The Loneliest Place in Alaska

Snow field and volcanic spire (foreground), Bering Sea (background), St. Matthew Island, AK.

In June 2018 I had the opportunity to accompany the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as vegetation ecologist on a multi-disciplinary expedition to St. Matthew Island (SMI), a remote island located in the middle of the Bering Sea (Figure 1). Our team consisted of 8 bird biologists, a museum collections manager, an archeologist, and myself.

Figure 1. Map of Alaska showing location of St. Matthew Island. Map sourced from Arctic Portal.

The USFWS Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (AMNWR) returns to SMI every 5–6 years to complete populations surveys for McKay’s Buntings (MCBU, Plectrophenax hyperboreu) and a subspecies of Rock Sandpiper (ROSA, Calidris ptilocnemis ptilocnemis), two bird species for which St. Matthew Island is the primary nesting grounds. A complementary objective, and my primary purpose on the expedition, was to gather data for a vegetation land cover map of SMI and Hall Island, a small island just to the north of SMI (Figure 2), for use in future habitat analysis for MCBU and ROSA

St. Matthew Island is the most remote place in Alaska (see “The most remote spot in Alaska, above) being located over 200 miles from the nearest road system. In fact, in a given year more people summit Denali, the highest point in North America, than visit SMI. The only way to SMI, and many of the disjunct islands and rocky coastlines that make up the AMNWR, is via marine vessel. Below is a brief overview of the flora, fauna, and human history of SMI and Hall Islands, followed by my account of our June 2018 expedition.

Figure 2: Map of St. Matthew, Hall, and Pinnacle Islands showing important landmarks. Imagery from Google Earth.

Flora

The vegetation of St. Matthew and Hall Islands is characteristic of arctic tundra; a treeless, windswept landscape dominated by dwarf shrubs, lichen, and sedges. Patterns of vegetation are driven largely by the redistribution of snow and a groundwater hydrology driven by snow melt. Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) and lichen tundra are common on the most exposed, rocky areas that are blown free of snow during the winter months. Dwarf willows (Salix sp.) are common on slightly more sheltered sites.

Primula borealis, St. Matthew Island, AK.

Lush grass and forb meadows are common below late lying snowbanks and along hillside springs and seeps; while wet sedge meadows are common in the lowland areas. Along the coast beach rye (Leymus mollis) meadows predominate on sand dunes. Hall Island is home to a rare, endemic sagebrush species, Artemisia globularia var. lutea. A quick search for voucher specimens from SMI and Hall Islands using the Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herberia plant specimen search tool yields a total of 219 unique vascular plant taxa. However, while a number of botanists have collected specimens from SMI and Hall Islands, a comprehensive floristic inventory has not been completed, thus this should be considered a minimum number of vascular plant taxa. As for non-vascular plants, Talbot et al. (2001) report 139 lichen species from St. Paul and St. Matthew Islands.

Fauna

Rock Sandpiper, St. Matthew Island, AK. Photo by Bryce Robinson.

Presently the largest mammals on SMI are red (Vulpes vulpes) and arctic (Alopex lagopus) foxes. SMI is also home to the singing vole (Microtus abbreviatus), a species endemic to SMI. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) historically roamed SMI during the summer months (Klein and Sowls 2011), but the last of the over-summering population were killed off in the late 1800s by fur seal hunters. However, evidence of their presence on SMI still exists in the form of game trails etched into the tundra. Changes in the southerly extent and duration of sea ice cover in the Bering Sea in recent decades make it unlikely that an over-summer population of polar bears will reestablish anytime soon. As for other marine mammals, on the west shore of Hall Island is a beach that is an important haul out for Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens).

McKay’s Bunting perched on drift wood, St. Matthew Island, AK. Photo by Bryce Robinson.

