Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


'I can see Russia from my house'

Posted 11/25/14 (Tue)

Some of you might remember a skit from Saturday Night Live in which Tina Fey played Sarah Palin, telling faux pas reporters on the popular satire program, “I can see Russia from my house.”

That phrase has earned a lot of mileage in the world of comedy, but have you ever wondered about those Americans who actually can see Russia from their house?

There’s a small Alaska village called Diomede on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait somewhere northwest of Nome.

About two miles to the west, and across the International Date Line is Big Diomede Island, the eastern-most point in Russia.

Because Diomede is about two miles from Russia across water, I guarantee you any of the 120 inhabitants of that village can see Russia from their house.

For Sarah Palin, not so much. Her home is in Wasilla, a long way from Big Diomede. Wasilla is some 702 miles southeast of Big Diomede Island, the equivalent of Kenmare to Colorado Springs, Colo.

Of course, Palin would never make such a comment in a public setting since it was Fey who coined the phrase on a comedy show.

But in reality, it goes to show the vast distance between two points in Alaska. When you get right down to it, it’s remarkable.

Enter Google Earth.

Several weeks ago I was thinking about Tina Fey’s phrase and couldn’t stop laughing. But then I got to thinking, maybe I can get a realistic visual of Diomede and the Bering Strait using Google Earth.

What a fantastic computer tool it is. I was able to zoom in on Diomede and see rooftops, snow on the ground, open water to the west, boats docked on rip rap and of course, sharp cliffs near town.

The other obvious thing to me was how isolated Diomede is. There are no bridges, only a once-a-week flight to Nome at $400 a ticket.

In 2012, Diomede became the first community in the United States to be served primarily by helicopter since Diomede’s runway is ice and isn’t operational in July and August.

We think we have issues with isolation, “no trees,” nothing to do after school and no place to go on weekends.

For Diomede residents, Nome is 135 miles, and Fairbanks and Anchorage are each 655 miles away. So Anchorage or Fairbanks are the same as us going to Minneapolis. Wasilla seems like the tropics now, doesn’t it.

If you want to go shopping at the mall in Anchorage, a flight will cost you a lot, and you can only go on Wednesdays. 

Several years ago Ilene and I met a guy who worked in Diomede. His wife taught the 33 children living on the island and he was the janitor at the school.

He bought Ilene’s parents’ house in Watford City and when we met, told us some of the stories about this desolate, but intriguing place that has no streets or cars, only industrial equipment.

And yes indeed, he could see Russia from the Diomede school most of the time, provided it wasn’t dark for a month, or if the fog wasn’t hampering visibility.

But Diomede is only one of many similar places in Alaska. Kotzebue, Dutch Harbor and Barrow are all places most of us wouldn’t want to be, especially as we get closer to the winter solstice.

As an example, Barrow sits at 71 Degrees North Latitude, just 1,300 miles from the North Pole. It is the northernmost community in the United States and is 5 degrees of latitude north of the Arctic Circle. After the sun set  at Barrow Nov. 19, it will remain that way until Jan. 23. On Dec. 21, twilight is observed for a mere three hours. Otherwise, it is completely dark.

When I worked in Langdon, we had a newspaper exchange with the Arctic Sounder, the newspaper serving Barrow and Kotzebue.

I learned a lot about the North Slope of Alaska through the Sounder and hope I never have to go there. I’m content looking at in pictures.

I specifically remember a photograph of the mayor of Barrow and his son going out on the water I assume was the Arctic Ocean on July 4. Numerous icebergs were seen adjacent to the boat as they rowed out from the coast.

The darkness, the ice, the isolation, all lead to depression, which in turn, leads to suicide. Alaska’s suicide rate is nearly twice the national average.

So shift back to Diomede. If it isn’t dark, all you see on the horizon is Russia. Incredibly depressing.

And we think we have it rough here in northwestern North Dakota. You have to put it all into perspective. I for one, would rather see the Minot Air Force Base lights  from my house than Russia.