- 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
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.