Twenty-nine reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) were introduced to SMI in 1944 by the U.S. Coast Guard (see below, Human Habitation), and quickly increased to 6,000 by the summer of 1963 (Klein 1968). The population experienced a rapid die-off the following winter to less than 50 animals, and by the 1980s the entire population had gone extinct. Stuart McMillen tells this story of overpopulation and carrying capacity most poignantly in his comic entitled “St. Matthew Island”. The bird species on SMI and Hall Islands are many, including 3 only found here: MCBU, ROSA, a subspecies of the Graycrowned Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis umbrina). Winker et al. (2002) provide an annotated list of 125 avifauna species known to occur on SMI and Hall Islands. They also discuss the importance of SMI and Hall Island to migratory birds, and the unique location of these islands at the confluence of both the Old and New World avian migration systems.

Red fox kit, St. Matthew Island, AK. Photo by Marc Romano.

Human Habitation

The history of human habitation on SMI and Hall Island appears to be one of short, temporary stays, and the question of whether humans have ever establishment long-term residence, particularly during prehistoric times, remains unresolved (Griffin 2004). Previous archeological studies on SMI and Hall Island have produced artifacts dating to prehistoric times, including the remains of a semi-subterranean house, pottery shards, bone fragments, and charcoal. During these prehistoric times modern day Eurasia and North America were connected across the Bering Straight by the Bering Land Bridge, which served as a corridor for early migrating humans, and SMI and Hall Islands were some of the highest points on the landscape.

Evidence of historic exploration and temporary settlement of SMI and Hall Islands is more readily available. St. Matthew Island was first discovered by a Russian Navy lieutenant in the mid-1700’s, followed by Captain James Cook about a decade later (Griffin 2004). From discovery until the early 1900’s SMI and Hall Islands were frequented by trappers looking to score fox, polar bear, and seal furs to sell in the booming North American fur trade industry. Historic accounts indicate that a group of Russian trappers and Aleuts from St. Paul Island overwintered on Hall Island, a trip that ended in tragedy as several Russian’s died of scurvy or starvation. An account published in Popular Mechanics entitled “Stefansson Supplies lost when Great Bear Sank” tells of explorers who wrecked their three-mast schooner, the “Great Bear”, on Pinnacle Island. Following the wreck the group rowed their gear, including several tons of coal, on life boats from Pinnacle to SMI (an ~20 mi. round trip) and set up a makeshift camp to await rescue by the U.S. Coast which arrived several days later.

Some of the remains of the 1943 U.S. Coast Guard Loran Station, St. Matthew Island, AK.

The most recent of human occupations on SMI began in 1943 by the U.S. Coast Guard. Driven by the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands during World War II, the U.S. military prioritized occupation of U.S. islands in Alaska. The result was a temporary Loran Station established on the south shore of SMI at which 10 men were deployed. At this time the 29 reindeer were released (see above, Fauna), the purpose of which was to provide a food supply for the crew of the Loran Station. Six months later the Coast Guard pulled out, but the reindeer remained, and thus began an unintentional study in carrying capacity and population dynamics.

June 2018 Expedition

On June 1 we departed Anchorage for St. Paul via Pen Air. The crew from Anchorage included myself; Jim Johnson, a shorebird biologist with USFWS and a friend of mine for 18 years; Steve Matsuoka, bird biologist with U.S. Geological Survey (USGS); Rachel Richardson, biologist with USGS and masters student at University of Alaska Anchorage; Robert Gill, retired USGS biologist and volunteer; Tony DeGange, veteran of SMI expeditions since the 1970’s, all around field scientist, and volunteer; Dr. Dennis Griffin, state archeologist for Oregon, ethnobotanist, veteran of numerous trips to SMI, and volunteer; and Jack Withrow, collections manager at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum. The leader of our expedition, USFWS wildlife biologist Marc Romano, was at the time on St. George Island deploying a field crew and was to meet us on St. Paul Island later that same day. The rest of the crew, Bryce Robinson and Stephanie Walden, were taking the long way around on the R/V Tiglax (TEKH-lah — Aleut for eagle). The Tiglax, which had departed from Homer, AK a few weeks earlier, was making it’s way around the Aleutian Islands dropping off gear for USFWS field camps in the AMNWR before heading north to St. Paul with an estimated arrival of June 3. After the 3 hour flight to St. Paul we were greeted by USFWS staff and driven to the St. Paul Island field station bunk house which would be our home for the next 3 days as we awaited the arrival of the Tiglax. Later that evening Marc arrived from St. George and we began planning for our time on SMI in earnest.

