Savoonga man marooned in Russia, hoping for a charter home

A man from the Bering Sea island community of Savoonga is stuck in Russia after traveling there through a unique visa-free travel program for Alaska Natives. Despite not needing a visa for the trip, Sivoy Miklahook now finds himself on the wrong side of the Strait as his Russian papers inch closer to expiration. Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 7.44.24 PM

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Sivoy Miklahook flew just over 230 miles across the Bering Strait—from Nome, Alaska to Provideniya, Russia—in late August. He’s now in a small vilage called New Chaplino. The trip was following up with some Russian relatives after they visited his St. Lawrence Island home in Savoonga back in May.

“He’s just visiting his friends and relatives over there. This is what he wanted, he wanted to go over there for the experience,” explains Sivoy’s older sister Carol.

She says that “experience” is a shared language and culture that dates back thousands of years. It’s only in the last few decades that travel has become problematic. Political tensions make crossing the border—a couple hundred meager miles—no easy task. Since 1989, Alaska Natives and Chukotans have used a unique visa-free travel program to visit family on both sides of the Strait. But even without visas, that travel isn’t easy.

“In order for just one passenger to fly on one of our charters, there’s lots of planning.”

Even though Sivoy and other Alaska Native travelers don’t need that visa—that’s a requirement mostly for other tourists passing through Nome—there’s still a lot of paperwork to cross the border. Pilot Ryan Woehler flies the charters to Russia.

“I don’t even think they use fax, it’s usually telex, and you have to get permission from Moscow and somebody in Vladivostok has to sign off on it, and Petropavlovsk, and the military, and the customs and the border guard, and each of these different agencies have to be part of the permission process, and it’s a big deal.”

It all adds up to just a 90 day window. Sivoy’s been there since August. Worse still, the plane he was planning to fly home on was canceled—and short of booking his own charter, there’s unlikely to be another flight any time soon.

“Basically at this time of year, we have no scheduled charters until next summer.”

Sivoy’s sister Carol says his time is running out. He has to leave by mid-November.

“There was a flight that was supposed to come beginning of this month that was supposed to bring him back. He needs to pay for his own charter now, before a certain time.”

But charters are expensive—really expensive.

“From Nome to Provideniya it’s $5,450 one way, and it seats six passengers. We need air navigation permissions, we need our landing permissions, all of those things, they charge us for all of that stuff. Russian customs for landing, the fuel that we have to buy over there … we get charged for all of it.”

Friends and family are doing what they can back on St. Lawrence Island to help—bake sales and small donations—and one friend from the Island started a donation page on the popular crowd funding website Go Fund Me—letting anyone with internet access chip in toward the 4-thousand dollar goal.

And that’s where Sivoy is now—trying to extend his stay, while also trying to figure out how to afford a flight home. Pilot Ryan Woehler says—despite the friendly and welcoming locals—he knows Russia’s not the kind of place you want to be with expired papers.

“The Russians don’t see a lot of opportunities around, ‘well, your visa expired, I’m sorry,’ haha. They don’t see a lot of solutions. If it’s expired, it’s expired. You’re basically in trouble.”

Trouble is exactly what Sivoy’s family says he’s trying to avoid—as they scramble to raise money for a flight home