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The Pribilofs: cold, fog-shrouded home of the northern fur seal

By Gail Bryan, Special to The Christian Science Monitor, Ms. Bryan is a free-lance writer and photographer. Her trip was sponsored by the Alaska Division of Tourism. / February 24, 1984



The Pribilofs, a cluster of five small islands in the Bering Sea and the major breeding ground of the northern fur seal, were uninhabited until 1786. The islands were unknown to Europeans for so long for the same reasons the seals choose them. They are cold and wet, often hidden by fog, and drenched by the storms that are normal fare for one of the world's most treacherous oceans.

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To the seals, this means not overheating during the long summer days they spend out of water. To explorers, who picked away for decades at the area between Siberia and Alaska in search of the Northwest Passage, it meant the possibility of passing within half a mile of the tiny islands without seeing them.

The largest, now known as St. Paul, is only 35 square miles. Gerassim Pribilof was in fact lost in fog when his crew heard the loud barking of the seal herd and discovered the island he christened ''St. George,'' after his ship. It was not until the next spring that men left for the winter on St. George discovered the island they called ''St. Peter and St. Paul,'' only 40 miles away.

The islands were immediately exploited for fur, Russian hunter-traders having fallen on lean years with the virtual decimation of the sea otter. They imported Aleuts as slave labor. Ever since, the seals have, without respite or reprieve, constituted the sole economy of the Pribilofs, except for a little tourism in the last few years. And since 1867, with the sale of Alaska to the United States , Aleuts have constituted the whole of the population. St. Paul's 591 inhabitants form the largest Aleut community in existence.

The Aleuts were excellent navigators and marine hunters - not surprising, given the thin chain of exposed islands on which they lived. They were also sophisticated artists, known especially for basketwork - so fine it cannot be reproduced today. But much of the Aleut past is gone. It is only sparsely represented in Alaska's museums. The hand of Russia was heavy. Estimates of the number of Aleuts living before the Russians arrived vary from 12,000 to 20,000; in any case, only 2,000 survived by the end of the 18th century.

The survivors intermarried - culturally and genetically. The Russian Orthodox Church is the center of the community in St. Paul. It even retains the old Slavonic liturgy. Last names on the island are uniformly Russian - Pletnikoff, Merculieff, Rokovishnikoff, Stepetin.

Isolated from the rest of Alaska and from the United States, the Pribilofs are 250 miles from the nearest remote islands in the Aleutian chain - a distance not easily traversed even now through the rough and unpredictable weather over the Bering Sea.

But they are also separated by a special history. The US government took control of the seal ''harvest'' after 1867, and until 1946 ''paid'' the Aleut workers in food, clothing, and shelter rather than money. Schoolchildren were forbidden to speak the Aleut language - and made to wash their mouths out with soap if they slipped.

The islanders were forcibly resettled on Admiralty Island during World War II - a particularly ironic fact, since it was Lincoln's hard-line antislavery secretary of state, William Henry Seward, who bought the Pribilofs just after the abolition of African slavery in the US.

You can visit St. Paul on a 3-, 4-, or 6-day tour - that may stretch longer if the plane cannot fly in because of weather. There are only two planes a week. The package tour is almost mandatory because of limited facilities on the island. There is just one small hotel, spotless but basic, with dorm-style double rooms and bathrooms down the hall (no singles - you will be asked to share). And there is only one regularly open restaurant. The second restaurant, called ''Father's'' and run by Fr. Michael Lestenkof, the local priest, is open only on selected nights.

The community store runs to a spotty selection of very expensive staples and frozen foods. Most important, there are no places to get in out of the cold or rain or to sit down except for the hotel: The few public buildings are small and open only briefly limited hours. Transportation is with the morning and afternoon bus tours or on foot.