Alaska Science Forum: Impressions of a Place Far Away from Everyone
ST. MATTHEW ISLAND —I’m resting on a mattress of tundra plants that are growing more than 200 miles from the nearest Alaska village. While I have snuck away here to my own private ridgetop, eight other people, all scientists, are somewhere on this 30-mile-long wedge of tundra, rocky beaches, lakes and bird cliffs in the central Bering Sea. We nine make up the entire human population of the island.
On our 25-hour boat ride here from St. Paul Island aboard the 120-foot Tiglax, Steve Delehanty, manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, pointed out that more people climb Mount Everest each year than walk on St. Matthew. There is one main reason.
“It’s hard to get to,” he said.
Sheer distance has saved this place from fur trapping, mining, oil drilling, airstrip building and other endeavors that leave a mark. A moist climate good for decomposition is also allowing St. Matthew to outlast an occupation by the U.S. military in World War II.
Thanks to the attention given to the island during the Harriman Expedition in 1899, Teddy Roosevelt included St. Matthew in a group of islands designated as America’s first wildlife refuges in 1909. Biologists from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, also responsible for the protection of the Aleutians and other coastal islands off Alaska, try to reach St. Matthew every five years to see what has changed.
Compared to other protected wilderness areas of Alaska, St. Matthew is of the gentle variety, at least in summer. The carpet of flowering tundra plants is alive in purples and pinks and blues, enhanced by fog-filtered sunlight. The hip-high tangles of Aleutian grasses are not here, nor are the tussocks of the North Slope; St. Matthew is a nice place to walk.