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
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.
Melinda McPeek, the curator, has lived in Unalaska about a year and a half, a refugee from Washington, D.C., where she was working for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian when she was offered her new position. McPeek told me she had been looking for fewer traffic jams. She got that and more. “My first impression of Unalaska was one of raw beauty and the strange juxtaposition of the rusted and dirty buildings, cars and crab pots that are completely overshadowed by the most incredible landscape of vibrant green mountains and blue sea. I think I had prepared myself for the worst and was pleasantly surprised to find that it does not always rain and the wind doesn’t always howl, and there are in fact many sunny, beautiful days here.”
In recent history, two events have defined the Aleuts’ lives and determined the fate of Unalaska: the Russian occupation and the Second World War. Throughout the town and in the surrounding country, evidence of them is everywhere.
Russians first came to the Aleutians looking for a land bridge to northwestern America, where they hoped to annex territory and gain control of the lucrative fur market before European rivals could. During Vitus Bering’s second voyage, in 1741, crewmen spotted the sea otters that would shape the pattern of Russian settlement and trade in North America for the next 120 years. The Russian American Company founded the first permanent trading station on Unalaska Island in 1772. It quickly enslaved many Aleut hunters and their families and sent them to the Pribilof Islands to help with the fur-seal harvest. Others were forced to hunt sea otters. Some Aleuts rebelled and died for it.
I found a surprising remnant of the Russian presence: trees, which are scarce enough in Unalaska. Two centuries ago Nikolai Rezanov, the imperial chamberlain of Russian America, ordered the planting of a grove of Sitka spruce to make the colony more self-sufficient. It was the first government-sponsored afforestation project in North America, and in 1978 the trees were designated a national historic landmark, and later a National Park. Today only three of Rezanov’s trees remain; they stand some 50 feet high, their trunks bare all the way up but topped by a head of branches that make them look like old-fashioned bottle brushes scrubbing the sky.
Central to the lives of contemporary Aleuts, and an important reflection of the Russian influence, is the Orthodox Church. The Church of the Holy Ascension, the oldest Russian Orthodox cruciform church in North America, plays a major role in the spiritual and social lives of some 4,000 residents. Father Ivan Veniaminov arrived in 1824, built a church 10 years later, and sought parishioners by developing an Aleut alphabet and translating Scripture into the native language. The Church later canonized him St. Innocent.
World War II put its harsh signature on the island at every turn. The first glimpse appears even before your plane completes its final approach to the airport. Across the bay, on Hog Island, the landscape is scattered with what look like crushed soda cans. They are rusted Quonset huts. Upslope from the airport, ammunition dumps pock the side of Mount Ballyhoo.
Compared with the scale of the war, the Aleutian fighting might seem a minor sideshow. Nevertheless, half a million men took part; it was the war’s only campaign fought on American soil; and it claimed 10,000 lives.
In the 1930s, with Japan moving aggressively in Asia, American military strategists saw that the proximity of the Aleutians to Japan’s Kurile Islands gave them considerable strategic importance. In May 1940 Congress appropriated money for Army bases in Anchorage and coastal defenses at Kodiak and Dutch Harbor. Col. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., was sent to command the Alaska Defense Force, and a civilian contractor began building the naval facilities at Dutch Harbor and, soon after, the Army base. The first troops arrived in Dutch Harbor on May 8, 1941. They were not prepared for what they found. Capt. Robert E. Israel, 37th Infantry, also on hand for the ceremonies, recalled: “We were scheduled to go to Guam. Suddenly in early May 1941 all this tropical gear was withdrawn, and we were issued all types of winter uniforms. We did not get rid of the tropical huts, which were sent to Dutch Harbor with screen doors, no insulation, and doors that opened out. This caused us a lot of trouble when snow blocked the doors.”
