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Small Island Offers Unusual New Year’s Destination

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

The rocky island of Little Diomede, surrounded by the icy Bering Strait, without a hotel and hardly enough level ground to pitch a tent, seems an unlikely destination for tourists in the middle of winter.

Most of the island’s 160 residents are Ingalikmiut Eskimos who live on fish, crab, walrus and seal. It has only four hours of daylight in the depths of winter and sub-zero temperatures are the norm.

But the island’s location--about a mile east of the international date line--has attracted attention from those looking for an exotic locale to celebrate the passing of the old millennium and the arrival of the new one.

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Little Diomede will be one of the last places on Earth to ring out the old year.

When the sea ice freezes solid, the trip from today to tomorrow is a relatively short hike.

It is time travel at its most basic.

“It’s a place where everything and nothing changes. It’s probably similar to how they lived hundreds, even thousands, of years ago,” said Lori Egge, a tour operator planning a trip to the island to celebrate the new millennium.

Little Diomede covers only two square miles--a treeless, flat-topped mountain that rises steeply out of the sea. For a visitor standing atop the island on one of its rare clear days, the vastness of the arctic unfolds to the edges of the horizon.

A couple of miles west stands its sister island of Big Diomede, a Russian military outpost at the United States’ back door. During the Cold War, American and Soviet soldiers watched each other warily across the dateline.

Egge, who owns Sky Trekking Alaska, is offering an 11-day “Dance of the Dateline” tour package that includes a trip across Alaska in a ski-equipped Cessna 185 with stops in villages along the Iditarod Trail.

She plans to reach Diomede in time to take her clients onto the sea ice on New Year’s Eve. With the help of a global-positioning receiver, they will cross the invisible line that separates one day--and one millennium--from the next.

“Technically, you’re not supposed to cross the dateline and go into Russia without a visa,” Egge said.

But a visa is probably the least of a tourist’s worries on this trip. Add polar bears, unpredictable weather, shifting sea ice and a price tag of more than $12,000 and it’s clear this is not a New Year’s celebration for everyone.

Furthermore, those hoping to celebrate with champagne will be sorely disappointed. Alcohol is banned in the village of Diomede.

“I’d have to fine them for importing alcohol and I don’t want to do that,” said Mayor Dorothy Haller.

And whether visitors will be able to walk across the sea ice into the future on New Year’s is questionable.

“The ice usually doesn’t freeze solid until late January or February,” said Patrick Soolook, who works for the local tribal council.

Those who plan to visit Diomede should be prepared for an extended stay. The only regular transportation to the island is the weekly helicopter flight that brings the mail. But fog, wind and storms can cause travel delays of days and even weeks.

“Sometimes we don’t have mail service for about a month,” Soolook said.

Tourists from Canada, Alaska, Germany and elsewhere have made inquiries about the island’s millennium celebration, Soolook said.

But, so far, only Egge and her group have sought and received the tribal council’s permission to visit.

The village isn’t going out of its way to encourage millennium visitors, said Haller.

“There’s nothing really that special about it being the millennium. It’s not a big deal to us. I plan to be sound asleep,” Haller said.

The island’s residents plan to celebrate the holiday as they do most other holidays--with traditional foods, dancing and games in the school gymnasium.

Since there are no hotels, visitors to Diomede typically sleep in the school.

“It’s always good to bring a sleeping bag. You can sleep in the classroom if you can be up early, before class starts,” said Patrick Omiak Sr., president of the tribal council.

Egge says those who sign on for the trip need to be flexible and prepared for Alaska’s extremes.

“The worst thing that could happen is getting out there and getting stuck for a long time,” she said.


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