I awoke from a deep slumber at 8:30 am, nearly three hours after we had managed to go back to sleep. The front desk staff at the Grand Aleutian Hotel acted carefree, giggling at a mention of the emergency evacuation in the night.
My body is still swaying inside with the rhythm of the ferry’s movements and I needed coffee to make it through another day of adventure on Unalaska Island. After two cups I was ready to hit the road.
We jumped in our rental SUV and headed through town to Summer Bay Beach. An old, heavy eagle awaited us on the sand, staring at the water but not flying off on our approach. A half dozen eagles sat on the edge of a nearby gravel pit, their heads moving mechanically from left to right then back, scanning the tundra for signs of life. Small rodents tucked in and out of their underground burrows, quick to avoid becoming a tasty catch.
We watched the old wounded eagle hobble along the beach, scavenging for any morsel the tide left behind, then headed to the next cove. I found a mussel shell larger than any I ever saw on the east coast and imagined a fantastic world below sea level crawling with giant crabs, snails, clams and octopuses. A pair of porpoises played in the waters off shore.
From the beach side we drove inland on a seven-mile narrow gravel road that twisted through a steep mountain pass. At the top, the wind blew in straight from the Bering Sea. I pulled the hood of my windbreaker tighter and blasts of cold arctic air whipsawed the nylon, creating the deep rumble of distant thunder.
An ancient path worn by the Ogandux native people brought us down the ridge through the pass to the sea. Wild geraniums, their periwinkle blue flowers large and strong, mingled with dwarf dogwood, lupine and clumps of anemones, their yellow center vivid against the creamy leaves. When a patch of blue sky peeked through the clouds, we were in heaven, summer on an Aleutian island.
Driving past rusty bunkers and abandoned gun turret tracks that had been installed by U.S. troops in World War Two, we entered town and spotted the volunteer fireman and his wife we had met the previous evening at the Norweigan Rat and thanked him for responding to the hotel fire alarm in the middle of the night. We had a few laughs and he invited us back to Dutch Harbor anytime to share his little corner of paradise.
By this time we had learned that our flight back to Anchorage was delayed , so we swung up Bunker Hill for our final walk. From the top, you could look out at the narrow harbor where two fish processing ships worked off-shore. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter was docked and both sailboats and small fishing craft sat in their slips. Most of the fishing vessels were out in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, trawling for halibut, salmon and black cod.
We arrive at the airport at Dutch Harbor and the plane is still delayed. You could still see the tops of the mountains that ring the airport, the clouds hovering high enough to ensure a safe take-off. The news passed from traveler to traveler that smoke from an erupting volcano in Russia (Kurilov) is headed our way. It could even delay the plane’s arrival from Anchorage.
That worries me. After last night’s adventure I was looking forward to sleeping in my own bed.
At the Norweigan Rat we order burgers and pizza and a beer. I’m too tired to drink. I need to rest my eyes, calm my brain and say goodbye to Dutch Harbor.
A cook at Unisea, a giant seafood processor that provides food and lodging to the bulk of its workers, compares the calmness of early summer in Dutch Harbor to the high-testorone fueled encounters of crab fisherman on shore leave at the height of the winter crab season. Bar fights, knifings and robberies are daily fare. I think of the gold rush of the late 1890s, when thousands died as they trekked across mountains into the Yukon for a chance to claim their spots.
Back at the airport
The airline worker hustled us into line and checked our boarding passes. She handed me a new one, for seat 11F instead of row 3. I protested.
“We have to move people around for weight and balance,” she insisted and I swallowed hard and accepted my fate.
When the small 50-passenger jet sped down the short runway I was glad the weight was in the back. We gained altitude rapidly and banked quickly to the left. In front of us another green mountain awaited any pilot who did not have the requisite skills.
When we reached 10,000 feet, I was allowed to return to my original seat, just in time to see the snow-covered cone of a dormant volcano come into view directly below. A few white pointed peaks come into view above the clouds, revealing the massive land of the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula that we had only just begun to understand on our six-day exploration.
I make a mental note to check our route and give a name to these marvels that run like pearls above the island chain. We would explore more of Alaska and the Aleutians one day, I am sure.
All photos by the author.
Stories in the Aleutian Islands Series: