Family Paddling article Wavelength SP10

Aleutian images

From the Fall 2010 issue of Coast&Kayak Magazine. Read the entire magazine online.

By Rob Avery

“The habitations are holes dug in the earth, covered with a roof, over which the earth is thrown; when they have stood for some time they become overgrown with grass, so that a village has the appearance of an European church-yard full of graves.”

– Remarks and Observations on a Voyage Around the World from 1803 to 1807 by Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff.

Upon my arrival on Adak Island, I found the town was not so much a churchyard but a ghost town being relentlessly eaten away by the constant and fierce wind and weather. Ironically, half the sign at the airport was also blown away. It once read “Welcome. Adak Alaska, Birthplace of the wind,” but now just “Adak, Alaska the wind.” We were warned about the wind before we departed and the message given at our arrival was loud and clear.

According to the Russian priest Ivan Veniaminov in his Notes on the Islands of the Unalashka District, published in 1840, the population for Adak Island in the early 1800s was 198 native Aleut. Archeological evidence shows that people have lived on Adak for over 9,000 years. But the population slowly declined throughout the Russian occupation and then, in 1942, the U.S. military relocated all remaining inhabitants. Soon after the USA’s involvement in World War Two, a new air base strategically positioned on Adak to fight the Japanese threat on the nearby islands of Attu and Kiska ballooned the population to over 4,500. During the height of the cold war, the headcount on Adak peaked at about 6,000 Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force personnel. In the late 1980s the base was rebuilt to house 5,000 people. Just a few years later the base was decommissioned, totally abandoned and turned over to The Aleut Corporation under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

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Adak and the entire Aleutian Island archipelago form the 1.3-million-acre Aleutian Island Wilderness, part of the vast Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Today there are about 60 year-round residents and some seasonal visitors mostly involved in environmental clean-up activities (the town of Adak is an EPA Superfund Site and on the National Priorities List).

Today everything – the schools, hospital, recreation facilities, power plants, warehouses, deep-water harbor, the runway (one of the widest and longest in Alaska), the ski and hunting lodge and a complete housing subdivision – all lie empty, decaying and battered by the relentless wind. Would Langsdorff recognize Adak in its stark contrast? I don’t think so.

And so we came with the odd goal to kayak the western Aleutian Islands and farther west than any modern sea kayaker. Kayaking has been a passion of mine since my dad and I built and launched our first kayak in 1968. Over the years I have built many more kayaks, including skin-on-frame craft, in an attempt to learn more about the origin of my fascination. In 2009 I was a guest coach for the Summer Festival and Kayak Symposium on Kodiak Island in Alaska. As the five-day kayak skills camp got underway a young man, dressed in jeans and a cotton shirt, asked if he could join in and learn how to kayak. We took him in and very quickly we saw how quick and keen he was to learn. After a day or two into the camp, we taught him to roll in those frigid waters and I demonstrated some single-blade rolling techniques (the native Alutiiq of Kodiak used both single and double-blade paddles).

It turned out the young man was Dr. Sven Haarkanson, an Alutiiq native, born and raised in Old Harbor, a small village on the southwest coast of Kodiak. Sven received his PhD from Harvard, is a MacArthur Fellow and the executive director of the award-winning Alutiiq Museum and Archeological Repository in Kodiak. He is a driving force behind the revitalization of indigenous language, culture and customs, including kayaking, in this isolated region. Prior to our course he was in Europe negotiating for the repatriation of artifacts and so was unable to register in advance.

He invited the other coach, Tom Pogson, and I back to the museum and we had the privilege of going into the back room where all the good stuff is kept. Donning white gloves, we curiously and carefully inspected artifacts from a forgotten past. With its organic materials and lack of written language, this remote culture has left little trace of its rich history. My profound experience with Sven prompted me to learn more about Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands, the people who inhabited them and the skills that enabled them to survive in such a hostile environment.

Family Paddling article Wavelength SP10Earlier that summer I had visited the headquarters for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer, Alaska, where I daydreamed away an afternoon imagining a visit to this stunning archipelago. The NOAA US Coast Pilot Vol. 9 states: “The weather of the Aleutian Islands is characterized by persistent overcast skies, high winds and violent storms. No other area in the world is recognized as having worse weather in general than that which the Aleutian Islands experience.” It piqued my interest and motivated me to find a way to travel farther into the Aleutians.

A few months later I was contacted by Stan Chladek, a veteran kayaker and explorer, to supply Valley Nordkapp kayaks for his upcoming kayak expedition to the Andreanof Islands in the western Aleutians. I jokingly said, “I may stowaway in one of the hatches so I can come along.” And so I became the fourth member of the team and was given this incredible opportunity to paddle and experience, first-hand, the birthplace of kayaking. We wanted to discover for ourselves who the Aleut were, how they lived and learn a little of the region’s history.

Launching from Shagak Bay on the northwest coast of Adak, we looked across Adak Strait 12 miles to the island of Kanaga and had a clear view of Kanaga volcano at 1,307 metres (4,288 feet). The Coast Pilot for the region states, “Kanaga Volcano could be utilized as a means for forecasting bad weather. The volcano peak is seldom absolutely clear of clouds. During April 1934, it was observed that invariably the day or night before a gale the peak made its appearance, shorn of all clouds and with wisps of steam around the crater.” The volcano is a magnificent sight, but also a harbinger of the contrasts we were to encounter during our three-week sojourn into new waters exploring the west coast of Adak Island and those of Kanaga and Tanaga Islands.

