Little Diomede is the place where, on a clear day, you really can see Russia from your porch, where -- from the Alaska side of the Cold War's iron curtain -- Big Diomede in Russia is just two miles away.
On the small island, located 28 miles off Alaska's mainland, the future is always on the horizon. The international date line separates Little Diomede and Big Diomede, and depending on the season, the jump into tomorrow is literally only a plane flight, boat ride or ice trek away.
Now researchers are looking to the ocean floor and the way people hunt and gather food to determine whether there's room for improvement on the 2.8 square miles of land that comprise the steep, rocky outcropping -- and whether a new airport and harbor have any future there.
A lot is at stake. For Little Diomede, it could be the survival of the village itself. Though people have lived there for thousands of years, life on the island isn't easy. The arctic weather is harsh, and the challenges the island faces echo a refrain familiar among Alaska's smaller communities. There is no running water and no hospital, and jobs are scarce. Medical evacuations are done by helicopter, sometimes with assistance from the National Guard; mail comes once a week, and barge deliveries are made once, maybe twice, a year.
Several years ago Inalik, a village of about 130 people located on the island, voted against a move to the mainland and asked Kawarek Inc., a non-profit agency servicing villages in the Bering Straits region, to help advocate for transportation improvements.
"The lack of access is a barrier to the economic future of the community and could force relocation of the entire community to the mainland," noted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is participating in the studies.
$2.4 million has already been directed toward the three-phase evaluation project, a tab the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Kawarek are splitting 50/50, according to Pat Richardson, a spokesperson for the corps. Kawarek has helped provide transportation to the island and conduct surveys -- including mapping the ocean floor near the island and measuring the strength of water and wind currents -- to help determine what it will take to build infrastructure that can withstand the often turbulent conditions Mother Nature throws at the island.
Last year, the corps received nearly $400,000 in stimulus money through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to try to put a place a value on the subsistence lifestyle enjoyed by villagers, and how it might be affected by the proposed transportation improvements.
In Little Diomede, the locals, nearly all Alaska Natives, fish and hunt polar bears, walrus, seals and whales -- a generations-old lifestyle on which anthropologists and economists will attempt to put a price tag. The goal is to weigh the current value of subsistence living to the people against any changes -- positive and negative -- that may result during and after construction of a new harbor and airport, Richardson said.
While commercial fishing opportunities and access to the mainland will help the people of Little Diomede develop an economic base, "becoming more accessible to the outside world could impact community identity by allowing more social contact with off islanders," the corps wrote in a brief description of the studies.
With that in mind, evaluating development impacts, the corps noted, will address "the importance of maintaining the community's traditional lifestyles, while providing modern infrastructure."
"It's exciting," Denise Michels, Kawarek's transportation director, said about the project.
People have lost lives attempting to make boat crossings to mainland Wales amid the violent currents of the Bering Strait, the narrow transition passage between two arctic seas -- the Chukchi Sea to the north, and the Bering Sea to the south. Michels said past accidents and deaths are among the main reasons Little Diomede is pushing for the improvements, in addition to creating better access to medical care, mail, groceries and building supplies -- not to mention a better way to intercept travelers making their way into the United States from Russia.
A path from mainland Russia to Big Diomede and on to Little Diomede, and then Alaska's mainland, is the shortest route between the continents. In fact, a group of adventurers traveling in specialized bio-fuel jeeps, New York to Paris, is waiting to make the trek as of this writing.
Right now, during summer, ships called tenders greet incoming foreign visitors for processing through customs, Michels said. With a better dock, processing could happen on the island itself.
The easier transportation is into the community, the more locals will also be able to host visitors, thus offering new opportunities to sell artwork and other crafts, bringing in much-needed cash.
The studies are far enough along that a few harbor and breakwater construction options have already been drafted. Kawarek and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will present those proposals to Little Diomede villagers at the end of the month.
More studies are needed, however, and the money is running out. Kawarek is lobbying the Obama administration for continued project funding, Michels said. According to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Richardson, the corps hopes Congress will vote in 2012 to see the project through via the Water Resources Development Act.
Although that's a few years away, it's a future Michels is hoping for too; one, she envisions, with boats pulling up and planes touching down.
"It would really improve the quality of life," Michels said.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.