Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Outer Aleutian Islands

Theo and I taking in the view from the bows
The state of Alaska covers the majority of a large wide peninsula jutting out of the north west corner of North America, to the west of the northern parts of Canada. It is one of the many US states that has a "panhandle", that is, a narrow strip projecting from the main territory: Alaska's panhandle is the strip of coast that creeps down to the South East, sandwiched between the Pacific coast and Northern British Columbia. Something that seems rarely acknowledged is the fact that Alaska in effect has two panhandles. Mirroring the coastal sandwich panhandle and stretching out to the southwest, the Alaska peninsula and the Aleutian islands form another panhandle, the majority of which is often cut off official maps of Alaska, despite (or because of) stretching out over more than twice the distance covered by the South Eastern panhandle. There are numerous similarities between these panhandles: they are both made up largely of islands and dotted with small communities, most of which can only be reached by boat or plane.

I had the rare and fortunate privelege of approaching Alaska via one panhandle and leaving via the other, and visiting many of the small communities along the way.

Navigating the narrow channel between Adak and Kagalaska islands
The furthest west inhabited island in the Aleutian chain is Adak. On the approach, we passed through a narrow channel between islands, which felt rather like flying through mountaintops - the landscapes we passed were very reminiscent of Snowdonia.

At the end of the channel, we rounded a few headlands and approached the harbour not knowing quite what to expect. In the distance we could see a substantial settlement - a town of windswept buildings sweeping up to the surrounding hills.

After a night sheltering in a fjord and gaining radio contact with the coast guard and harbourmaster (who happens to be the same person), we got permission to go into the small boat harbour to shelter for a few days from a developing storm. Despite having the appearance of a small town, Adak turned out to be an abandoned naval base which is home to barely more than a hundred people. The base had housed over 6000 troops, but now the majority of the buildings we saw were empty. When it closed in the early 2000s, the naval base was handed over to the Aleut Corporation, the governing body of the indigenous people of the Aleutian islands.

 Life in Adak seems to consist mostly of waiting, which includes hunting caribou, gathering seagulls eggs, maintaining the buildings, and operating the airport which has two of the largest runways west of Anchorage.
In the absence of cinemas, a typical evening's entertainment in Adak consists of going down to the rubbish tip and shooting rats, although we didn't have the chance to participate in such activities.

 Adak is known in the Aleut language as "Birthplace of the Winds," so it was no surprise that the storm we sheltered from was a huge one. There were reports of winds blowing 90 knots out in the waters we would otherwise have been sailing in, and even in the shelter of the harbour, we had to tie the boat up with extra ropes to protect against 30-40 knots. Niels and I hiked up a hill and found winds we could lean on!

Storms seem to bring companionship: sheltering with us were two other sailing boats which had made the same crossing from Japan a little way ahead of us: A Dutch couple in their yacht Bannister, of a similar size to Jennifer, and Sunstone, a smaller wooden British boat, owned, crewed and lived in by Tom and Vicky, a couple who have lived in the boat for many years, and have been sailing and racing around the world since retiring a few years ago. It was good to meet other people, and get to know a bit about sailing and cruising from different points of view.

Left to right: Jennifer, Bannister, Sunstone (photo by Niels)
Four days after arriving in Adak, the weather cleared enough for us to leave, and we sailed out amongst the islands, beginning the four day sail to Dutch Harbour. Bannister and Sunstone went out first, and quickly disappeared over the horizon, leaving the six of us in Jennifer to navigate our way through the tricky currents that flow amongst the Aleutian Islands.

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