Day 3: Tripping on the Alaska Marine Ferry to the Aleutian Islands

Chignik and Sand Point

Grey clouds hung low, obscuring the massive Alaska Range to our north as the Tustumena ferry steamed ahead. Thankfully, we had been spared the roiling seas and sharp winds that can spring up in the Shelikof Strait, even forcing the ferry to miss its scheduled stops because of impossibly bad weather.

Chignik, Alaska.

We chugged into Chignik on schedule just before noon.

Only ninety-one people, more than half of them native Onangax and Alutiiq, live year-round in this small city. Most people would call the place a village, certainly not even a town. The settlement hugs a narrow strip of flat land, with mountains rising just outside the back doors of its sagging houses.

For the past 100 years, Chignik has gotten its economic steam from a fish processing plant on the edge of town. The cannery provides work and. provide services for work for many of the residents.

Nearly twenty-five percent of Chignik’s residents came to the dock to greet the Tustumena, the women carrying children in their arms. As we lined up to get off the ferry to explore this remote settlement, they waited, watching silently.

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Waiting for the ferry.

An enterprising woman and her son waited on the dock, a pile of crocheted hats, pot holders and headbands spread out on the back of a 4-wheeler. One of the passengers went right over to the vendors and snatched up an amber necklace that they were selling for a fraction of its worth. Exploitation apparently has not gone out of style.

We later learned that it is a tradition for the local villagers to come eat in the ferry’s restaurant. One of the waitresses told us they mostly order hamburgers and French fries, food in short supply in Chignik. No fish.

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It’s a special treat for Chignik’s isolated residents to eat in the ferry’s restaurant.

For the next hour, we were free to explore the town. Two restaurants in town, one a donut shop and one a rib joint, were tightly shuttered. The post office was open but save one lone four-wheeler that puttered by us, the place was quiet.

The restaurant was closed.

We ran into a woman who runs a local adventure sport fishing operation with her husband. Apparently the biggest story in town occurred nearly a decade ago, she told us, recounting how wolves mauled and killed the village’s special ed teacher as she was running along the lower slopes with her earbuds in. After her remains were found, locals killed two wild wolves and confirmed they were to blame.

I shivered when I thought of how trapped the young runner must have felt.

With steep mountains rising on three sides, the only open area is the sea. And the sea level has been rising, putting Chignik’s very survival in the crosshairs. The highest temperatures in Alaska’s history still lay two weeks before us, but you could tell now that the future of coastal villages is at risk.

If Chignik ceases to exist as a result of climate change, they can look to a small group of Alutiiq people who sixty years ago settled around a school built in Chignik Lake about 13 miles away from the coast. These Native peoples live a subsistence lifestyle, surviving on hunting, fishing and berry picking. In a June 2019 draft report of the environmental dangers faced by Chignik Lake, FEMA has drawn a stark picture of the many dangers the community must anticipate.

Chignik clings to a narrow strip of flat land along the coast of the North Pacific Ocean.

We were glad for the chance to stretch our legs and get a glimpse of how others exist in a small settlement without roads or much connection with outside commerce. No one looked destitute or particularly unhappy in Chignik, more like people who have carved out their daily existance amid a spectacularly beautiful surrounding. .

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Posing for a photo with Maggie, the purser, and her ship, the Tustumena.

Our course was set to the southwest and we moved away from the Alaska Peninsula and toward Sand Point, a port on an island that is not part of the Aleutian chain.

We decided to have our first dinner in the dining room and enjoyed a tasty halibut meal.

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After dinner, the wind picked up and it was blowing cold off the frozen Alaska Range. We donned our wool hats and gloves and roamed the ship, chatting with other passengers. Several whales puffed sprouts of water off our bow.

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The clouds cleared enough outside Sand Point that we could see a row of wind turbines turning above a line of sturdy hilltop houses. Smoke from a landfill burning filled the air.

Sand Point, Alaska.

The port was rather industrial and there was little sign of activity at 10:30 at night. We had an early wake-up call in the morning but I couldn’t resist the chance to put my feet on another spot in this remote land. With only 30 minutes to explore we walked past a tower of transport containers awaiting a new shipment of fish. Our path ended at a gravel pit by the water, then we turned around, boarded the ferry and took off as a vermillion-red sunset painted the sky.

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Leaving Sand Point.
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Click on Day 4 for a look at King Cove and Cold Bay, which hold the rare distinction of being the cloudiest places in America.

All photos by the author.

Stories in the Aleutian Islands Series:

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