- Historic Sites
Empire Of The Winds
In the Aleutian Islands you can explore a landscape of violent beauty, discover the traces of an all-but-forgotten war, and (just possibly) catch a $100,000 fish
April/May 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 2
One summer 30 years ago I found myself on a DC-3 bound for Unalaska, my string bass strapped into the seat next to me. I anchored the rhythm section of a high school band in Anchorage, and we were going to show students in this remote village on the Aleutian chain how much fun it could be to play a musical instrument.
Ten years later I was back, this time with chef’s knives stowed in my duffel. I had signed up to cook for a crew of geologists working on the flank of Makushin Volcano, a 15-minute helicopter ride out of Unalaska. Here we lived in Quonsetstyle tents anchored to the volcanic rock with aircraft cable thick as your thumb.
During these, my first connections with the most populous of the Aleutian Islands, I learned something of its tumultuous history and constantly felt the astonishing beauty it reveals in all its moods.
One facet of that beauty particularly struck the naturalist John Burroughs when he visited Unalaska a century ago: “The first hour or two out of Dutch Harbor we sailed past high rolling green hills, cut squarely off by the sea, presenting cliffs seven or eight hundred feet high of soft reddish crumbling rock, a kind of clay porphyry of volcanic origin, touched here and there on the face with the tenderest green. It was as if some green fluid had been poured upon the top of the hills and had run down and dripped off the rock eaves and been caught upon every shelf and projection. The color was deepest in all the wrinkles and folds of the slopes and in the valley bottoms. At one point we looked into a deep smooth valley or trough opening upon the sea, its shore line a complete half circle. Its bottom was nearly at the water level and was as fresh and vivid as a lawn in spring.”
Much of what I wrote about in the journal I kept as a camp cook, however, was the pummeling, ceaseless wind. Indeed, the Aleutians came to seem to me to be the place where all the winds of earth were born. “I thought the wind was bad in the Brook’s range,” I wrote, “but that stuff was just a stray puff compared to here. This is ferocious wind. The camp sits on the lip of a 200-foot drop. The wind travels up that cliff, [and] peaks at the tents.…I can’t sleep with that noise. The wind makes a tin symphony.” Some 200 years earlier a Russian priest named Father Ivan Veniaminov had felt pretty much the same way. He called the Aleutians the “Empire of the Winds.”
I went back last summer, to attend the events commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the bombing of Dutch Harbor by the Japanese. No cooking gear and no high school band in sight on the plane; I saw transient commercial fishermen and fish-processing workers, and, across the aisle, a man wearing a red nylon jacket with bold letters spelling out “Arkansas.” He turned out to be Arlie Pierce, a member of the Arkansas National Guard during World War II, one of several veterans returning to Unalaska for the commemoration.
No doubt the flight also carried hopeful sport fishermen and a birder or two. But it was the World War II angle that tugged at me most strongly, because my father and mother met during it when they were in the Coast Guard, stationed in Ketchikan in southeastern Alaska. My mother, who was in the Coast Guard, liked to quote a wartime phrase: “Ketchikan to catch a man.” And so it happened. They married, and later, in 1960, they loaded the family into our station wagon and drove the Alaska Highway to Anchorage. My father, a Presbyterian missionary, built a church there.
Most visitors to Unalaska set off from Anchorage. It’s a two-hour, 800-mile flight—or a three-day journey on the Alaska Marine Highway-system ferry that calls monthly from Kodiak Island, stopping at villages down the Aleutian chain.
Newcomers to the Aleutians can get confused by the several names that identify the area. Unalaska (the name is a corruption of the native Agunalaksh) is both the island and its principal town. The island is the second largest in the Aleutian chain, and a short bridge connects it with Amaknak Island, the site of Dutch Harbor, so called because of the Dutch merchant vessels that dropped anchor there 200 years ago.
Unalaska sits about a third of the way down the Aleutians, the thousand-mile chain of islands that arc from the southwestern corner of mainland Alaska. For the past 9,000 years, Aleuts, or the Unangan people, have lived on Unalaska and Amaknak. In the mid-eighteenth century, Russian colonists found more than 3,000 residents in 24 villages. Debate continues over how they got there, one school holding that they were Asians who followed animals over the Bering Sea land bridge and settled in the Alaskan interior before moving down to the Aleutians, another that they traveled directly to the islands by sea. The threeyear-old Museum of the Aleutians offers opportunities for visitors to learn more about the archeology of the islands by joining in digs that are located right in town and on Hog Island just across from Dutch Harbor.