The barracks and warehouses went up where the Grand Aleutian Hotel stands today, while at the same time coastal and antiaircraft batteries were built across the island. Despite Buckner’s efforts, Alaska was far from ready when war came. “We’re not even the second team up here,” he said. “We’re a sandlot club.”
I met up with Arlie Pierce, the veteran from Arkansas, in the airport. He smiled and chuckled easily as he told how he and his buddies in the Arkansas National Guard unit, like Captain Israel, had had no idea where they were headed when they got their orders. “We thought we were going to the Philippines, where all the beautiful girls were. Two colonels flipped a nickel, and we lost.” They found themselves in a very different place, with only light leather boots and summer uniforms to stave off the ferocious Aleutian winter. And worse than winter was coming.
After Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s carrierlaunched bombers raided Tokyo in April 1942, Japanese interest in the Aleutians intensified. The imperial staff could only guess where the bombers had taken off from, and suspecting the Aleutians, in June they moved to protect their flank by invading and occupying the rocky, wind-scoured, desolate islands of Attu and Kiska.
This attack was also a feint intended to divert American attention from the fleet massing for an assault on Midway Island in the central Pacific. The carriers Ryujo and Junyo were sent to the Aleutians, where they waited on the edge of a nasty storm 200 miles southwest of Unalaska, beyond the range of the U.S. Navy PBY patrol planes, until June 3, when a Japanese submarine in Unalaska Bay reported good weather. The carriers launched, but despite the report, storms forced half the strike force to turn back, leaving 21 planes to bomb Dutch Harbor.
The base suffered little physical damage during the attack, but some 50 Americans were killed or injured. Many of them were recent arrivals who died because they hadn’t yet gotten orders to report to bomb shelters during a raid. The next day, at four o’clock, the Japanese returned to find the defenders well dug in. Eighteen men died and 25 were injured, but the attackers lost a dozen planes. A seemingly minor action, all in all, but that same day, June 4, 1942, far to the south, the Battle of Midway began. The Japanese fleet took a terrible beating there, losing three carriers in what was the turning point of the Pacific war. Had the Ryujo and Junyo been at Midway instead of pecking away at the Aleutians, the outcome might have been very different.
The tempo of military construction on Unalaska increased, while the Navy ran bombing missions and patrols out of Dutch Harbor. A number of celebrities flew out to the Aleutians to entertain the troops, and one celebrity served there. The famous mystery writer Dashiell Hammett was stationed in Adak, but he visited many military outposts, including Dutch Harbor, as a member of the Army Signal Corps, editing the newspaper The Adakian . Hammett had joined the Army when he was 48 years old, and he celebrated his fiftieth birthday in Adak. Many of the troops called him Pops.
Oddly enough, the months Hammett spent in his far posting were among the happiest of his life. He found the islands “stimulating” and “starkly beautiful” and even thought about living there after the war. “I am still having more or less a love affair with this country,” he wrote to the playwright Lillian Hellman, with whom he had lived before enlisting. “Once on a boat with islands looming up half-real in the fog and rain I suddenly thought how nice it would have been to have been born on one of them and to be coming home to it.”
One of the most effective ways to place yourself in the shoes of a soldier who drew Aleutian duty is to drive the bumpy switchbacks up to Fort Schwatka, at Ulakta Head on Mount Ballyhoo, on the far side of Amaknak Island. The fort is one of four coastal defense posts the Army built to protect the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base. More than 100 buildings served this strongpoint, and Bobbie Lekanoff, owner of the Extra Mile Tours (who says she can tailor visits to every interest: birds, wildflowers, the war, or a mix of all three), took me in her SUV to see what remains.
Engineers designed Schwatka’s observation posts and command stations to withstand earthquakes and 100-mile-anhour winds. Most of the bunkers and wooden structures have collapsed, but the concrete-and-steel gun emplacements and lookouts still stand, some of them seeming to defy gravity on the vertical cliffs high above the ocean.
