King Island Vigil

A native Alaskan community is inspired by the memories of a dauntingly beautiful homeland.

By Reed Karaim

King
The Inupiat village clings to King Island.

Credit: John Burns

Cape Woolley is a lonely spit of land on the Bering Sea in far western Alaska. From here, on a rare clear day, you can make out the ghostly shape of King Island in the distance, a severe rock summit rising out of the gray, storm-wracked ocean. Close to the Arctic Circle, King Island is surrounded by pack ice and in constant darkness part of the year, wreathed in fog much of the rest. It is, by any measure, a forbidding place.

It is also a home, one of such powerful hold, of such persistent memory, that the people who lived there until the 1960s—when the U.S. government forced them to abandon the island—have gathered every summer at Cape Woolley for more than four decades, at a spot on the coast from which that home is sometimes visible.

Islanders who were children when they left, and have now grown old, point out to their own children and then to their grandchildren the 700-foot-high, mile-long island on the horizon that they still remember vividly. "To me, it was a paradise," said Sylvester Ayek last summer. His family departed for the mainland when he was 12 years old. "A place where there was so much to do, where you were surrounded by friends, and there was lots of laughter."

Thirty-five miles from Cape Woolley, on King Island itself, the village that Ayek's family and others left still clings to a steep rock slope. Some of the small houses have tumbled into the sea. But others remain, perched on poles in a manner that seemingly defies gravity. Their survival is a testament to their sound construction, able to withstand nearly half a century in one of the harshest climates on earth. But they cannot hold out forever, and the imminent threat of losing this unique historic community led the National Trust last year to put King Island on its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

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