Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Dutch Harbour and the Bering Sea

Approaching an island paradise: Unalaska!
Dutch Harbour is another former military base, with a lot of World War 2 bunkers, as well as the oldest Russian-built church in the US. In recent years, the town has come to be synonymous with the crab-fishing industry, as it is portrayed in the popular documentary series The Deadliest Catch. We arrived there in the early morning, emerging from a misty sea into bright sunshine, which is apparently extremely rare. Forming part of the "city" of Unalaska, Dutch Harbour itself is on the small island of Amaknak, which is connected to the island of Unalaska by the "Bridge-to-the-other-side".

Looking across from Unalaska to Dutch Harbour
 We were there at the same time as SunstoneBannister, and a French boat we had met briefly just before leaving Japan and again just off one of the outer islands. We were moored a few miles out of town, so as a group we were rented a van, which afforded us the opportunity to do some hillwalking on some of the hills around the town.

It is impossible to spend a few days in Dutch Harbour without becoming aware of the vast number of bald eagles around. These are so plentiful that they are almost treated as a pest - although being a protected species, they cannot be dealt with in the same way as other pests. At first it was quite exciting to see them, flying over us low, and perched on fishing boats devouring the remains of some fish or other.  The novelty wore off, though, as we realized that there was an eagle perched on almost every tree, telegraph pole and boat mast: after a few days we had all got rather tired of having to clean eagle droppings and bits of dead fish that the creatures had dropped all over our nice clean decks.

Photo courtesy of Theo

 On July the 4th, a group of us spent the early morning walking up a hill called Pyramid Peak. We didn't quite make the summit, as the ridge grew exceedingly narrow, rather like the Crib Goch ridge leading up Snowdon in Wales. 

 We got far enough to see down over the town to where the boats were moored, then returned to the van. There were enough patches of snow up there that on the way down to the van, I could ski down part of the way on my walking boots.

Around midday we went to Unalaska's main street for the city's July 4th festivities. Smaller in scale than the first July 4th I ever experienced (in Boston, 2007), but no less full-on in its sheer patriotism.

At one point I was handed a Stars&Stripes to hold, and decided to stick it in my headband - I wore it like this for the rest of the day, and couldn't help feeling that my head was now rather like the moon.

(Photo courtesy Eva-Lisa)
 As it had become a sunny day to rival our arrival day, I went for another walk in the afternoon, up bunker hill - which is aptly named, as it is essentially a fortress. I made an extensive exploration of the fortifications: barracks, gun mounts and lookout towers, and wondered how similar they were to the places my father's father would have been fighting in Italy around the same time that these were in use. 

View from a gunning station on Bunker Hill
The hill affords stunning views over the town and the bays all around, and it was with reluctance that I went back down the switchback road to supper aboard Jennifer. 

View over to Unalaska Island with airport in foreground, and Bridge-to-the-other-side in the centre 

Theo and Niels had made friends with some locals they met climbing another hill, so in the evening, the three of us drove over to Unalaska to sit on the beach with fires made from pallets, and watch fireworks reflected in the bay.

Photo courtesy of Theo

We had a slight crew change in Dutch Harbour: the Dutchman left! Niels decided to jump ship and spend a few days waiting for the fortnightly ferry. Dutch Harbour is the furthest West stop on the Alaska Marine Highway - the system of ferries that serves many of the small settlements of Maritime Alaska. Niels was replaced by Evalise, a Swedish lady who flew in to Dutch Harbour's single-runway airport during the July 4th festivities. On that day - and perhaps every day - the municipal fire crew greeted every arriving and departing plane by sounding their sirens and wildly spraying water.

After a few days of beautifully calm and clear weather on the island, it felt like time to leave, and we did so on July 5th. Just out from Dutch Harbour, heading into a choppy sea, I was struck by my first (and only) bout of seasickness. I think that having spent four days adjusting back to being on land, I just wasn't prepared for the sudden motion of the boat.

  I quickly got over the nausea by sitting up on deck and watching the horizon, and looking out for whales. We may have had our first whale sighting that day, but it remains unconfirmed, as the waves were so choppy as to quickly camouflage any mammalian activity. There were lots of seabirds around, though.

The weather got stronger and stronger throughout the night, and the Southerly wind became compressed as it howled over the islands to our South. Steering was tricky in such strong conditions, and it was a relief when P-O and I finished our 9-12pm watch and handed over to the next team. Despite going to bed, however, I didn't get a whole lot of sleep. The constant banging of the boat smashing through the waves was punctuated by the flapping of the sail and frequent sounds of discussion and various human activity. Every now and then, there was an especially big lurch to one side or another, and more than once I was convinced that we had gybed. I awoke to Lars telling me it was 6am, and time for my next watch: he also told me the news that there had been at least one gybe in the night, and the mainsail was now torn into 2 pieces. So the first job for P-O and I was to wrap it up securely. The weather was getting calmer, and giving way to a light drizzly mist. After our watch, I indulged in a welcome 3-hour sleep.

It happened that on our next watch, we were to steer through a buoy channel in the Isanotski Strait between the end of the Alaska Peninsula and Unimak island. P-O manned the computer to monitor our position on the chart, and I took the wheel. I felt like I was playing a surreal slow-motion computer game. As we approached each pair of bouys we had to pass between, I could generally see the next pair or two ahead, but getting to the next pair consistently felt like slow progress, although it was rather fun, and very satisfying knowing that passing between the buoys was protecting us from hidden sandbanks. After two and a quarter hours of intense concentration, I handed over to Anki and Theo to steer us into False Pass harbour.

Arriving in False Pass

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