Rising out of the Bering Sea like a monolithic swoosh, is King Island. The 2-1/2-mile-long refuge is nestled between nothing but wilderness — surrounded by ice in the winter months and ocean for dozens of miles come summer.
But while there might be nothing for miles, there’s still plenty on the island itself.
Nestled on the southside of the island is Ukivok, the Inupiat village that has remained uninhabited since the 1970s. In the face of social and economic pressures, its people, the King Islanders, have moved away — with many resettling some 90 miles away on the Alaska mainland in Nome.
Known for their walrus hunting and ivory carving abilities, some still return to King Island during the summer.
Though the people are gone, buildings remain — still perilously perched on driftwood stilts on the side of the island’s steep cliffs. Wave-battered and windswept, some have collapsed. Others teeter perilously.
Above the village sits the island’s jagged peaks, which look like something out of sci-fi movie — impossibly high and sharp. Snow covered, they look more like giant ice crystals than rocks. Father Bellamine Lafortune, one of the first Catholic priests to serve in the village, described the island’s mountains as “huge peaks like steeples of some fairy temples.”
Still there, too, is a statue of Christ the King, a remnant of the village’s Catholic roots. It rests on a cliff 700 feet above the village, watching over King Island since 1937. The 900-pound, life-sized bronze statue once had a crown.
Butsometime in the last decade, the weather-worn crown came apart and fell to the ground, according to a story by Father Louis Renner, who presided over the village’s last mass in 1974.
The statue still stands. Renner wrote in “Pioneer Missionary,” his biography of Lafortune, that the statue served as a pilgrimage point for the 200 or so practicing King Island Catholics. At the base of the statue, he wrote, Lafortune planted every kind of plant and flower that grows on the island.
The statue is the last vestige of the church’s presence. The church, built in 1929, was torn down by village men in 1985 after it became structurally unsound. The church bell collapsed during Renner’s visit in 1974.
There’s hope that maybe one day villagers — who now mostly reside in Nome — will get some sort of ferry service to the island (the first and last plane to land on the island was in 1969, according to research by Renner.) Until then, King Island remains isolated and uninhabited, with only the statue of Christ watching over.
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