We were not the first white explorers to visit the western Aleutians. In 1741 the Russian government commissioned the Danish captain Vitus Jonassen Bering for “a voyage of discovery” in two ships, the St. Peter and St. Paul, to chart the Northern Pacific. This expedition landed very briefly on a few islands, including Adak, and claimed Alaska for Russia. The German naturalist, George Wilhelm Steller, who was a member of the expedition, kept extensive journals of the voyage and gave his name to many plants, animals and landmarks he found during the voyage (for example, the Steller’s Jay, Steller sea lion, gumboot chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri), and the now extinct Steller’s sea cow). Many of the surviving sailors of the expedition brought back sea otter pelts for trade and thus started the gold rush for otter furs. Later, with the sea otter population at near-extinction levels, the Russians introduced Arctic foxes to some of the islands with the intent of also harvesting them for their luxurious fur. In 1867, when the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia, the foxes and native Aleut population were largely forgotten. However, the foxes flourished and have had a significant detrimental impact on the nesting bird population (with no natural mammals, no trees or predators on the islands, the birds nest on the ground and are extremely vulnerable).

Halfway through our journey we made camp at Hot Spring Bay on Tanaga Island next to an abandoned fox trapper’s cabin. Our intent was to explore the surrounding area to search for the site of an Aleut village and have a bath in the hot spring. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service built this cabin in 2004, next to the ruin of a Russian-era camp, as a summer residence for modern fox trappers employed to eradicate the feral foxes from Tanaga. The trappers were successful and the ravished bird population has rebounded. However, 18 years ago on the neighboring island of Kanaga the program was not successful. While the US Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to eradicate the foxes, some survived and they continue to breed today. We saw several dens and foxes at every beach we camped at on Kanaga. The bird life and bird count is markedly different between Tanaga and Kanaga, illustrating the impact that an introduced species can have on native fauna, even if just miles apart. Other islands, like Adak and Kiska, also have rats, introduced via ships, which now prey on the nesting birds and these predators are extremely difficult to eradicate.

It was a rather sobering realization that the eradication of foxes from the Aleutian Islands marks the true end of the Russian influence in the area. While nature is slowly recovering, sadly, the Aleut population and the culture of this hardy race are gone.

Family Paddling article Wavelength SP10During our trip, color was everywhere. The contrasting hues of spring were bursting through winter’s grays and browns as the birds and flowers made their individual displays in an effort to survive. The hills were turning green before our eyes and the sky was a constantly shifting pattern of blues, grays and white. Below the water, the ocean was also displaying its range of colors with sea stars, crabs, anemones, kelp and sponges. Every beach, nook and cranny in the rocks and even the uplands above the tide line were dotted with bright colors too, but these were not the hues of spring. These were man-made colors. Modern man’s impact was everywhere and very evident; even in this, one of the most remote refuges anywhere. While the Bering Sea and North Pacific are giving up their harvest to an uneducated consumer market, the fishing fleet is giving back in its own unique way. Fishing debris in the form of neon buoys of all sizes, nets and lines were on every beach. While the large, soft buoys made wonderful beach chairs (deflate them a little and they are just like beanbags!), they should not have been there. We would have gladly done without the comfort in exchange for a more pristine environment.

Part of the reason for my trip, and also my own way of giving back to the environment, was to conduct a beach survey for the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation (www.mcafoundation.org/marine.html). This will enable the foundation to document the impact of the commercial international fishing fleet in this remote but not so pristine area in order to solicit funds for cleanup operations. As we paddled around the coastline, I was snapping pictures of both the natural wonders of the Aleutians and the thoughtlessness of man. With the Aleutian Islands lying between the rich marine environments of the North Pacific and Bering Sea, the tide constantly flows back and forth between the islands’ narrow passes. The islands form a natural sieve between these giant bodies of water, which not only traps nutrients for marine life but catches any flotsam and jetsam that passes by. This area is one of the few breeding grounds for the Steller sea lion and fishing debris creates the real danger of entanglement by discarded and broken nets. The sea otter, harbor and fur seal, and countless whales live and traverse this coastline and are also vulnerable to injury and drowning by the nets and lines. I wish I had not seen all this color, but hopefully my report to MCAF will make a difference and will make the coastline a little less colorful and safer in the future.

Toward the end of our trip, we camped in The Bay of Islands on Adak and poked around the area, again looking for old Aleut village sites. We headed over to a nearby cove where a site once existed. On a low bluff above the cove we saw what looked like rusty oil drums, so we landed to take a look. Hundreds of 55-gallon drums were completely rusted through and had long discharged their diesel fuel into the earth. This was an abandoned World War Two radio site, complete with the radio, antenna array, generator and fuel tanks. The buildings have collapsed and been blown away by the Aleutian winds, but the leftovers and the contamination remain.

Just over the bluff, we found the Aleutian village site comprised of a series of small depressions in the ground where their “barabaras” had once been. What a stark contrast from the U.S. military site, left only 60 years ago, to this ancient Aleut village. It is a sad reminder of what we have become.

There is so much to learn from this remote region. It is an area full of contrasts: it has a rich environment; fauna and flora; active volcanoes; an interesting history and extreme weather. I spent only three weeks in this amazing place: visiting Aleut village sites; observing the wildlife hunted by the Aleut for clothing and food; paddling the same water they paddled in their skin-on-frame “iqak”; making the same crossings they made; dealing with the same environment in which they lived. I have gained a deep appreciation for the Aleut but I have only the beginnings of an understanding of these people. I hope to go back…

I plan to go back… I will go back.

Rob Avery spends as much of his time as he can messing around in boats. He has paddled on many expeditions and visited faraway places. Rob owns and operates a kayak and canoe coaching service based on Bainbridge Island, WA. He can be reached at rob@kayakkraft.com.