We were curious about what we would find in Akutan, another tiny Aleutian city that sprang up in the late 1800s to exploit the sea otters and the skills of the native Unangax people who hunted the marine mammal.
Russian traders shipped hundreds of seal pelts out of Akutan yearly. By the early 20th-century, the otter population had been decimated and the Unangax suffered. D.P. Foley, who worked for the U.S.Revenue Cutter service became their advocate for better services, writing in 1910: “The village of Akutan…is probably the most wretched in all the Aleutian Islands.”
Scholars with the National Park Service have described the impact of the loss of a dietary staple of the Unangax: “A people who had fashioned a world of plenty from the sea were destitute. Not only were sea otters gone, but that vital subsistence mammal the sea lion was disappearing from locations near villages. The sea itself had become impoverished. “
Even worse than the loss of the sea lions and otters, the forced removal of the Unangax people of Akutan during World War Two eroded their ability to survive. Residents of Akutan and other Unangax villages were ordered to abandon their homes on hours’ notice and relocate to Ketchican, Alaska, where they had to live in old canneries that served as detention camps. More than ten percent of the displaced Unangax died before the war was over.
Our friend, Joanie, had worked as a child welfare advocate in Akutan thirty years earlier and recalled staying with an Unangax family that served seal meat, which she politely shared. She had been inside a barabara, a traditional home dug into the ground and covered with sod. Entry was through a hole in the roof.
Surprisingly, it was still dark at 5 am as the ferry pulled up at the dock. The Aleutian Islands drop down so far south that the sun rises later than in much of Alaska. A few lights around the port area revealed a stretch of well-built modern buildings, a school, a health clinic, and a few homes behind them. Obviously government funds have been at work.
A wooden walkway led us past a Russian Orthodox church built in 1912. In the opposite direction, the Trident Seafood plant had not yet opened the day and none of the local residents stirred. We never found the company store nor the bunkhouse where cannery workers lived.
The relative calm belied the bustle that occurs when hundreds of cannery workers flood into town in peak season. Trident Seafoods runs the processing operation and must depend on a a helicopter to ferry goods and people from a new airfield on a nearby island. Like all settlements where we stopped, there are no access roads.
Back on the ferry we finished packing up our gear and straigtening our quarters. The Tustumena had been good to us and we would miss her. In a few hours the ferry would leave us at our destination — Unalaska and Dutch Harbor — then turn around and begin the journey back to Homer.
We were lucky on our trip to have encountered good weather, none of the rough seas and gale force winds that others found. The sun came up as we crossed the strait to Unalaska and we stood on the deck to admire views of volcanoes that guided our path.
If you’ve seen the reality tv show Deadliest Catch, you have an idea of how rough-and-tumble the port of Dutch Harbor can be. In the peak winter fishing season, hundreds of men pour into town to seek their fortunes on boats that ply the turbulent waters of the Bering Sea.
It was quieter in late June, but at places like the Norweigan Rat Saloon, the risks that fisherman face was palpable. Outside the saloon, a white whale bone had been fashioned into a memorial for six men who lost their lives at sea in 2017.
We immersed ourselves in local history at the Museum of the Aleutians, where once again we were reminded of the devastating impact of the forced removal of the Unangax during World War Two. In June 1942, Dutch Harbor was attacked by Japanese warplanes, killing 41 U.S. military personnel and one civilian. The daring strike caused a reaction that reverberates today. In our hikes the next day we would see the rusting bunkers and guns embedded in the hillside outside the city of Unalaska and the port of Dutch Harbor.
When we stopped in at the historic Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in town, we met Father Evon Bereskin, who showed us the oldest artifacts and articles of faith stored in the church.
Many of the people we met in Unalaska have moved there to work in the large seafood processing plants or onboard the fishing boats. At the Norweigan Rat we shared a beer with a local volunteer fireman who invited us to his house. We never made it but we did run into the fireman early the next morning, when a fire alarm forced the evacuation of our hotel. We stood in the cool night air, shivering, for nearly two hours before being allowed back in our rooms.
We planned to spend the entire next day exploring Unalaska, so we were glad when we were allowed back in our rooms.
Click on Day 6 for a tour of Unalaska.
All photos by the author unless noted.
Stories in the Aleutian Islands Series: