Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Jim Stimpfle
Jim Stimpfle
Jim Stimpfle talks about his role in the 1988 Friendship Flight from Nome to Provideniya, Siberia, and his attempt to re-establish contact with Russian Far East communities across the Bering Strait.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2007-03-07

Project: Nome Communities of Memory
Date of Interview: Feb 17, 1996
Narrator(s): Jim Stimpfle
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum
Alternate Transcripts
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Beginning of efforts to re-establish contacts across the Bering Strait

Balloons across the Bering Sea

Launching a balloon to the Russian Far East

The helium balloon experiment

Balloon capture

Nome group to establish contact with Russian Far East

Alaska Airlines flying to Russia

Communities can change things

Russian souvenirs

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Before I came to Nome I met my wife Bernadette Alvanna who's from King Island and...uhm met her in Fairbanks and I followed her over to Nome here. And..uhm I used to listen to some of the elders in the King Island people talk about the early days of crossing the Bering Strait.

And it was 1986, I wasn't selling any houses and I said, "Gee, you know that sounds like fun". So, I started writing letters to our Congressman and people like that and I started talking to other people in Nome.

I remember one August, late August day of 1986, I went up to the dump, the city dump, to dump the garbage and I noticed that the wind was blowing toward Russia.

You know, we had a constant breeze, you know, the dump, the breeze, the smoke, and I thought to myself, "Hmm, maybe I could launch a balloon?" You know, with my name on it, instead of throwing a bottle in the water, you know, with a message. I said, "Maybe I could launch a balloon, put my name, Nome."

And so I got some balloons and I went down to the jetty and I started to blow 'em up and they were big balloons, almost as big as this table and I couldn't blow them up. So I said to myself, "Mmm".

It was cold, you know, it was a fall day and my car was running. I looked at my exhaust pipe, I said, "Sure enough". So I filled them with my car exhaust and just blew' em up there, nice and warm and wrote a message on it and let them just kind of bounce across the Bering Sea.

Well, I don't think any of those balloons made it.

So later I thought to myself, "Maybe I should go to the weather service and get a helium balloon?" You know, fill it with helium. And my wife was a bilingual teacher at the school and she had eh... was doing a class with the kids and we thought, "Well, let's send some messages of friendship from the kids in the elementary school".

Let's put some messages written in English, Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik. And we had a Russian teacher here in Nome, a woman named Astrid Smart, who was a German. She knew a little bit of Russian, so she translated some of the letters to Russian.

And we even had a woman write in Cyrillic. And we made a little bag of goodies with sugar, tea, sewing needles, thread, chewing tobacco, because when I'd listened to the elders going over in the boats, I heard 'em talk about trading.

So, I thought it would be, you know, a nice little bag of things going across the Bering Strait of trading items.

So, in November we went down and we launched that balloon. Filled it up with helium, didn't want to go too high, tied some rocks on it so it'd float about 200 feet above the water.

And as it uhm... we launched it off and it went across and then it came back down again. It cooled off and it started bouncing across and I was watching with my binoculars as the balloon was going over.

And I saw this boat come rushing up to it, I said, "Jeez, whose that boat?" And this boat came up to it and grabbed the balloon and stabbed it with a knife, throw it onboard, and it was Tim Gologergan.

Tim got real excited, he opened up the bag of goodies and he saw the Russian handwriting and said, "This is from Russia! This is from Russia!"

So, I followed him down the coastline with my binoculars, down to his camp. And he gets out of his boat and I come running up to him and Tim's really excited and says, "Jim, this came from Russia!" I said, "No, Tim. I'm trying to send it over".

So, you know, that was the first attempt. I said, "Well, let's be more serious". So we formed a little committee in Nome, of citizens in Nome.

Some of the people that I can remember, the very first was Chick Trainor. I think Janet Ahmasuk came to one of our meetings and we formed this little group in Nome.

And so we started this action group to somehow open the border, find somebody to write letters to.

And coincidentally we had a couple of people come to Nome. We had a ship that came to Nome, a ship called the Surveyor went to Providenya, so we wrote a bunch of letters, sent them over.

And then we had a woman who swam, you know Lynn Cox, she swam from Little Diomede to Big Diomede. And because of those two events we actually got a chance to meet some people by way of letters.

We met the Mayor of Providenya. At the time his name was Kulinkin.

And so this was a great event, because a lot of us was taught that this was the Evil Empire, you know, and these were the enemy and the border was never gonna open. It was closed in 1948.

But what happened was we it was just lucky, just pure luck. Gorbachev and Reagan became buddy buddy. Reagan stopped talking about the evil empire and had a few summit meetings.

And Alaska Airlines came to Nome, I went before them and spoke at a board meeting and said, "How about flying to Russia?" and there was utter silence.

They didn't say a thing. And I sat down in my chair after the meeting and I said to myself, "Gee, I must have bombed".

And I remember one of the Alaska Airlines people came up to me and said, "Jim, that's a great idea! We're gonna do it". And I said, "Ok, yeah".

And so they started the whole thing and it was a day on June 13th, 1988 that we went to Providenya directly from Nome in a jet.

So, that was a very good memory for me about Nome. And it also proved a real important point about a small community.

That no matter how small you are, you know, and one individual and groups of people can do a whole lot of things together as a community and change things.

So, that's the story I'm sharing with you today about that time period from 1986 to about 1988. And it took a lot of energy on my part.

I wasn't selling any real estate. My wife thought I was crazy. She thought I was possessed with this crazy idea to open the border and to involve people's attention.

But lo and behold it paid off. And the one thing I have with me today is this glass case, Atchki, for eye glasses, and it's made by the people of Chukotka.

And of the many souvenirs that we've had over the years, this is one of many that is easy to carry around and keep my glasses in. So, thanks for listening.