We spent June 2–3 planning and preparing for our time on St. Matthew. We prepped electronics, discussed logistics, and took several short field trips to practice field methods.

Russian Orthodox church, St. Paul Island, AK.

During this time we also had the opportunity to explore the village and island of St. Paul. Saint Paul Island is the largest of the Pribilof Islands (~40 mi.² [140 km²]), a group of four Alaskan volcanic islands located in the Bering Sea between the United States and Russia (Wikipedia Contributors 2018). The village of St. Paul Island has a population of ~500 people, and currently has one school (K-12, ~100 students), one post office, one bar, one small store, and one church, which is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. During the summer months tourism, namely in the form of birding tours, provides a major economic stimulus. During our several field trips I took the opportunity to botanize and, while early June is a little early from a floristics standpoint (the timing of the trip was planned around the nesting period for MCBU and ROSA), I did encounter 51 species in flower. Some of the highlights of botanical exploration on St. Paul Island include Botrichium lunaria, Saxifraga bracteata, and Draba hyperborea.

The field crew enjoying the view of Cape Upright from the upper deck of the Tiglax, Bering Sea, AK.

On the evening of June 4 the Tiglax arrived at St. Paul and loaded up our gear quickly so as to get the 25 hour journey to SMI underway. The Tiglax, a 120 ft (37 m) purpose-built research vessel, has 2 crews so they can operate 24/7. The 200 mi. float north was mostly uneventful and the weather was outstanding. Having watched an episode or 2 of “The Deadliest Catch” in which Bering Sea crab fisherman battle big water and nasty storms, the relatively calm water and blue, cloudless skies we experienced were total unexpected, but very much welcome! Around 7:00 pm on June 5 we caught our first glimpse of St. Matthew Island, the 1000 ft (~300 m) tall vertical rock face that is Cape Upright. As we moved closer the horizon continued to fill with the outline of SMI until at 9:00 pm we arrived at our anchorage for the night approx. a half mile off the southern shore. The next morning we all took turns getting Zodiak rides ashore. The shoreline of most of SMI is exposed to the open sea, and as such beach landing can be very challenging; the waves and surf can easily flip a Zodiak. However, the amazing weather we experienced on the trip north held for our entire stay on SMI and beach landings were mostly uneventful. I kept a field journal during my time on SMI, and below are daily excerpts from that journal.


Daily Field Journal Entries

Camp on the beach near Big Lake the evening of June 6, St. Matthew Island, AK.

June 6: Today I arrived at the beach at 9:30 am at the start of transect 27 with Steve and Rachel. Dennis and Jack were dropped on the same beach earlier this morning to set up camp for the night. Dennis was looking for the remains of the camp of the survivors of the Great Bear shipwreck. I traversed across the island and completed 13 plots. From my high point along this transect (1015 ft [~300 m]) I could see Pinnacle Island to the south, and the Bering Sea on both sides of the island. I completed the transect on the northeast side of the island at 6:30 pm and began walking northwest to Big Lake. About 2 miles out from Big Lake I looked up toward the mountain side on my left and saw a red fox ~0.25 miles away sitting on a patch of snow watching me. I stopped and watched it for a few minutes, then I raised my hands above my head, and yelled out. The fox jumped into the air and ran upslope away from me, looking back warily in my direction as it ran. I realized then that this fox may very well never have seen a human before. I arrived at Big Lake at 9:00 pm and met up with Jim and Bryce. They had arrived before me and had set up camp. I set out my sleeping pad and bag in the tent, ate dinner, and then walked the beach. We found 2 walrus carcasses on the south end of the beach with a red fox feeding on one of them. Jim and Bryce also found a Japanese glass fishing float. Beautiful day, clear skies and winds 10–20 mph, very sunny. Walked 13.2 miles.

