A brief visit to Siberia
In old age, Qaavigarsuaq told the story of his life to the Greenlandic author Hans Larsen.
He reminisced about sitting on the shore in Alaska with Arnarulunnguaq by his side. They could see the Siberian coast across the water, a feat quite possible under certain atmospheric conditions.
“The sight of it was beautiful,” he said.
“We could not simply remain where we were. We must travel on again. We must cross that body of water that separates Alaska from Asia.”
He also told his son-in-law, Arrutaq Kristiansen, about the crossing.
“We were once again travelling as three people just as before: Arnarulunnguaq, Kunuut, and me,” Qaaviqarsuaq said.
Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen considered various ways of getting across the strait. He ruled out crossing in a native umiaq, because it would be too time-consuming.
He asked for the use of a U.S. government schooner but was declined because of political complications — the U.S. did not officially recognize the recently formed USSR, and would not do so until 1933.
He hesitated to use a trading vessel because the new Soviet government in Siberia, although unstable, was trying to exert its authority in isolated Chukotka; the situation was tense, because many small American companies had been trading into the region for years with no licenses and objected to being asked to pay for permission now.
In the end, he opted for a trading vessel run by a captain who was alleged to be popular on both sides of the Bering Strait. That was Joseph Bernard, a Canadian from Prince Edward Island who had traded throughout the western Canadian Arctic, Alaska and Siberia for years.
His vessel, the Teddy Bear, was small — only 16.5 metres long with a beam just over four metres— and sported an auxiliary gas engine.
From Nome, Rasmussen sent another telegram asking for an entry permit to the USSR. He waited three weeks with no response. He hoped to spend about a month at East Cape, in the Yupik community of Naukan.
In the end, running out of time, he decided to go without papers.
Rasmussen and his party left Nome with Capt. Bernard on the Teddy Bear on Sept. 8, 1924. An American filmmaker, Earl Rossman, was also aboard with an Eskimo assistant allegedly named Roy. However, a violent storm forced them to wait two days behind Sledge Island.
On Sept. 11, they returned to Nome. Only then did Rasmussen send another telegram to Copenhagen informing his committee that he was going without official permission.
The following day they departed again, but once again bad weather intervened so they put in at Teller. While there, Rasmussen made use of his time ashore by compiling a list of about 500 Inuit words from a man from Cape Prince of Wales.
Rossman abandoned the trip at Teller. It is not known whether the mysterious Roy did as well; he is not mentioned again.
Finally, on Sept. 16 they departed about midday. In the evening, they passed Cape Prince of Wales, America’s most westerly point, and set course for the Diomede Islands in the middle of Bering Strait.
Little Diomede is an American island with a population today of less than 100. It is 3.5 kilometres away from Big Diomede, now uninhabited, which belongs to Russia. They are separated by more than politics — the International Date Line runs between them.
Qaavigarsuaq, in his memoir, mentions clearly that he and Arnarulunnguaq accompanied Rasmussen on the trip. But in the details he presents of subsequent events, he does not mention her at all. She may not yet have completely recovered from the bout of influenza that affected her in northern Alaska.
Probably she set off on the trip to Siberia, but changed her mind after the rough weather that beset the Teddy Bear on its first attempt, and remained in Nome.
Fog prevented a landing on Little Diomede, so Capt. Bernard set a course for the Siberian coast.
East Cape was beset by dense ice, so Bernard made land at a small trading post he called Emmatown, known to Russians as Dezhnev; it was several kilometres southwest of Naukan.
Rasmussen was greeted there by a long-time English-speaking resident, the Australian trader Charley Carpendale, a Russian policeman named Alyaev, and a Russian interpreter named Leo.
Alyaev escorted Rasmussen and Bernard to the police station. The next day, Rasmussen was taken by a Chukchi-speaking guide across the eastern end of the Chukchi Peninsula to Uelen, a trip of about 1,500 kilometres through barren marshy tundra in heavy rain, to see the local governor and seek permission for his stay.
He reached the community of about 250 by nightfall and was hospitably treated by the governor, Nikolaus Losseff, but was denied permission to remain in Siberia.
A factor in Rasmussen being denied permission was probably his old nemesis, Vilhjalmur Stefansson!
“I learn that the reason for the concentration of officials is the strained relations with the surrounding world because no one will recognize the Soviet and Russia’s right — and particularly the formal right to the Wrangel Islands, to which a warship had been despatched that very summer.
“Scientists do not seem to be popular after Vilhjalmur Stefansson planted the British flag on Wrangel Island, a territory which the Soviet regards as Russian. As the British did not back up the annexation, Stefansson himself started a trading company on the island, but later transferred his rights to a partnership at Nome, which transported Alaskan Eskimos to the disputed colony.”
The ubiquitous Stefansson had sent five settlers to Wrangel Island in 1921. They claimed the island for Canada, although only one of the party was Canadian.
In 1923, Ada Blackjack, an Alaskan Inuit woman who was the sole survivor of the party, was rescued by a vessel that left new settlers on the island, an American and 12 Alaskan Eskimos. They were removed by the Soviets in 1924, by the warship Rasmussen mentioned in his notes.
The governor’s knowledge of the drama unfolding around Wrangel Island did not augur well for Rasmussen. He was told he could remain in Uelen overnight, but must return to Dezhnev the next day and leave immediately aboard the Teddy Bear.
On Sept. 18, he reached Dezhnev, where Bernard was waiting for him; the next day they sailed for Alaska.
Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for more than 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: The New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.