Saint-Matthieu, the island that wanted to stay wild

Drowned in the mists of the Bering Sea, halfway between Alaska and Siberia, this island of Dantesque winters seems to swallow the traces of all those who try to stay there. An American journalist was able to contemplate the landscapes as inhospitable as they are intoxicating. She tells.

It seems that St. Matthew’s Island is the most isolated place in Alaska. Abandoned in the Bering Sea, halfway to Siberia, it is more than 300 kilometers and twenty-four hours by sea from the closest human communities. Intimidating, it emerges from its sheet of fog like a deployed black wing. Its rounded mountains end in cliffs that plunge into the waves. To the north, Hall, a smaller, steeper island. On the southern flank stands a rocky set called Pinnacle. Set foot on Saint-Matthieu, this piece of land [d’une superficie de 357 km2] surrounded by the infinity of the ocean, it is to find oneself in a nowhere, in the center of a compass rose engulfed by the waters.

A whale jaw covered in lichen

I scan a little hollow at the northwestern tip of Saint-Matthieu and my head is spinning a little. It is the end of June 2019, and the air is buzzing with the chatter of song voles, an endemic species. Wild flowers and cotton grasses dot the tundra that has grown in the depression at my feet. Four hundred years ago there was a house there, partly buried in the ground for protection from the elements. It is the oldest human trace visible on the island, the only prehistoric house ever discovered here [“préhistorique” étant entendu au sens littéral : qui précède l’histoire écrite de l’île, laquelle débute à la fin du XVIIIe siècle]. A whale’s jaw covered with lichen points down the slope and the sea: it is the arrow which indicates north on the compass rose.

Life must have been relatively rough here compared to the more sheltered bays and beaches on the eastern part of the island. Storms regularly hit this coast with the full force of the ocean. Three hundred polar bears spent the summer here, before being dissuaded by Russian and American hunters in the late 1800s. Everything indicates that the occupants of the house did not use it for more than a season, says Dennis Griffin, an archaeologist who has worked on the archipelago since 2002. Excavations at the site have yielded enough evidence to believe that it was built by members of the Thule culture – the ancestors of the Inuit and the Yupiks who currently live on the northeast coast of Alaska. Griffin, however, found no sign of an outbreak and only a very small layer of objects.

No human has ever been there for long

According to the Unangans, also known as the Aleutians, a people of the Aleutian Islands and Pribilof [situées plus au sud], the latter, which were then uninhabited, were discovered by the son of a chief who had been diverted from his route. He spent the winter there, then returned home by kayak in the spring. The Yupiks of Île Saint-Laurent [située, elle, au nord de Saint-Matthieu] have a similar story: hunters find themselves on an unknown island where they wait for the sea to freeze so that they can return home on foot. Griffin thinks the same could have happened to those who built this house: they took refuge here until they could go back. Maybe they succeeded, maybe not, he told me later. “They could have been caught by a polar bear.”

In North America, many people think of the wilderness as places where there is no human presence; this is how the law defines the notion of wilderness in the USA. However, this idea is a construction of a recent colonial past. Before the European invasion, much of the continent’s wilderness was ruled by indigenous peoples, who lived and hunted there. The archipelago of St. Matthew, which was officially designated a wilderness in 1970 and incorporated into the Alaska National Marine Reserve in 1980, would have had a lot to offer: freshwater lakes teeming with fish, quantity of plants consumed by the peoples of the continent, abundance of birds and mammals to hunt. However, St. Matthew is so far away that the lonely house suggests that even accomplished navigators such as the native peoples made only occasional passages there. After them, others got there with the help of important infrastructures or institutions. But none stayed there for long.

An island constantly rediscovered

I came here on a ship called Tiglax, to accompany scientists who will spend a week studying the birds that nest in the


Sarah Gilman

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