June 7: Woke up at our beach camp around 8:00 am and enjoyed the sun and a cup of hot coffee while sitting on a large drift wood log. I started walking at 9:45 and worked along transects 23 and 24 toward the southwest, completing 11 plots. Willows very young, leaves just beginning to unfurl, and many difficult to ID confidently. Also, sedge leaves greening up but still no flower heads. I encountered 2 rusted out U.S. Coast Guard bulldozers on the tundra and took photos and recorded a GPS location for Dennis. I observed thermokarst (subsiding ground resulting from melting permafrost) at several locations in the Big Lake and Sugarloaf areas. Made it to the southern beach at 6:00 pm; the Tiglax anchored just offshore as planned. I got picked up soon after and stayed on the boat that night. Dinner was beef brisket with mashed potatoes, caesar salad, roasted veggies, and Dolly Varden trout caught by Dennis the night before. Walked 11.5 miles.

Fog banks hanging tight in the valleys of St. Matthew Island, AK. Pinnacle Island off in the distance on the far right.

June 8: Skiffed to shore at 7:30 am in dense fog. Used our GPS to navigate until we could see the shore. Got dropped with Jim at the old U.S. Coast Guard station near the start of transect 19. I worked along transects 18 and 19 walking between the 2 to sample plots on my traverse back across the island. The fog hugged the valley bottoms through the morning hours. I got above it quickly and stayed high on a mountainside for most of the morning until the fog began to break around 11:00 am. I took a short break and brewed a hot cup of tea high on a mountain summit. After enjoying my tea I then dropped down to the valley below. I observed thermokarst and incipient beaded stream development in the broad valley bottom. Thermokarst was presented mainly in the form of collapse scars. I finished up the transect around 4:30 pm at a small lake. Observed large dolly varden feeding in the shallows at the south end of the lake. Found a fox den in a sand dune on the north end of the lake. I’m struck by how much garbage, mostly plastic water bottles and some with Russian lettering, litter the shores all around St. Matthew. Chilly wind from the north most of the day, temps around 40 degrees F (4 C). Got picked up by the skiff at 5:30. Rode back to Tiglax with Dave (skiff captain), Jim, Tony, Steve, and Bryce. Walked 10 miles today.

Pedicularis oederi, Hall Island, AK.

June 9: Today we worked on Hall Island where I completed 9 plots. I found a number of interesting plants, several I have not yet found on St. Matthew, including Pedicularis oederi and Ranunculs turnerii. I found a fox den on a steep bluff above the sea cliffs. The den area smelled pungent and 2 recently dead birds were stacked up outside the den entrance. As I bent down to get a closer look at one of the birds I heard a growl from the den. I snapped a quick photo and walked away and then waited. Two minutes later an arctic fox popped out of the den, looked at me for a few seconds, and then beelined it down the bluff to the beach. Dennis and Jack set up camp today and will be spending the next several days on Hall Island. Dennis will be excavating the camp at which the Russian and Aleuts attempted to overwinter near the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Jack will be collecting bird specimens for the museum and exploring the island. We were picked up at the beach at 5:00 and then I had to hurry to press plants, eat, and finish packing so we could deploy to our camp on St. Matthew. This is the camp at Bull Seal Point that was set up yesterday by those who didn’t perform avian surveys. We were skiffed into St. Matthew with our personal gear around 8:00 pm. That evening after dropping off the ground crew the Tiglax turned south and headed back to St. Paul Island to pick up a film crew from Cornell University who would be joining us on St. Matthew in a few days. Once ashore we got settled into our tents and then went for a walk down the beach. I observed a small landslide at the end of the beach ,and a family of red foxes, with kits, denning right near our camp.

Sunrise at our Bull Seal Point camp, St. Matthew Island, AK.

June 10: Today I walked from camp to sample plots on transect 2. I first walked up to the expansive wetland high on the mountain to the north of camp, and then down to the beach. From there I walked around the large lake and then back to camp. Observed more thermokarst near the south end of the lake expressed as palsas subsiding and wet sedge meadows forming in the resulting depressions. Walked 9 miles today.

