Historical Interlude: Wandering From Alaska To Russia

[ Posted Tuesday, September 30th, 2008 – 16:15 UTC ]

With all the ruckus over whether you can see Russia from Alaska (or from Sarah Palin's porch), there's a story from the Cold War that is largely being overlooked. Because back in 1986, one man walked from Alaska to the Soviet Union (as it was then known).

Alaska and Russia face each other across the Bering Strait, and smack dab in the middle of this waterway are two islands: Big Diomede Island and Little Diomede Island. Little Diomede Island is American, and Big Diomede Island is Russian. Wikipedia has some satellite photos of the two, including one close-up which really shows how proximate they are. Little Diomede has a fishing village on the westernmost part of the island (on the little bump or nipple sticking out towards the bigger island).

In 1986, John Weymouth arrived on Little Diomede. He had earned the nickname of "The Wanderer" for doing just that -- wandering all over the West, including Alaska. Weymouth was a drifter, going from place to place and working odd jobs to get by. He was also the nephew of celebrated newspaper columnist Herb Caen, but that really has no bearing on the story.

On what locals report as being April 2, 1986 (the Soviets claimed a different day, but nobody believed them), John Weymouth decided to wander two miles over frozen ocean to Big Diomede Island.

You heard that right. He walked from the United States to Russia.

Now, while the United States had only the native fishing village on Little Diomede, the Russians had a military base on Big Diomede. So Weymouth's stroll quickly developed into an international incident. The Russians moved him to their mainland and questioned him for two weeks, and then apparently decided he wasn't a defector and wasn't any threat, and that he was exactly what he said he was -- a Wanderer.

So they packed him into a helicopter and flew him back to Little Diomede Island. The whole village turned out to see him arrive. This was, after all, still the Cold War -- and the sight of a Russian helicopter landing on American soil was a novelty (to say the least). Home in the U.S. again, Weymouth was debriefed by the F.B.I. about what he had seen on his journey, and then released.

His mother sent him an airline ticket back to San Francisco. He reportedly turned it in at the airport and flew to Seattle instead, although I seem to remember that he did make it back to Baghdad-By-The-Bay (as Herb Caen often called his hometown) eventually.

Although Weymouth was reported to have been the only man to ever make this strange trip across the ice, the closeness of the islands leads me to believe that somebody else (I'm thinking bored teenagers, personally) has probably followed his footsteps at some point.

But Weymouth was the only one to make headlines doing so. And to cause an international diplomatic tempest by his trip.

This story doesn't really have a point to it. You can read what Time magazine had to say about it back then, if interested. I just thought it was time for a historical interlude what with all the attention being paid on where exactly you can see Russia from, up in Alaska.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled election frenzy....


-- Chris Weigant


3 Comments on “Historical Interlude: Wandering From Alaska To Russia”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    That's pretty kewl information. :D

    And for those who don't think that Russia is a threat to the US???

    Now, while the United States had only the native fishing village on Little Diomede, the Russians had a military base on Big Diomede.

    That pretty much says it all...


  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Another piece of Alaskan trivia -- Alaska's the only part of the US (it was a territory at the time) to have been invaded by another country since the War of 1812. During WWII, a few of the Aleutian Islands at the tip of the chain were taken over by the Japanese. This, if you look at a polar-view map, was a big deal since at the time they needed airfields to launch bombers from. From Alaska, Japanese bombers could possibly have made it to the West Coast of the United States. There was a ferocious battle for the islands, and we retook them before any real damage was done, but for a time they were in Japanese hands.

    No point to this comment, either, just some more trivia...


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Interesting info.. :D

    I'll have to use that as a trivia question..


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