Alaska Science Forum: A Voyage to St. Matthew Island
Fifty-five summers ago, when Dave Klein first stepped on St. Matthew Island, driftwood on the beaches held no plastic bottles and hundreds of reindeer roamed the tundra hills.
|St Matthew Island-USF&W|
When the 85-year-old naturalist returns next week for his sixth trip to one of the most remote islands of the world, he knows he’ll see lots of plastic and no reindeer, along with some changes he can’t yet imagine.
“It’s such a fabulous place,” he said.
Klein, along with a group of scientists and one non-scientist (me!), are headed to the Bering Sea to survey the life in a place separated by more than 200 miles from the nearest landfall. Captains with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge will ferry us on the refuge’s ship the Tiglax to St. Matthew from the island of St. Paul, about 225 miles and 24 hours away.
Refuge biologists try to return to the island every five years or so, but St. Matthew — north of the Pribilof Islands and south of St. Lawrence Island — is as difficult to reach now as it was in 1920, when biologist G. Dallas Hanna wrote the following:
“Owing to the distance of the islands from the regular channels of travel, opportunities for naturalists to visit it rarely occur. It is barren, treeless, uninhabited and surround by dangerous and poorly charted waters.”
No one knows the 30-mile long, three-mile wide island better than Klein, my friend and neighbor who first visited St. Matthew in 1957, before Alaska was a state. He hiked the length of the island then, documenting the success of reindeer the U.S. military had transported there from Nunivak Island. The reindeer were an emergency food source for a few dozen men stationed there to operate a weather station and radar-navigation site. When World War II ended, the men left and the reindeer remained. Without predators and with plenty of lichen, the island was a paradise for reindeer, which increased from the original 29 to 6,000 by the early 1960s. When the reindeer ate most of their lichen and faced a brutal winter in 1963 to 1964, the herd dwindled to 42. Forty-one were females; the other was a male that was unable to reproduce.