On my late-evening visit, light and shadow played across the black rock ravines and rich green vegetation that lined their bottoms. Snow buntings flitted about, and the omnipresent eagles looked down on us. Unhindered by the landscape, the wind knocked us around, and I could imagine what it would have been like pulling guard duty here in winter, staring out through the slits of the bunker, watching and waiting for an enemy that still had the run of half the world.
On May 11,1943, American troops came ashore at Attu and attacked the 2,500 Japanese stationed there (U.S. planners had bypassed Kiska in the hope that thus isolated, its garrison would simply wither). After three weeks of the most bitter fighting, the defenders were annihilated.
Attu cost more than 1,000 American lives. As the historian Gerhard L. Weinberg writes in his magisterial A World at Arms , “It could be argued that the United States insistence on retaking Kiska and Attu was almost as unwise as the Japanese insistence on trying to hold on to these indefensible outposts which led nowhere for either side.” But it must be added that after Attu fell, the Japanese imperial command evacuated the 5,000 troops on Kiska and then, for the first time, publicly admitted a defeat to their people. They had suppressed the news of the Midway calamity, but the Aleutians, as the historian Brian Garfield puts it in The Thousand Mile War , “gave the United States her first theaterwide victory over Japan.” And the whole world knew it.
No soldier had an easy time at Dutch Harbor during the war, but few paid so dearly as the native inhabitants. The military mandated that the Aleuts be evacuated from the islands for their own safety. In 1942 the entire population” anyone with as much as one-eighth Aleut blood—was sent to southeastern Alaska. Each person was allowed one suitcase and 24 hours to pack. All had to leave behind their homes and most of their possessions. The evacuees disliked the tall trees that rose above the abandoned canneries, herring saltery, and mining camp where they were quartered; they missed their open sky, the seas that fed them, the eagles turning overhead, the life they had lived for millennia. Many sickened, some died.
What sustained Aleuts in their grim new circumstances was their Russian Orthodox religion. I walked over to the Church of the Holy Ascension, easy to find with its bright blue trim and clean white paint standing out in the crisp marine air. Outside the church a Russian Orthodox cross—with three horizontal arms, the bottom one at an angle—stands over each grave. Inside, nearly 700 gold-framed icons, artifacts, and other artworks, some dating from the very beginnings of the church, hang on the walls. It’s one of the largest such collections remaining in Alaska.
Looking at my diary, I see that high school recollections came back to me on my second visit as a cook: “I went into town last Saturday. It looks a lot like when I was here before. The old Russian church is there although it’s in bad need of a paint job. I remember the icons we saw when we were there, rich gold, and dark paintings of saints and Christ. You had to take off your hat. Everyone spoke in whispers.”
In 1990 the church received the dubious honor of securing a place on Preservation magazine’s list of the 12 most endangered national landmarks. Today, my guide, a young Aleut woman, told me, the church is slowly restoring its icons and furnishings through grants and contributions.
At the Museum of the Aleutians I met Kris Clinton and Mona Pagel, the daughter and niece of Gladys Anderson, an Army nurse who served at Unalaska from 1941 to 1943. Clinton had recently donated her aunt’s uniform to the museum, and she and Pagel were here to attend the World War II commemoration. The two women told me they meet lots of people who have never heard about the war in the Aleutians. No surprise, says Mya Renken, director of the Unalaska/ Port of Dutch Harbor Convention and Visitors Bureau; after all, the Aleutian campaign is often referred to as the “forgotten war.”
Renken, along with many others in Unalaska, is trying hard to preserve the Aleutians’ place in America’s history. The Aleutian World War II National Historic Area Visitor Center opened last June, housed in the former Naval Air Transport Building next to the airport. Through photographs and memorabilia, its exhibits trace the impact of the forgotten war, on both the troops who were stationed in the Aleutians and the families who were forcibly removed and interned.
History isn’t the only draw here, though. Hiking, birding, and fishing lure many visitors. Ounalashka, the local native corporation, owns most of the land around Unalaska, and to hike, ski, or camp, you need a permit—easily obtained at the corporation’s offices in Dutch Harbor.
