Before flying from Houston to Anchorage, I pictured the Alaskan wilderness somewhat like this: Glacier-covered peaks gleaming in the distance, thick boreal forest stretching to the horizons, and fat grizzlies skillfully swatting bloated salmon from fish-choked cascades. All while fistfuls of mosquitoes and black flies orbited around my head — sensibly clad in net gear.
To top it all off, a thick-lipped, cud-chewing moose would stand nearby and stare, before nonchalantly trotting off into an alder thicket.
Yet here I was, standing on Unalaska Island in knee-deep grass, flowing over the hills and carpeting the mountains as far as the eye could see. There wasn’t a single tree in sight, just the green of mountains, the gray of the Bering Sea, and the blue of an impeccable sky.
Looking down at the short vegetation and up at the wind-shorn ridges, the warm weather didn’t feel quite right either. A single cloud drifted over a nearby hill, and the whole scene looked more like a default screen saver (seriously, look at the picture) instead of an Alaskan wilderness.
It's always sunny in Anchorage
All the e-mail said was that I would be flying to Anchorage, continue on to Dutch Harbor, and from there, board a research vessel to spend two weeks surveying marine mammals in the Bering Sea.
I packed thick socks and several sweaters, brought lots of Dramamine, and grabbed a few books off the shelf.
After touching down in Anchorage, I could already see the snow-covered mountains in the distance. Road signs warning of crossing moose held promise that I would spot one of the oversize ungulates.
The motel hallways were decorated with pictures of perfect weather above Denali — North America’s highest mountain — and drenched bears licking their paws.
The room could have been anywhere.
I had one evening to explore Anchorage before leaving civilization, and found it was pretty metropolitan. I ate dinner at Subway, which was just a dollar more expensive, and stocked up on snacks at Safeway.
I finished the day wandering around Lake Hood. Strands of yellowed birches and spruce trees lined the streets. This could have been anywhere up north — maybe Minnesota in late summer — except for the constant hum of float planes coming and going, ferrying passengers to far flung log cabins, bears, and moose.
Pass the Dutchie
The following morning, the four-hour flight passed the dramatic volcanoes of the Kenai Peninsula, and covered the 800-mile Alaskan Peninsula. Near False Pass, the plane started descending, and skirted the smaller island of Akutan before a nose-down arrival on Unalaska in the eastern Aleutian Islands.
People with huge duffles spilled out of the airport and into waiting taxi vans. It took me a bit longer before I managed to catch a shuttle to the Grand Aleutian, one of only two hotels on the island.
While trying to figure out where my ship was going to anchor, I learned that Dutch Harbor is a place of many names and even more docks. Dutch Harbor — or simply "Dutch" — is the name of the actual harbor, one of the busiest in the U.S. The harbor is mainly located on small Amaknak Island, which is connected to the much larger island of Unalaska.
The town of Unalaska is located on the edge of a bay on its namesake island, but most people live on Amaknak. The federal government, always efficient, tackled the problem by establishing two post offices for less than 4,000 overall residents, all living within a few miles of each other.
After that quick geography lesson, I headed out to find my vessel.
The Deadliest Dutch
The town itself was more developed than I had expected. I walked past a huge hardware store, a gas station and convenience store, and stacks of crab pots rusting under the late evening sun. The Deadliest Catch has made Dutch Harbor quite famous, as the frontier port from which daring captains set out into the raging Bering Sea to catch king crabs.
One local fisherman ensured me, however, that things have calmed down — nobody snorts coke right off the bar top anymore.
I skipped the bars, some of which used to be considered the most dangerous in the world, and walk over to Amelia’s, where I could barely afford a cheeseburger.
With the light still out, I walked over to Town Pier. Several processing plants, packing bottom fish in summer and crabs in winter, line the gravel road. Bald eagles dove in and out of oversized trash bins. I saw several container ships bound for Asia, a huge Coast Guard cutter, and the fleet of local fishing boats — but no NOAA research vessel.
The Great Unalaskan Layover
When the news the next morning arrived, my ship had been delayed — hung up in Kodiak Island, three days to the east. I had some serious time to kill, and spent the next few days exploring the island.
While I missed the bears and moose, a walk along the waterfront revealed that Unalaska harbored plenty of big wildlife. Two Steller sea lions cruised by, and a single Minke whale surfaced twice just 100 feet offshore. The Bering Sea’s nutrient-rich waters attract millions of seabirds, and puffins, gulls, and guillemots dotted the bays by the thousands.
A herd of wild horses supposedly frequented the gentle slopes of the valley. I saw nothing but waving grass stretching in all directions, and I entertained myself watching the nervous ground squirrels dart from hole to hole. Far out in the bay, a feeding humpback whale attracted flocks of birds.
The track wound past steep cliffs and swung over wooden bridges, spanning rivers spilling from broad valleys. Here and there, collapsing bunkers and Quonset huts served as remainders of World War II attacks on the harbor by the Japanese. American troops were stationed on the island, and the local Aleuts were forced to evacuate to southeast Alaska.
For thousands of years, the Aleutian Islands have been home to the Aleuts — seafaring people that colonized remote islands throughout the chain, and subsisted on marine mammals and seabirds. Today, many inhabitants of the old town, Unalaska, keep traditions alive at the local museum or through arts and crafts. People still live off the land.
I arrived during early fall, and salmon fishing was in full swing. Since there were no bears, it was safe to wander along the streams. The ripples were full of fish — some of them near the end of their journey, and barely moving.
Mingling with the local life
I met Suzi Golodoff, a longtime resident of the island and superb naturalist. From her, I learned that while the wildflowers were waning, I arrived just in time for berry season.
For the past decades, she had studied the plants and animals of the island, and kept a close eye on environmental problems plaguing even this remote spot on the planet. She also told me of a few good berry patches. I spent half an hour stripping several blueberry bushes before moving on to the less sweet but juicy salmonberries. In the process, I spotted many wildflowers still blooming — blue monkshood, pale lupines, and yellow cinquefoils.
In town, small wooden houses — several of which have weathered decades of freezing rains and storms — stood in crooked rows along narrow gravel roads.
I drove past the new recreation center and town hall to get to the Russian Orthodox Church. When Russian fur traders explored Alaska in the 18th century, they brought their religion with them. It lives on today in many Aleut communities.
I walked around the more than 100-year-old church, a building of simple, whitewashed walls, crowned by two domes holding the distinct cross.
Trying to find a cheaper dinner that night, I walked into the oversized Safeway. The immense selection seemed at odds with its location. I found cheap trays of fried rice — prepared by the cashiers, who mainly hail from the Philippines, as most of the processing plant workers do.
Sitting on the rocky shore, scooping mouthfuls of delicious rice, I watched dozens of sea otters form a raft among the drifting kelp.
I realized that this remote outpost is one of the most surprising melting pots I have ever visited. A few Aleuts struggled to keep tradition and knowledge alive, while fishermen arrived from all parts of the U.S. to strike it rich. The Russian Orthodox church still has a foothold, while container ships from Asia wait in the bays steered by Scandinavian captains.
Researchers from further south come and go, businessmen visit booming processing plants — and I was eating fried rice just as good as any in Manila, while a cold wind nudged whitecaps in the bay.