Deb’s Pribilof Journal

In Bad Book Club, Deb's Desk by Deb Vanasse

A visit to the Pribilof Islands inspired Deb’s next release, Roar of the Sea (Feb. 2022). From her (temporary) desk ten years ago, the first installment of her thoughts from that journey.

April 24, 2011

A beautiful Easter morning in St. Paul on the Pribilof Islands.  Out the window of my little bedroom in the Pribilof School District apartment, sun and snatches of blue.  The grasses below are tall and brown.  Last night a fox scurried below the window.  He barked – yap, yap, bark – not quite dog, more seal-like.  There are no seals here yet.  Friday night Tanya drove me around one end of the island in her truck, letting me out in a couple of spots to look for them.  But the rocks were empty, some still ice-capped from when the seas must have come up high during winter storms.

Looking out the plane window as we made our approach to St. Paul, I saw bits of the ice pack, lacy and patched together, thinner and more delicate than I would have imagined.  I don’t know if that’s because it’s near melting or whether my idea of big hunks of ice spins out of popular culture, as in icebergs and the Titanic.  But I also know polar bears sometimes ride ice floes, and this thin islands of ice looked too small to support that kind of weight. 

We landed into a 45 mph wind, the island appeared as a surprise underneath us as we made an approach to what seemed only water.  The runway might have been at any village, gravel but longer than most.  The airport was a surprise.  People tell me there are only 450 or so people living in St. Paul, but the airport is part of a big metal building that also houses a hotel, about three miles from the city itself.  There were lots of people coming and going, meeting and greeting.  I noticed even on the plane there aren’t the typical village smells here, dry fish and PineSol, smells that cling to the people who live in some villages, along with the strong smell of scented laundry soaps. 

This place must be stunning when spring finally comes and it’s green.  This morning the temperature was 17 degrees at breakfast.  Random snowflakes fell yesterday, or to say it more accurately, they were tossed by the wind.  A lot of snow must have to fall for it to stick with the winds here.  It must be stark and desolate in the winter, a long hunkering time. 

I was on my own Friday night.  Tanya gave me a lift in her truck from the airport, along with Michelle and Bob, scientists who as it turns out are here to work with the students for Bering Sea Days next week.  Weather permitted (the planes can’t land at St. George when the cross winds are greater than 30 mph) older students from St. George will be picked up by charter plane this afternoon to join the St. Paul kids for this week of exploring and studying the island.  I overheard some discussion about this year’s topic being king crab.  Managed by a North Pacific alliance, the crab catch has fallen off dramatically, from some 300 million a few years back to 70 million or so.  Both islands had most recently gotten most of their revenues from activities related to crabbing:  boats stopping here, winter storage of crab pots, taxes on fuel.  So the populations of both islands are dwindling as people move inland for work.  A few years ago, the school population here was around 150.  Now it’s around 80.  On St. George, they had 30 students a few years back, and now there are nine, technically fewer than the state allows for the school to stay open.  As often happens in those cases, a student or two is shuffled to the school for the official attendance count on Oct. 1, and then shuffled out. 

St. George is the tougher place to get in and out of.  In addition to the crosswinds, the runway is hemmed in by a cliff on one end and water on the other, I’m told.  Earle, the school district’s business manager, was a finance officer for the City of St. George several years ago.  The mayor and city manager lived in town (that seems to always be Anchorage) at the time, so he says he more or less ran the whole show.  He’s retired now, living in Georgia with his wife, but the superintendent here called him up a few years back, desperate for a business manager after theirs left.  His arrangement:  he stays here one month out of every quarter, and the rest of the year he runs things from Georgia.  The only cell service here is with GCI, but there’s wireless here in the apartment, where George has a permanent room.  He stays mostly downstairs in the office area, coming up here only to sleep and cook, at least while I’m here.  It’s a no-housekeeping the operation, so this morning we are washing the linens in preparation for leaving this afternoon.

The AC “Value Center” across the street is where teens and young adults hang out, in a little foyer-type area protected from the wind, the front labeled “Senior Parking.”  The store itself is gigantic from the outside, which huge warehousing space that makes me wonder whether it once had a life as something else.  When she first dropped me here, Tanya said it would be open till 7 (we arrived early, around 4) so I should run over before then if I needed anything.  It’s big inside, too, and well-stocked, not like any village store I’ve seen for a place with only 400 people.  Everything here feels more affluent and well-kept than in most villages.  I bought a Yoplait for $1.50 and a small block of Extra-Sharp Tillamook Cheddar for $6.99 to supplement the freeze-dried meals, apples, and nuts I brought with me.