Since we had hours to wait in Anchorage, we ventured into the city for an urban refresh returning to the airport in plenty of time to check in with our charter for St. Paul Island only to be told that strong headwinds made it necessary for us to shed 500 pounds of weight so they could take on more fuel.
We sat on the floor at Ace Air cargo and began unpacking, repacking and haggling about what was essential. We’d just about finished dropping the 500 pounds when we were told we had to drop 200 more pounds more if we wanted to take off that day. (There were no more scheduled flights St. Paul for a week.)
At this point, our Tour Manager Joshua had the great(?) idea to drop our food, which conveniently weighed about 200 pounds. “We’ve seen what communities can do,” he challenged us when we looked dubiously at him. “We have to trust the community to provide.”
With that he sent our food on to Unalaska, our last stop. As if the Universe heard him, at that very moment the St. Paul School Superintendent, called with a problem. The St. Paul School’s fifth grade class trip to Florida was in peril because their scheduled flight from St. Paul to Anchorage had been cancelled. It didn’t take the two of them long to come up with a win-win deal: If St. Paul could feed us for three days, we could give them the return portion of our charter out there.
Three loud, small plane hours later we found ourselves flying over a tiny, treeless, relatively young volcanic island in the middle of endless ocean. Once we landed, we were welcomed as heroes by fifth graders and their parents anxious to board our plane for the first leg of their trip of a lifetime.
We found St. Paul much more magical than Disneyworld. It had foxes, craters, cinder cones, seal rookeries, woolly mammoth fossils, and unusual birds like crested auklets and tufted puffins. We were literally blown away by the weather, a battleground of stormy, sunny, gentle, wild and foggy all at the same time.
We unloaded into our private wing of the school dined sumptuously on lasagna and ice cream. Thank you generous people of St. Paul for indulging us in our favorite foods. The next day we led workshops with all 50 or so kids from K-12 (except the Florida-bound fifth graders). We worked out the kinks of our bare bones set and even borrowed a few items from around town. The show didn’t seem to suffer. In fact the words seemed stronger echoing in the Sea Parrots’ gym while the wind howled outside.
Before leaving the next day Jason Bourdukofsky gave us a tour of the Aleut Heritage Museum adjacent to Sts. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church. Many of the artifacts in the Museum had some connection to Jason’s family. It was riveting to hear the island’s history from a person whose family had lived there for generations through the fur-sealing epoch and the internment camp in Funter Bay during WWII.
As we boarded our same Ace Cargo charter plane to head to Unalaska, we all had regrets about leaving this rugged but insanely beautiful place. We made promises to ourselves and each other to return to these 40 square miles of Pribilof Isle not only for the stunning scenery and the seals but also – and most of all – for the warm and generous Unangan people who fed us so well and showed us their island.