Tunnel vision links Alaska and Russia: Phil Reeves in Nome meets a man determined to convince the world that America and Asia should join across the international dateline
Thursday 15 September 1994
But Jim Stimpfle has grander plans. He will be busy with three big projects: what to do about the US-Russian border, how to get rid of a mountain of unwanted roubles, and - most important of all - his pet scheme, modestly known as the Interhemispherical Tunnel.
Mr Stimpfle, Nome's only estate agent, is unusual among his profession because he cares not one jot about location, location, location. Although he lives in one of the furthest-flung spots on the planet, a tumbledown wooden settlement overlooking the Bering Strait, he is full of optimism about its prospects.
There is no cinema, no wine bar, and very often not much daylight. 'But just look how beautiful it all is,' he said, standing ankle-deep in the boggy mush of lichen and moss that stretches across the upper reaches of America's north-western edge.
To the north, 141 miles away, lies the Arctic Circle. To the south-east - for those who can afford the flight (there is no road) - there is Alaska's biggest city, Anchorage, the starting point for the annual 1,049-mile Iditarod dog sled race, which ends in Nome. And to the west, across a short expanse of iron-grey often iced-over ocean, there is the US's erstwhile enemy and rival empire, Russia.
And it is the latter that obsesses Mr Stimpfle. For two decades he has gazed across the International Dateline, wondering how to forge a relationship between Nome (town motto: 'There's no place like Nome') and the few occupants of the equally bleak, endless stretch of icy tundra on the other side.
His dream strikes a chord in Alaska, which was Russian territory until it was sold to the US for two cents an acre in 1867, after decades of slaughtering its sea otters for fur. Some Alaskan natives - especially the Yupik and Inupiat Eskimos who comprise about half Nome's population - still have relatives on the other side, living much as they have always done by fishing for salmon and hunting moose, seals and walrus. When the Cold War ended, families were reunited for the first time in decades.
These days commercial, cultural and academic links between Russia and America's 49th state are proliferating, although not without hitches. Last month two Alaskan officials were horrified to find themselves in a Moscow prison after arriving without the correct entry papers. 'We had to urinate out of the window,' one later grumbled.
But Mr Stimpfle's campaign predates this, to before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Anxious to break the ice (metaphorically speaking) between Russia and Alaska, he floated balloons across the Bering Strait, carrying payloads of tobacco, tea and chewing gum. Although chronologically, his Russian neighbours exist in tomorrow, he knew they were years behind, even by Nome's standards. A few Western gifts would not go amiss, he felt. Alas, the weather was against him. The balloons travelled 100 yards before sinking into the sea.
The final fall of the Soviet empire rekindled his enthusiasm. When Alaska's border with Russia opened in 1988 - 50 years after it was shut on the orders of J Edgar Hoover - he pioneered a scheme allowing Russian visitors to spend roubles in Nome.
As a sweetener, the Russians who ventured across the border, curious to explore the capitalist world, were offered an exchange rate of one rouble to the dollar. 'It was a gesture of good will to our Russian friends,' he explained. 'They bought all sorts of things - cassette tapes, stockings, groceries, Playboy magazines, taxi rides.'
But the atmosphere soured after the Russian authorities refused to allow Nomeites to spend the roubles during their return trips to the other side, or even to bring them back into the country. Then the currency crashed.
Before long, Nome's shopkeepers found themselves stuck with bundles of useless notes that were trading on the Moscow black market at the rate of 18,000 to the US dollar. Eight months ago Bering Air, which during the summer flies from Nome to the Russian port city of Provideniya several times a week, began insisting on dollars only. At least one place began using roubles as beer mats.
'I reckon there are still about half a million roubles in town,' said Mr Stimpfle. Ever resourceful, he now laminates the notes to sell as souvenirs to American tourists along with a certificate, drawn up on his home computer, congratulating buyers for contributing to the 'Nome International Monetary Fund'.
Nor were matters eased by a tendency among the Russians to outstay their welcome. 'They are wonderful people,' he said, 'but a lot of us got burnt out on family exchanges. It was when every Tom, Dick and Harry came over and needed to stay. My God, we had to feed everybody. It was sort of sad. There are not many exchanges now.'
Lately Mr Stimpfle has developed another concern. Although keen to ease the movement of people through America's back door with Russia, he is becoming increasingly fearful that the border is open to abuse from drug smugglers and assorted mafiosi. Nome's two customs officers are the chief of the seven-strong police force and a history teacher. But there are ports of entry in the area where there are no checks at all.
'Western Alaska just may as well be on another planet as far as the federal government is concerned,' grumbled a recent editorial in the Nome Nugget, the town's weekly paper, following reports of illicit activities in the village of Gambell on St Lawrence Island, which lies between the two continents. Alcohol is banned there - yet several Alaskans needed medical treatment after drinking smuggled bootleg Russian vodka.
The paper continued: 'US customs is a prime example of bureaucratic inertia . . . who knows what kind of stuff has been given a wink and a nod and passed through to New York and beyond?' Mr Stimpfle is more explicit: 'They could be bringing stolen plutonium through there. And if that happens, it will jeopardise all the work we have done to open up the border.'
In this regard, Mr Stimpfle's principle contribution is the tunnel, a grandiose proposal to link the United States, Canada, and Russia with a 4,500-mile rail track which would ultimately link New York and London by rail. He is a key member of the Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel and Railroad Group, some 30 engineers and transport specialists campaigning for the dollars 60bn (pounds 40bn) scheme. 'It would link Europe, Asia, and North America for the first time with a land-based system. Can you imagine that? We'd be able to trade Russian oil for American wheat simply by crossing the Bering Strait.'
It is not the first proposal of its kind. For years, there has been fanciful talk of a bridge. The tunnel is not garnering much political support, even though state government's representative for the North Pole, Jeanette James, is keen enough. But Mr Stimpfle is undeterred by the reception: after all, he says, didn't everyone laugh at the Channel Tunnel?
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