Diomede Island

From a distance, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, one can see two tiny rocks facing each other, the cliffs of which are steeply falling into the Bering Strait.

Prudent, on the footbridge, Etienne Garcia, the captain of the Soleal, a human-sized ship of the French Company of the Ponant, constantly consult its dials and give order on order because this particular place just beyond the Arctic circle presents some Dangers, limited depth and strong currents. Even if for a rare time, the weather is almost fixed and the boat, unexpected opportunity, has just crossed a hundred walruses scattering around a block of gray granite erected in this cold sea, the Fairway Rock.

A rare time, for if the place is surrounded by ice for a good half of the year with days without sun, the other months remain under the influence of the mist, the waves, the wind and the storm.

In other words, the inevitably distant approach is delicate, especially since the few privileged passengers I am landing with the help of frail Zodiacs are firmly requested by the council of the village specially gathered on this occasion to stay in rows, Do not pick anything up on the spot and especially not to go near the small local cemetery. Lost at the end of the world, the few inhabitants have never seen a single European boat and the last (small) cruise ship approached the island more than two years ago. For these islands are inhabited. For several millennia.


Monday on one side, Tuesday on the other

The Diomedes are two peeled islets, with impressive cliffs, without any trees or roads, which few Inuit occupied during their migration between Asia and America, most of them continuing their way scattering as far as Greenland. Separated by only 3.2 km, the Grande Diomède has an area of 29 km2, the Petite 7.5 km2 (106 km2 for Paris). Survivors of the backbone of Beringia, the tongue of land that connects the two continents, they are located in a unique, exceptional, strange, unexpected, rare, original, brief, unusual place.

Indeed, the Little Diomede is the most western point of the United States, therefore in Alaska, the great Diomede at the most eastern point of Siberia, therefore in Russia. And in the middle of them, 1.6 km on each side, passes the line of separation of day: when it is Monday on the American side, it is already Tuesday side Russian!

Even more strange, here the Cold War remains valid, for if ruined imperial Russia sold Alaska in 1847 for $ 7.3 million, it has retained its tiny rock, now a unique military base Forbidden access, Stalin having evacuated many Inupiat in the 1930s, without return ticket.

More hamburgers than seals

For their part, the Americans do everything to preserve a human presence on their tiny bit of granite to 300m steep cliffs. The 78 current inhabitants are very attached to their island, living in houses on stilts more or less stable, living a little of hunting and fishing and receiving a lot of subsidies.

The most imposing and solid building is the school-gymnasium-village hall-hall at the regulation basketball court. The only low-stocked tote store accepts the Mastercard. The infirmary is connected by remote transmission to Nome Hospital, the closest town where more frozen burgers are eaten than fresh seals.

Here, the schoolchildren benefit from a continental teacher detached from the distant Anchorage. The sick are cared for by Dave, an Inuit nurse, but a citizen of Nome. Food not always the freshest arrive by the weekly helicopter … when the weather permits. The landing takes place on a platform always windy, between a strange rusty container and a huge tank of fuel sluggish when the sled dogs do not come scattering there.

And when the American Inuit go hunting, their main concern is to avoid the Russian island. Putin’s soldiers do not hesitate to shoot at them when crossing the border and a note from the governor of Alaska reminds his fellow citizens that he can not intervene if they are taken prisoner by the Russians. What happens sometimes.

Some curious visitors

If from the dim window of the modest American church one can guess a dilapidated Russian barracks – by a rare fine weather – relations between the two islands have not always been as complicated as they are in 2013.

The Danish Vitus Bering was the first to discover these two rocks lost in 1728 baptizing them with the saint of the day. But finding no interest in those places where nothing grows or grows, he has left them to the few Inuit. Installed summarily this people continues to hunt whales, walruses and other narwhals and live from fresh or dried meat. The Inuit, dressed in bear skins and seal leathers, went from one end of rock to the other on foot, on foot on the pack ice, kayaking under the midnight sun.

It was only with the arrival of the Soviets that geopolitics made its intrusion and separated definitively from the families settled there for ages, the last to be exiled in Chuko land being it in 1949. And since, some look at the Others with the anguish that a Kalashnikov is not mistaken of target.

If on the Grande Diomède civil visits are prohibited, tourists are rare on the Petite. They are strange visitors. In 1987, to celebrate Perestroika, American Lynne Cox joined the two islands to swim in just over two hours … and one day! Saluted officially by Reagan and by Gorbachev! In 1996 an actor of the Monthy Pithon, Michael Palin completed a strange round of the world and last year a disabled swimmer without arms and without legs, Frenchman Philippe Croizon, 45 years, has finished connecting four continents to the swim .

Today, local Inuit, very hospitable and curious about the world, can smile because, for the time being, the future of many children is not on the spot, it could be enlightened.

The development of unusual travel, the attraction of outlying horizons and also global warming should allow them to benefit from a manna still unpublished and limited: some locals carve again the ivory walruses, a tradition abandoned for years , In the hope of reselling them one day.

After the passage of the Soleal, a first quite exceptional for both the French and the Inuit, other small tourism boats could approach – no question of approaching, there is neither funds nor dock – La Petite Diomede … in good weather.

Already, Damian, 12, wants to learn French …

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