I hiked partway up Mount Ballyhoo, overlooking the airport on Amaknak Island. It was early afternoon, and clouds rolled up and down the steep upper flanks, leaving a fine mist on my raincoat. It was the only day of my visit that no planes flew in or out. Looking down toward the runway, I could see the faint outlines of three bomb craters marching straight toward Dutch Harbor. Off to the side old barbed wire twined through the tall grass.
John Burroughs talked about these hills in his journal: “I never tired of them, and if I dwell upon them unduly long, let the reader remember that a thousand miles of this kind of scenery, passing slowly before one on a succession of summer days, make an impression not easily thrown off.”
Most Unalaska residents still make their living from the sea. The commercial fleet plying the abundant waters brought in 834.5 million pounds of fish in 2001, making Dutch Harbor North America’s top fishing port. Sport fishermen can anticipate that same kind of piscatorial bounty. They make the journey to Unalaska to try to best the world-record halibut caught here—459 pounds’ worth, in 1996. Those willing to put up a twohour fight compare the job to pulling a small car to the surface. But the Visitors Bureau makes the battle worth your while: If you buy a fishing-derby ticket and break the world record, you’ll take home $100,000.
I went after halibut with Greg Hawthorne, who so loves to be out on the water that he whoops and hollers as his boat planes across the bay toward the fishing grounds. What Hawthorne most enjoys is Volcano Bay Adventures, a fishing camp he owns at the base of Makushin, where you can catch three species of salmon. The silver, or coho, which returns each fall, is the most exciting to find on your hook. “A silver will often hit your fly like a locomotive,” says Hawthorne, “and if you don’t have a heavy rod, that’s exactly what you’ll think you have on, when he takes all your line and possibly snaps your rod.”
Salmon return to Unalaska rivers and streams in countless numbers, but you can count the fishermen waiting for them on the fingers of one hand. What closerpacked urban anglers refer to as “combat fishing” simply doesn’t exist here. Numerous guides can put you into the fish, and the bonus is unequaled scenery.
Serious birders, too, must come to Unalaska if they wish to add one particular rare species to their life list: the whiskered auklet. But many other birds fill the skies—loons, tufted and horned puffins, black oystercatchers, belted kingfishers, rough-legged hawks, bald eagles. One distraught birder lamented to me that her trip to the nearby Baby Islands to see a whiskered auklet had been canceled, and she was running out of time. For three days, squirrelly winds had been kicking up a rip tide, and her patience was wearing thin. When the hotel’s marketing director suggested an alternative, the woman dismissed it out of hand: “It’s the whiskered auklet or nothing!”
Her experience is a lesson for any traveler to the Aleutians. When packing for Unalaska, bring a book. Weather rules. When the ceiling goes down to zero and winds begin to howl, even modern technology can’t keep planes in the air or boats on the water. Everyone hunkers down and waits.
And they can wait in considerable comfort. The Grand Aleutian Hotel and Unisea Inn dominates the lodging scene. Its big- city accouterments are completely unexpected in so elemental and remote a place, and the spacious rooms are a welcome retreat from a long day of hiking, birding, fishing, or whatever else may have brought you here. Seafood dominates the menu at the Chart Room restaurant; halibut and Alaska king crab don’t get much fresher. But it would be a mistake to stay in the hotel for every meal. In Tino’s Steak House, for instance, the waiter delivered two tacos stuffed with fresh halibut napped in a lemony sauce, while others dined on halibut ceviche and tortilla soup.
Two days before my departure, everyone attended a service at Memorial Park to remember and thank the veterans and the Aleuts. It was a cold, blustery day, but nobody minded. A local student played taps, and at the end of the service we paused for a moment of silence. Then a group of Cub Scouts raised the American flag, and, as if perfectly scripted, a bald eagle rose overhead, riding the eternal wind.