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

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.

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.

But this very lack of facilities is part of the experience of the island. You can hardly avoid looking into the life of St. Paul. And now is the time to go. The tight community developed by this unique and isolated culture appears on the verge of change. The island is undergoing a major economic dislocation. The government is pulling out of the seal business this year: Profits are not what they were when legal tender was room and board, and the subsidy is coming to an end. But sealing is all the islanders and their forefathers on the Pribilofs have ever known.

The ''harvest'' is not a simple issue. It is very important in the Pribilofs to walk the mile in another man's moccasins. In the kenching shed, a processing plant, the teen-ager scraping the blubber off the skins is the local basketball star. The young people working the furs seem as inured to a sense of slaughter as a housewife in the ''lower 48'' buying cellophane-wrapped, ''factory-produced'' chicken.

As one resident put it: ''The fur seal is not an endangered species, but the Aleut is.''

I talked with Perfenio Pletnikoff, deacon of the church, who recollected in a soft voice the days when he worked the seals and who laughed at the adversity with an almost silent chuckle. ''I started out and measured skins: 41! 43! 42!'' he called, pantomiming the action on the floor of his living room. ''I could do 30 skins an hour blubbering. We used to pull (them) over a wooden post and scrape. The knife couldn't be sharp or it would cut the skin. It's hard work, blubbering. I was working for tea and corn bread.''

Later, during lunch, he referred lovingly to his beautiful young granddaughter as a ''little seal pup.'' The sound of the seals is a constant on the island - males defending their small stake of beach. It is a loud and sonorous angry roar. The summer rookeries in the Pribilofs contain the largest concentration of mammals in the world. It is possible to stand right next to the animals behind blinds designed to protect the tourist as well as to avoid disturbing the seals. I did not find them a lovable sight. As Henry W. Elliott wrote: ''Their hoarse roaring and shrill piping whistle never ceases, while their fat bodies writhe and swell with exertion and rage.''

After you have stood at a blind for a while, there is new meaning to what seems wonderfully humorous at first glance - a traffic sign (the only one on the island) announcing with hand lettering and a silhouette a ''seal crossing.''

But away from the beaches there are few stragglers, and you are left to the lush low tundra green. Totally bare of trees in the continual wind, it is covered with flowers in June. But it is hard to imagine anything lovelier than the gray green I saw in July. It is an austere color: The yellow is gone from the palette here in this severe sea, but the low, undulating curves in the land are long and delicate. A narrow brick-red road - covered with scoria, the volcanic core of the island - winds around St. Paul.

Most travelers to the Pribilofs come with one object. The islands harbor almost 190 species of birds. There are birds here that are found almost nowhere else - such as the red-legged kittiwake and the red-faced cormorant. Last year a man traveled from New York specifically to see a rare transient, the Indian tree pippit, when it was sighted in residence. Another treated the entire tour group to a party upon notching his 600th North American bird.

It is not necessary, however, to be a committed birder to enjoy the spectacle of the high cliffs. You can walk very close to the thousands of sea birds that stand on the face of sheer rock. Murres perch in thick lines facing the cliff, with their long necks craned up against it to the point of their black bills. It is an improbable sight - hundreds of sleek black and white bodies clinging like bats to the vertical wall. Red-legged kittiwakes select slightly larger ledges, some nursing big, perfect eggs laid directly on the rock.

Auklets cluster in strips on the sea and fly with hard-pumping small wings as if flight required intense concentration. The painted heads and bobbing curled feathers of the crested auklet carry the aura of a more ancient avian time, reflecting in a distorted fun-house mirror their relatives at the other end of the earth, the penguin.

The fulmar glides on the sand, hanging stationary and then peeling off into reconnaissance dives over the surf, so that you can almost see the currents in the air, its large wings in keeping with its shared lineage with the albatross.

You can stand directly over puffins perched right under the green overhang on the top cliff ledges - gaudy colors emphasizing their girth.

What in New England would be the wildness of approaching storm happens here every day. Waves seem to gather momentum as if rolling downhill as they swell toward the rock. Far out from shore, the slate-gray surface of the sea heaves; the sound of the crashing surf blots out everything but the sting of the wind and the cacophony of shrill insistent bird calls.

There are only a few days of sun in a typical summer month. One of the men at the Loran station described the scene in winter. ''There really isn't that much snow, but we have to cut a snow tunnel to get out of the front door. It's that the wind blows it straight out across the island. It's a total white-out. And then it blows it all straight back the other way.''

But in the moist soft light of summer, you can walk away from the harsh wind into the small interior. A herd of reindeer roams the island, and you can come upon them surprisingly suddenly. Foxes stalk the tundra. Snow buntings nest in among the low rocks. And on my trip, we sighted a hard-to-distinguish McKay's bunting. I could see my companions marking a big mental check on their life lists.

That's it for things to do on the Pribilofs. You can walk the island, watch seals from the blinds, sit with the wind and the birds, and talk with the islanders.

I visited the remains of an old sealing station at the tip of the island on a long clear evening. The sod-walled barabaras braced with whalebone staves, which were homes for the workers, are fallen in.

The clapboard house that quartered the foreman is weathered to that mid-stage of deterioration that approaches communion with the land. On the mullions of broken windows sit gray-crowned rosy finches, taking the air at the doorstep of their nests in the inside cupboards.

A hand-hewn and joined wooden cross stands on a high point of land with the slanted second bar of the Orthodox church. It has only flakes of white paint still adhering.

What will happen now that the destinies of seal and Aleut islander are being separated? Now is the time to visit.

Practical information

Regular tours to the Pribilofs are offered by Alaska Exploration Holiday, 838 West Fourth Avenue, Anchorage, Alaska 99501. Telephone (907) 276-6876 or 800-426 -0600.

There are 3-, 4-, and 6-day tours costing $654, $714, and $824. Cost includes round-trip air fare from Anchorage, hotel, guides, and bus transportation on the island; but it does not include meals. This is a significant additional expense. Dinners at the King Eider ''tourist'' restaurant consist of two selections at about $15 each, and even breakfast can easily run over $5.

The one criticism I have of the tourist operation (organized by the local native corporation) is its sometimes unreasonable standardization. With halibut so fresh at hand, it seems excessive to have to pay $15 to eat a small piece of it. The alternative restaurant, Father's, is less expensive but not cheap.

You will also be responsible for hotel costs beyond your scheduled stay if the return flight is unable to get in because of weather. This is something which happens not infrequently.

The airline that serves the Pribilofs is Reeve Aleutian Airways.

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