June 11: Big day all around. I walked 11 miles and hit the last of the plots on the north side of St. Matthew. Found 2 ROSA nests, one within a half mile of camp. The avian teams needed to finish their final transects and several of the birders had very long days; Jim walked 20 miles and got back to camp at 11:00 pm.

View from the top of Glory of Russia Cape looking southeast, St. Matthew Island, AK.

June 12: Beautiful day today. I had 1 more plot to complete about a mile north along the beach from camp. After finishing that plot I hiked up to the top of Glory of Russia Cape. Spectacular views all around, I could see all the way to the south side of St. Matthew, and I could see Pinnacle and Hall Islands. I got back to camp in time for hot lunch with Steve and Tony. I then walked the beach and collected samples of Honkenya peploides for someone at USGS in Anchorage who is studying the genectics of the species. After that I had a nap and upon waking walked up a ridge to the south of camp to see a recent, massive landslide that Jim had told me about the day before.

June 13: Today is our last day on St. Matthew. Beautiful weather, light north winds, no clouds. I walked from camp to the south to complete map verification plots and to establish several long-term landscape change photo points. I walked up and over the ridge to the recent landslide I had checked out yesterday, and established 1 photo point overlooking the landslide. I then walked down to the beach where I collected specimens of a native dandelion (Taraxacum sp.) and woodrush (Luzula sp.) on a south-facing bluff near the beach. Next I walked up the mountain above the landslide and spent some time walking the alpine ridgelines looking for Claytonia arctica, which I never did find. I then walked back to camp and established 3 more photo points. I then got packed up in preparation for an evening pickup by the Tiglax. The Tiglax arrived right on time at 9:00 pm. We said our goodbyes to Rachel, Bryce, and Stephanie, the crew that would be staying on St. Matthew for the next 3 weeks. We briefly met the Cornell film crew as they offloaded from the skiff and then we were off. The Tiglax departed St. Matthew at 10:00 pm on a clear, calm, stunning evening. John Farris, the Captain, mentioned that there hadn’t been a weather window in the Bering Sea region like the one we experienced during our time on St. Matthew since October 2008. How lucky were we? Very.

Epilogue

Twenty-five hours later we were back on St. Paul Island. For the next few days no flights were coming in or out due to bad weather. We had our flights cancelled and rebooked numerous times. We’d heard horror stories of some people stuck for a week, and hoped this wouldn’t become our reality. We passed the time watching world cup soccer and cooking group meals. After 3 days we got out and back to our lives, but the memories of St. Matthew Island still burn vivid in my mind. Below are additional photos from our time on St. Matthew Island.

On the skiff ride into Hall Island with Bob Gill and myself, Bering Sea, AK.

Literature Cited

Griffin, D. 2004. A History of Human Land Use on St. Matthew Island, Alaska. Alaska Journal of Anthropology 2:84–99.

Klein, D.R. 1968. The introduction, increase, and crash of reindeer on St. Matthew Island. J. Wildlife Management 32: 350–367.

Show and tell with Dennis as he reveals the artifacts he found at the Russian camp on Hall Island.

Klein, D.R. and A. Sowls. 2011. History of Polar Bears as Summer Residents on the St. Matthew Islands, Bering Sea. Arctic 64: 429–436.

Talbot, S.S., Talbot, S.L., Thomson, J.W., and Schofield, W.B. 2001. Lichens from St. Matthew and St. Paul islands, Bering Sea, Alaska. The Bryologist 104:47–58.

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, October 10). Saint Paul Island (Alaska). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:15, October 23, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Saint_Paul_Island_(Alaska)&oldid=863456310

Rock spires on the beach, St. Matthew Island, AK.

Winker, K.; D. Gibson; A. Sowls; B. Lawhead; P. Martin; E. Hoberg; and D. Causey. 2002. The Birds of St. Matthew Island, Bering Sea. Faculty Publications from the Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology. 319.

U.S. Coast Guard bulldozer, St. Matthew Island, AK.
Loading gear on the R/V Tiglax, St. Paul, AK.
Ranunculs turnerii on Hall Island, AK.
Recent landslide on St. Matthew Island, AK. Landslide is approximately 0.5 mi. (0.8 km) long.