St. Paul, Alaska

Photo: Killing sparrows at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Most international borders remain closed. What started as a temporary measure quickly turned into a worldwide lockdown last year. It’s anyone’s guess when countries will start to reopen. The European Union, with proof of vaccination, is promising this summer. A spike in cases could reverse that decision at any moment. So don’t put away the list of unexplored places in the United States that you’ve been accumulating. In fact, you should expand it.

Alaska is the most wide open and unexplored state in the country. Its islands are even more remote. Those in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge—some 2,400 of them—are further protected from development. Seabirds and rare animals vastly outnumber people out there. While the few people who do call these islands home have a history, a culture, and sometimes even a language that are extremely different from your own.

The Pribilof Islands sit isolated in the middle of the Bering Sea. They’re 200 miles from both Unalaska (part of the Aleutian Islands) to the south and Cape Newenham (on the mainland) to the northeast. Siberia is 500 miles in the opposite direction. Like so much of this area, the four islands (two main ones plus two smaller islets) were prized and contested by fur traders. The Russians hunted northern fur seals, and therefore claimed the islands, until they became part of United States under the Alaska Purchase. Since most hunting was prohibited in 1966, native Aleuts have a rare exception, the seal population has grown to more than four million. That’s half of the global population.

The best—easy isn’t a term to use lightly out here—place to see some of these seals are on St. Paul Island. The volcanic island is the largest of the Pribilofs. It’s home to a tiny Aleut city (also called St. Paul), Russian Orthodox Churches that are now on the National Register of Historic Places, boat yards, and crab fishermen. Bluish-purple Arctic lupines and yellow Alaska poppies are blooming. Red-legged kittiwakes and horned puffins are arriving on the sheer cliffs to breed. While, in less than a month, male seals will start staking out their territory before pregnant females follow in June. See, you don’t need to sneak into another country this spring. You just need to find a way to see more of your own.

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