The November wind pushed against my body with a wall of force. Black bunny boots, black snow pants, black parka, I felt very cognizant of my gear for it was the only thing protecting me from the sting of the powerful weather. Walking down the path, camera clutched at my side, neck gator pulled up to my eyelashes, I truly felt my presence on this Earth. I trudged through blowing air on the rocky surface of St. Lawrence Island, once a mountaintop on the Bering Land Bridge. St. Lawrence Island now pokes through the Bering Sea, with wild waves breaking against the black coarse beach.
Gambell sits on the Northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island, thirty-six miles off the coast of Siberia. My co-worker Katie and I would be traveling to Gambell to present Bering Land Bridge National Preserve environmental education programs to students K-12. Most residence on St. Lawrence speak their native language: Siberian Yupik. Their ancestors not only crossed the Bering Land Bridge, but made Beringia their home while following the migration of animals nearly 12,000 years ago.
“I would like to make a flight reservation please.”
“Okay, from where to where?”
“Nome to Gambell please.”
I felt my body tingle with excitement as I hung up the phone with Bering Air. Being an intern with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) has truly opened doors to new experiences and perspectives, allowing me to travel, take pictures, and participate in a new way of life. During this time, I've been able to provide environmental education through public outreach and digital products. Often capturing some of nature's most elusive moments, such as a spawning salmon's final breaths.
I am fortunate for the amount of traveling I have done during my 25 years on this Earth. When preparing for a trip, there comes a time when I feel overwhelmed and wish to stay home. The idea of launching myself into the unknown becomes slightly overwhelming, mostly due to time-consuming preparation. There was laundry to do, meals to make, education lessons to prepare and materials to pack. My entire weekend was dedicated to work. Monday morning, the zippers were zipped and the Pelican cases latched, as I followed the pilot to the plane. The challenges from the weekend had paid off.
The plane made a stop in Savoonga, the other village on St. Lawrence Island. I walked from my seat to the door of the airplane and looked out at the new surroundings; glimpsing, for a moment, into a different community. Fog rolled off the tops of the nearest houses and icy ponds lay amidst frozen patches of tundra. A local man approached the plane asking if I wanted to buy an airplane replica made from baleen. In these moments, I feel the most alive. Moments when there is nothing to do, but allow the environment to happen to me. Moments later, we were whisked away only to land in Gambell fifteen minutes later.
ATVS zoomed up to the plane. Siberian Yupik bounced though the crisp air. A husky was loaded onto the plane. A girl asked if the dog was mine, to which I replied, “I think the dog is going to Nome…”
Once arriving at the school, the students were excited to meet us. We shared our knowledge of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and they so openly shared their culture with us; teaching Katie and I their Yupik names, the words for different berries and animals: Aghveq – whale; Aghvepik – bowhead whale.
When the day was done and the students went home, I took off my education cap and engulfed myself in my surroundings as seen through my Canon5D mark 3 with its 24-105mm lens.
Dressed in layers, I opened the school door. The wind hit me with tantalizing force. Invigorated, I stepped outside, for sometimes, in Alaska, just walking out the front door is an adventure. I walked through the wind to explore a new coastal area. The wind was gusting up to 65 miles per hour. At times, I would simply give in and allow the wind to push me around. I tried to walk in the middle of the dirt trail, only to be scooted off to one side again. The dirt road laid out perfectly flat. Houses sat to my left and right as the ATVS zoomed by; I felt I was in the middle of a race.
Will I be knocked to the ground due to this wind? When does wind become so severe that walking becomes dangerous? We were supposed to fly back to Nome that night; an unlikely reality as the wind continued to push down harder. It did not squander my spirits, but added to the adventure. I arrived at the beach and saw hunting boats lined up on the gravel. I took in the scene at a distance and photographed it to preserve the moment. The boats were laid out flat on the dark gravel beach most of them turned over, but a few laid open sparking my curiosity. The wind blew so hard I could hear nothing else, except the distant buzz of an ATV.
Peeking into the boats, I was eager to see hunting tools; some I did not recognize.
As I looked through the view finder, focused my shot and pressed the shutter down, the rest of the world seemed to dissolve, as all my attention belonged to the scene in front of me. I created a photograph and then moved my position, waiting to see an intriguing composition. At times, it’s as if the beauty and possibilities of the composition takes over me and I fall to my knees, distorting my body, lying flat on the ground. I seem to forget about the wind or the cold, my hands could be freezing, but I will not notice until after the shooting has commenced. It’s a powerful connection between my body, and the landscape, the camera is my passageway to understanding and connecting.
The waves crashed aquamarine against the dark sand, I attempted to create a few pictures of the roughness of the ocean, but after a while, thought of a quote from one of my favorite photographers, Paul Nicklen, “Sometimes the best photographs I take are with my eyes.”
We stayed an extra night in Gambell due to the wind storm. The next morning our world was calm. We waited on the runway for our flight to arrive. The sun rose ever so slowly over the mountains. My breath flowed out like a dragon. A different airplane started up, blowing a gust of wind and exhaust towards us. I attempted to take photographs as the sun continued to light the mountain and the village of Gambell. Once again I felt the photographs could not do the scene justice so I put my camera down and took in my surroundings. Breathing deeply, I tried my best to remember the unique beauty I was experiencing.
Bering Air landed, people speaking Siberian Yupik walked up to the plane, a woman held her baby in a pink blanket, the arrivals unloaded – a few of them looking like me, newcomers, perhaps only to stay a few days. I could not help but feel they were taking my place as the new white people coming to Gambell.
There are moments when I feel extremely present because my surroundings are so unique, beautiful and fascinating. To experience a new culture is to gain a soul.
Lia Nydes is a photographer serving her second term with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) as the Digital Media and Education intern with Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. To learn more about her and her work please visit www.lianydes.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.