talking and playing board games. If it’s nice outside, they have bonfires. There is always drama and juicy gossip to be shared. Unlike how I grew up, they hunt seals and sea lions. Children are raised not just by their parents, but by the entire town. Every single parent comes to parent teacher conferences. They have their houses blessed by the priest every year, and lent lasts for 8 weeks instead of 6. They cut their cakes into bigger pieces. They say “play out” instead of “play outside.” When it’s really really windy outside, I have heard that the boys will go jump off of cliffs or buildings and get pushed back up by the wind- their own form of adrenaline pumping skydiving. When I think of these similarities and differences, I just feel so lucky that I have the opportunity to learn about them and experience their lifestyle and culture.
6. Nice, Respectful People– This is a town where when you pass someone, even if you don’t know them, you’ll get a smile and a wave. I heard “Welcome to St. Paul!” more times than I could count when I arrived. I have been invited into peoples homes and introduced to their families. I walk to school every day, and on at least one leg of the trip, someone stops to offer me a ride. People are so nice, and my students are very respectful.
7. Wildlife– During the summer months, St. Paul Island is inhabited by hundreds of thousands of fur seals and millions of sea birds, like puffins. Along with the seals come killer whales, a top contender for my favorite animal in the world. The island is also home to many mischievous arctic foxes. I have caught a glimpse of a fox, and I am really looking forward to seeing more wildlife as it warms up. Not to mention the wildlife like king crab that lives at the bottom of the sea, which I don’t as much care to see as I do to eat.
There you have it! This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the great things about St. Paul, but it certainly is enough to lift my spirits when I am down. I feel really lucky to get to call this place home for the time being.