Researching the Burdwood Island Group for work yesterday reminded me of Little Diomede and Big Diomede.
So when people like to say that the United States and Russia are only two or three miles apart, it’s on a technicality—what they’re talking about is the Diomede islands (whether they know it or not). The Diomedes—Little Diomede and Big Diomede—are specks that sit exactly in the middle of the Bering Strait, and they’re right next to each other but not near the coastline, like little kidney stones in a wide stream, and the left one is Russian and the right one is American, along with teeny little Fairway Rock, on the lower right.
They’re the remains of the land bridge, obviously, and during winter, an ice bridge often forms between the islands, so you can actually walk across to Siberia. Added to my “Tasks” app.
Eeeee, look at the ice bridge, I wanna WALK on it, or maybe hop between the floes and it’ll be just like Toad Mushroomhead from Super Mario Bros. 2
(To any brain geniuses out there who feel compelled to inform me that that’s not how sea ice works and I definitely don’t want to walk on the ice in the Bering Strait: it was a joke. Wish I didn’t have to put these disclaimers, but you should see the comments I delete on this thing.)
So yeah, in 1867, when the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia, they ran the border very carefully right between the two islands, with Big Diomede belonging to what is today the Chukotsky District of Siberia and the little one included in the purchase price of the fresh new U.S. state of Alaska. At the time, the indigenous peoples who lived on both Diomedes pretty much ignored this and continued to move freely between the two islands, as they always had. But this development became kind of a problem once the Cold War got going, in the years following WWII, and a Soviet military base was installed on Big Diomede. Once this happened, the native population of Big Diomede was evacuated to the mainland by the USSR. Folks were able to stay on Little Diomede, however, which still has a native population of about 170 people.
Here’s the little guy, still mildly be-villaged today
The entire smaller island comprises the city of Little Diomede, although only a chunk down on the water is inhabited, thanks to the ~40-degree slope that prevents the plateau from being easily accessible from the shore. Probably windy up there anyhow. Life in Little Dio is, as you can imagine, rough, with hostile weather, extreme temperatures, and severe isolation. A weekly mail delivery by helicopter and a charter from Nome arriving once every summer are the only links to the outside world. There’s a store, but the people mostly lead a subsistence lifestyle, harvesting crab and fish and hunting birds, seals, beluga whales and the like. Sometimes they get polar bears walk-swimming over on the ice from Alaska, which are fair game as well.
Now empty, Big Diomede (aka ostrov Ratmanova in Russian) was inhabited by Yupik originally, although according to the First Alaskans, the people of both islands are actually the closely-related-to-Yupik Inupiat, including the relocated population from Biggie. When the Cold War was going down, the section of the border between the Diomedes was called “The Ice Curtain” by some. Aw, sounds pretty. In 1987, when American Lynne Cox got the wise idea to swim between the two islands as a stunt for peace, she was congratulated by both Gorbachev and Reagan, but then they kept fighting for a few more years. You can imagine that the people on Little D were somewhat chagrined when she did that because THEY weren’t allowed to travel between their own two islands, but this white lady from L.A. can for some reason.
(Guessing they probably didn’t want to do it via swimming, but who can say.)
Big Diomede. Ain’t nobody here but us sky-chickens.
For over a century, proposals have been continuously made to build a bridge or tunnel connecting the two islands and thereby the countries and continents, and they pop up a little more often now that the conflict with the USSR is over (as well as the USSR itself). But there are serious obstacles in the way, naturally, starting with the difficult environment, the restricted hours of daylight available for building, and the fact that constant collision with ice floes would put major pressure on any structure that was built. China has been particularly interested in the project lately, according to a 2014 report in the Beijing Times, but it sounds like nobody is really doing anything about it right now There’s a wiki about the whole history and lore of the concept here that’s pretty compelling (uh, to me), if you have some time.
Big D, as viewed from Little D
Hereby collectively known to me as Biggie Smalls, which I just made up right now because I just typed the word Biggie up there and oh my god, one is big and one is small, it’s perfect, the Diomedes are also sometimes called Tomorrow Island and Yesterday Island. That’s because, along with the national border, they’re also separated by International Date Line and therefore Big Diomede, on the Russian side, is 23 hours ahead of Little Diomede (sometimes fewer, depending on whether Daylight Saving Time is in effect or not). Anyway, I just love that. That is my favorite thing about the Diomedes. It is almost always two different days on them.
For an additional treat, you can click here for a panoramic view of the west-facing village on Little Dio, taken on a sunny day in the throes of winter. Look at all of their shanties and then Big Dio in the distance. And the people, who live there. There are people! Look at them. What if you lived there like those people.