Travel | October 7, 2020 12:36 pm

The Bizarre History of St. Matthew, America’s Most Remote Island

Located halfway across the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia, nobody survives too long on the island

remote St. Matthew island alaska
Never heard of St. Matthew Island? There's a reason for that.
NASA World Wind via Wikimedia Commons

Hakai Magazine, an online publication started by the Hakai Institute — an ecological observatory based in British Columbia — recently published an enchanting longform essay about Alaska’s St. Matthew Island. The island is the single most remote place in Alaska, a 138-square-mile formation of lichen-studded volcanic rocks located about halfway across the Bering Sea between the U.S. and Russia. Hakai sent writer Sarah Gilman and photographer Nathanial Wilder to St. Matthew on a ship called Tiĝlax̂, which carried a team of scientists studying Arctic seabird populations.

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Pinnacle Island is a remote wilderness island in the Bering Sea – part of the St. Matthew Island grouping. These islands are uninhabited and generally uninhabitable, but because of unique bird populations thanks to access to foraging grounds in the center of the Bering Sea, they host the arrival of millions of seabirds annually. Red and black legged kittiwakes, common and thick billed murres and fulmars by the tens of thousands nest on their cliffs and raise their young each summer before heading (in many cases) out to sea for winter months. New species have even been arriving on the scene as cold waters and food sources move north – possibly as a result of a changing climate with no final conclusions made. • This summer, on assignment for @hakaimag with writer @sarahmoesix and I joined the scientists aboard the Tiglax research vessel on one of their 5-year cruises up to the island grouping to monitor seabird populations and check up on the endemic McKay’s Buntings that also nest on the island tundra. The R/V Tiglax serves the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, an almost 5 million acre Refuge literally spread out across the entire map of Alaska in the most remote maritime regions. Half of this Refuge is proper wilderness. • On a personal note, if you’ve made it this far, 🙂 this was the most incredible assignment I’ve ever been on in the most remote place I’ve visited. I made tens of thousands of still images (and some drone videos like this—flying off the deck of the Tiglax) that I am working to distill into the story for @hakaimag —look forward to sharing with you some of the fascinating mini-vignettes of a remote Bering Sea island and the drama that plays out on the tundra and cliff notches of this wilderness Refuge with little interference by mankind.

A post shared by Nathaniel Wilder (@wilderphoto) on

Gilman’s 2,600 words (and Wilder’s photography, much of it taken by drone) amount to one of the finest and most creative pieces of longform travel journalism we’ve seen in a minute — especially in a year like this, when the world has ground to a pause. The expedition took place in July 2019, and the idea now of traveling anywhere, let alone the most isolated corner in the entire United States, lends the piece an extra layer of resonance. Writing of St. Matthew and its surrounding rocks, Gilman says: “With no people resident long enough to keep their history, [these islands] became the sort of place where ‘discovery’ could be perennial.”

There is still much to discover about a place like St. Matthew Island. For instance, its wildlife population has never stayed constant. A couple centuries ago, it was a haven for over 300 hundred polar bears, until American and Russian expeditions hunted them out. During WWII, when the States built radio structures on the island, national officials brought 29 reindeer to the island as a provisional food source for stationed Coast Guard. Without predators around, the population later exploded to 6,000, before dropping down to 42. A brutal winter, plus overpopulation, were the main causes. These days, the island is made up of seabird colonies and red foxes.

Vestiges of human influence remain around the island, Gilman notes — from a “pit house” that dates back 400 years, to abandoned tools and trinkets of fur traders and army men from the last 250 years. But humans are never long for this island. The ice, the fog, a lost polar bear, and not least, isolation like no other, always loom in a place that simply refuses to be conquered.