We awoke at 6 am to a ceiling of thick clouds moving on the back of a steady wind. The sky, land and water melded into a palette of blues and grays.
We were some 650 miles from Anchorage on the Alaska Peninsula, headed to a town that, like its neighbors, is accessible only by boat or air. There are some 70 volcanoes in the region and King Cove sits between two of them, its green folds creating the backdrop for the fishing town. The steep valley also creates a tunnel for pounding storms to hammer through, giving it a well-deserved reputation for rough weather.
The skies here looked threatening as we lined up to get off the Tustumena ferry to have a first-hand look.
Like many tiny settlements in the Aleutian Islands and lower Alaska Peninsula, King Cove has been transformed by a fish cannery that, in 1911, set up operations on the shore. Its early operators included Europeans who married women of Unangan (Aleut) descent and workers from Asia. Today, the Peter Pan Seafood operation in King Cove is the largest salmon processing facility in Alaska, hiring as many as 500 temporary workers during peak times.
In late June, the area around the ferry dock was quiet. We saw no locals on our brisk walk along the wooden walkway that connects homes leading toward the processor though we didn’t have time to reach the facility before returning to the ship. Along the way we saw evidence of Russian presence, a small white church with a wood tower that held as many as 10 brass bells to call the congregation.
About 950 people live year-round in King Cove and nearly half of them are Unangax, who were called Aleut by the Russians. A regional organization, the Aleutian Pribiloff Islands Association, is active in King Cove and other communities where they lead programs to restore the language and culture of native Unangax. They also provide critical health, family and education services to the population.
Our stop in King Cove was brief. Before we knew it, we had to get back on board the ferry.
The skies grew darker as we pulled away from and during the 18-mile journey to Cold Harbor rain began to pelt us.
I later learned that Cold Harbor holds the record for the most overcast community in America with a record 304 cloudy days.
Earlier, the ferry’s purser, a lively woman named Maggie, held a lottery for twenty passengers to go on a tour of the National Wildlife Refuge outside Cold Harbor. The purpose would be bird and animal viewing. The 400,000-acre Izembek Wildlife Refuge has been in the news recently as environmentalists fight local efforts to build a controversial road connecting Cold Bay to King Cove and passing straight through the refuge.
We lost a chance to tour the refuge and instead walked around Cold Harbor for two hours. First stop was the public library. Rumor on the ship was that the library had a free wifi signal and we saw two fellow passengers already huddled in the doorway of the closed building as we approached. I was ready to join the group but when I reached for my phone, realized that I had left it back on the ferry. My stomach tightened for just a moment, then I took a deep breath and shrugged. Three days had already passed without a signal. Separation from the internet was probably good for me and I forced a shrug.
Cold Harbor seems to exist for two reasons: the Wildlife Refuge and the weather stations. There is evidence of Unangax people in the area for thousands of years, but like King Cove, a fish cannery in the late 1800s put the place on the map. The settlement grew during World War Two when a military airbase central to U.S. defenses in the Pacific was installed. The airfield is still in operation and is a critical link to the rest of Alaska.
We walked uphill past the community center and the headquarters of the US Wildlife Service, which is building a new facility on site. We saw a sign for the Bearfoot Inn hanging outside a low-slung green building and stepped inside to find a small grocery store and a hallway outside that goes to guest rooms. A large poster with a bear decorated the store, a gift from local schoolchildren. After chatting with the store clerk, we sauntered back down the hill to the ferry.
We sailed from Cold Harbor by early afternoon, heading to False Pass, our first stop at one of the Aleutian Islands, separated by Ikatan Bay from the Alaska Peninsula. The narrow pass provides a gateway for sailors to reach the Bering Sea directly from the North Pacific Ocean.
Snow still dotted the nearby mountains of False Pass, whose economy is based on fishing and fish processing. The settlement has only a handful of year-round residents, but seasonal workers balloon the population for weeks at a time.
It was dinnertime and local residents were lined up on the dock, waiting for passengers to disembark so they could board to order food in the ferry’s restaurant. Three enterprising young children waited on the dock to sell homemade cinnamon rolls to the visitors.
Another local woman had pulled up her van loaded with glass balls traditionally attached to fishing nets by the Japanese. She had crocheted covers for the balls and some dangled with beads or porcupine quills. Maggie, the ferry’s purser, loved the craft and she grabbed us to come admire the woman’s handiwork.
We walked out of town and saw a few locals who were walking a nearby stream that led into an off-limits area of broken-down houses and dormitories.
The False Pass Tribal Council provides human services and regulates the docks. The port can get active during peak fishing season with ships coming in from the Bering Sea to seek fuel and shelter from rough weather in the protected harbor.
We returned to ship in late afternoon. The skies were dark, though it was still daylight, as lush green, treeless mountains guided us back out to the Pacific Ocean .
After another halibut dinner in the ship’s dining room we returned to our berth, which by now was showing the effects of living in tight quarters for several days. We wanted to get up at 4:30 am to check out Akutan, a native village where our friend Joanie had worked 30 years earlier.
Click on Day 5 to learn about Akutan and Dutch Harbor.
All photos by the author.
Stories in the Aleutian Islands Series: