What do you mean you’ve never heard of Unalaska? I’d like to sound all superior about it, but the truth of the matter is, I’d never heard of it until last summer either. I met this random couple last summer who happened to mention they had just come back from a series of bird lectures in a place called Dutch Harbor, Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. “Where’s that I asked” “It’s a group of islands flanked by the Bering Sea to the North and the Pacific Ocean to the South. Dutch Harbor/Unalaska is the most well known of them. Hhhmmm that sounded vaguely familiar but not wanting to sound geographically ignorant I just nodded my head and pretended I knew exactly where they were. As soon as they were out of sight, I consulted my Alaska Lonely Planet and sure enough there they were plain as day, down and to the left.
According to Google maps, Dutch Harbor, Unalaska is a little over 1,000 miles from Anchorage. Ah ha now you’re thinking to yourself ” Why does Dutch Harbor” sound familiar. This is where the reality show “The Deadliest Catch” is filmed. However, its a little bit like everyone associating Alaska in general with “She who shall not be named” Associating Dutch Harbor with only this show, would be selling one of the coolest places I’ve ever visited very, very short.
This is not exactly a regular stop on the Alaska tourist circuit, so of course that fact immediately propelled it to the top of my wish list. Fast forward a year to July 2012 when I know for sure I’m coming back to Alaska. I knew I was going to drive up the Alaska Highway again and visit some of the same places I’d been to last year, but I also wanted to go to some new and exotic destinations.
I wanted to see Barrow, the Northernmost community in the U.S. as well as Dutch Harbor. Unfortunately, Barrow was not meant to be this summer. I was going to be too late in the season for any of the tourist trips up there and the only other way to do it was to take a 3 1/2 hour flight, stay two hours and then take the same flight back that day! Pass thanks. Please note, Barrow is on next summers Alaska wish list!
Now you may have figured out by now that Dutch Harbor is not an easy destination to get to, especially in September when I went, transportation options become less and less frequent. I called the only decent hotel on the Island, The Grand Aleutian to check availability. They had a lot of sold out dates. Then I checked the ferry, “limited availability” (which was just silly that they said that since the first night aboard the Tustemena it was like a ghost ship). Lastly the flight down to Dutch Harbor–$500 one way, on a small propeller plane–yikes to price and to small propeller plane.
I’ve had a little practice in figuring this stuff out so sure enough before I knew it, hotel-booked, ferry booked, expensive flight-booked (thank you American Express points).
I had left Denver on August 6th, knowing everything on the way up was negotiable in terms of timing but I had to be in Anchorage no later than Sept 4th to leave the next morning on the flight to DH. Fast forward almost a month, I made it to Anchorage slightly ahead of schedule on September 2nd and decided to relax a little at the VERY over-priced Marriott courtesy of my Marriott Rewards points.
The flight down to Dutch Harbor is notoriously heinous As a matter of fact this part of the world is known as “the cradle of the storms” (I have the DVD to prove it!) Windy, rainy and at this time of the year everyone warned me that it can be extremely foggy. It’s not uncommon for Penair to make the anywhere between 3-6 hour flight depending on headwinds, just to get there and say ” Oops never mind”, turn around and go all the way back to Anchorage–not kidding. It’s not like there are a whole lot of other places to land out there. I was resigned to the fact that I was just going to have to white knuckle it all the way down while listening to calming music on my iphone. I also had two emergency Valium in the front pocket of my jeans just in case!
Needless to say there was more than enough anxiety surrounding this flight so the HURRICANE in Anchorage the night before I was leaving, really was quite unnecessary as far as I’m concerned. Oh and just to keep this as accurate as possible, they don’t call it a “hurricane” up here it was a “wind storm”. Well 100 mph sustained winds with gusts over 130 mph is a hurricane in my book! I wasn’t sure at first but as I was sitting on my bed watching TV and I thought “Is the Marriott moving”?– it was. Then just for extra fun, the power went off–all over Anchorage. I wasn’t amused by any of this. If it was a regular night, it would have been just a bit of excitement, but this wasn’t a regular night. The power came back on at 5:00 AM, at least in the part of Anchorage where I was, I slept for another hour and a half and then it was go time. The winds had subsided but it was still fairly”stormish” I was ready for a bumpy ride!
So everyone knows that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, but what very few people know is that they also bombed Dutch Harbor on June 3rd and 4th that same year. The first bombing missed most of the targets but sadly some new recruits were doing drills that morning at Fort Mears and 17 soldiers were killed. The Japanese also invaded and occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska, so there was actual hand to hand combat on American soil during WWII
Here’s an interesting, short link that will provide some information about the Battle of Dutch Harbor
There was so much to see here I hardly knew where to begin: WWII history, natural beauty of the island, wildlife, hiking, Russian influence, exploring the town, the rest of the island itself!! Overwhelming! I’ll try to keep this to some sort of logical order, but no promises. Lets start with WWII.
Let’s move on to the island’s natural beauty which was pretty much everywhere you look. There were plenty of glimpses in the other photos but here it is full on!
Dutch Harbor is the only deep-water port in the Aleutians. More than 400 ships from over 17 countries stop here every year. Dutch Harbor is the country’s number one commercial fishing port for the past 20 years. There are tremendous fishing, cannery and shipping operations here. A number of companies are big players, but it seems like Unisea is the biggest. They own both hotels, as well as a huge residential complex for the workers, an enormous processing plant and all the liquor licenses on the island except for the one owned by the airport bar. Someone told me that the liquor store on Dutch Harbor sells more liquor/beer than any other liquor store in Alaska! The scale of industry here is massive, set against an incredibly beautiful landscape somehow there seems to be room for everyone in this magical far-flung place.
The Journey East-Dutch Harbor to Kodiak Island-Two and Half Days aboard the M/V Tustumena
Lets end this enormous post with a little Tusty humor