Through the Aleutians

Through the Aleutians

After a blustery day sitting at anchor in Bay of Islands, we took a break from overnight travel and made a “short” 75 mile hop to Atka Island. The weather was much calmer than the day before, but still moody:

Along the way we passed Great Sitkin Island. We’d hoped for clear weather to see 5,710 foot Great Sitkin Volcano as we passed. The weather wasn’t perfectly clear, but it brightened enough for us to enjoy glimpses of the mountains.

Great Sitkin Volcano was erupting as we passed, but we didn’t see any evidence of it. The Alaska Volcano Observatory reports: “Slow eruption of lava is continuing at Great Sitkin Volcano, producing a thick lava flow within the summit crater.”

The weather grew drearier as we moved east. Atka Island didn’t emerge from the mist until we were a couple miles away. We’re traveling on the Bearing Sea side of the Aleutians, which tends to be calmer than the Pacific side during summer. Given the rugged, wave carved coastline, calmer seems relative!

We anchored in Bechevin Bay, on the northwest side of Atka Island. It looked well protected on the chart and was wonderfully calm, but surprisingly strong wind funneled through the anchorage. Sorry, no drone flying here. The main attraction of Bechevin Bay is a WWII-era B24 bomber that lies ashore exactly where it was crash landed in 1942. Shortly after anchoring, we bundled up and headed for shore to see the airplane.

The Atka B-24D Liberator was deliberately crash-landed on December 9, 1942. The aircraft was serving on weather reconnaissance duty when poor weather  prevented it from landing at any nearby airfields. The only injury resulting from the crash was a fractured collarbone. The airmen spent the night on shore before being rescued the following day. Walking around on shore in June was cold. We can’t imagine spending the night here after an airplane crash in December.

Given the harsh climate here, it’s amazing the plane remains at all. I suspect if the plane were easier to access, people would have vandalized it to nothing by now.

Celeste, Sharry, and Don with the Atka B24:

The tail section of the airplane broke off on landing and came to rest a few hundred feet from the rest of the plane. Apparently this was a common failure with B24s.

We think this is part of the landing gear, which must have been ripped from the plane on impact:

Although this terrain looks smooth, it’s not; it’s mushy and uneven, with big divots and bumps. It’s amazing the plane didn’t break into more pieces and that the crew walked away largely uninjured.

We were not the only visitors to the airplane. Atka is home to caribou, which we spotted a little further up the hillside. Unfortunately I only had my phone with me, so the pictures aren’t very good.

With an excellent weather forecast, we continued the next day towards Dutch Harbor, about 400nm (two days) further east. We considered stopping at the tiny village of Atka on Atka Island before departing, but phone calls to the village office went unanswered and we didn’t know if our presence would be welcomed.

The run to Dutch Harbor was uneventful and completely free of traffic. We didn’t see a single other boat or human, in person or on AIS, in the 800nm from Adak to Dutch. The Aleutians are a remarkably desolate, wild place, orders of magnitude more remote than anywhere else I’ve cruised.

Approaching Dutch Harbor we saw the islands and their rugged beauty once more:

We arrived in Dutch Harbor late in the evening and settled into a slip in the Carl E. Moses boat harbor, the first floating slip we’d tied to in months. We were among the smallest boat in the harbor and the only pleasure boat. Even though it was 9:00 p.m., the one-and-only Customs and Border Patrol officer in Dutch Harbor, George, came down to gather our information and welcome us back to the USA. It was quick and friendly, one of the most pleasant interactions we’ve ever had with CBP. Much more relaxed than our arrival in Japan!

Darkness doesn’t fall until sometime after midnight so I went for a walk. This picture was taken at 10:00 p.m.:

Dutch Harbor, more accurately the City of Unalaska, has about 4200 year round residents. During peak fishing season, the population swells to 12,000. It is the largest fishing port (by value of fish) in the United States and well-known to viewers of the Deadliest Catch TV series.  We spotted several crab boats featured in the TV show and saw thousands of crab pots stacked throughout town:

We noticed Starlink antennas on buildings and on many of the fish boats. Locals explained that Starlink has been as big a game changer for residents of the Aleutians as it has been for cruisers. A year ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a family here to spend close to $1000 a month for internet and still not be able to stream movies, engage in Zoom calls, or use cloud services. Now they can do everything they want for $120 a month.

We visited the small but well-done Museum of the Aleutians and learned about the history of the area. Unalaska Island was first settled by the Unangax̂ (Aleut) people. Russians arrived in the area in the early 1800s and established a trading post at Dutch Harbor. The United States acquired Alaska from Russia in 1867.

Traditional Aleut rain gear was made from sea mammal intestine, which was lightweight and waterproof.

The Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in June 1942, but the Americans were able to defend the port. During this time, the Aleuts were forcibly evacuated from their homes by the U.S. government. The evacuation was hasty and chaotic and many Aleuts died or were injured during the process. The Aleuts were then interned in camps in Southeast Alaska, where they lived in deplorable conditions. Exhibits at the museum related how the evacuation was a traumatic experience for the people involved. Many Aleuts lost their homes, their possessions, and their livelihoods. They also suffered from the harsh conditions in the internment camps.

After the war, Dutch Harbor grew in importance as commercial fishing developed. The fishing industry boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, and Dutch Harbor became the major hub for the fishing fleet in the Bering Sea.

Later that evening, local artist Karel Machalek exhibited artwork at the museum. He creates sculpture primarily using discarded boat parts. These fish are made with parts of plate-style heat exchangers scavenged from the boneyard:

After several weeks at sea, we were ready for some fresh produce. Dutch Harbor has two supermarkets, including a large Safeway, but they only receive shipments once a week. We waited an extra day in town to get fresh produce rather than week-old leftovers. The cost and quality at the grocery store left much to be desired after spending months in Japan!

As we were untying the lines, a fisherman wheeled a dock cart full of snapper past. “Want some fish?” he asked. This is our kind of fishing!

The harbor was filled with sea otters, which are very cute but surprisingly difficult to photograph:

Even in the overcast, misty weather, the scenery on the way out of Dutch was gorgeous:

We’ve seen a lot of puffins in the Aleutians. Apparently their “sideburns” only grow  during breeding season.

After leaving Dutch Harbor we made the short, 30nm trip to English Bay. Once we were anchored, Don went to work cleaning the fish we’d been gifted earlier:

English Bay is a beautiful anchorage, deceptively large and surrounded by untouched mountains:

We spent a day waiting out windy weather and occupied ourselves by walking on the beach, trying to hike up the hills (they’re steeper than they look!), and exploring by dinghy.

Most of the eagles we see in Alaska hang out in towns, where they have a ready supply of fish scraps to scavenge but the photo ops aren’t very good. We found this eagle on the shoreline of English Bay and couldn’t resist taking a picture:

Traveling east from English Bay requires transiting several passes that connect the Bering Sea to the Pacific Ocean. These passes have currents that run to 8-knots so timing is critical. We couldn’t figure out a way to get through the whole area in a day and still arrive at an anchorage in daylight. Instead, we left English Bay in the morning for a half-day cruise to Trident Bay. This way we could take advantage of favorable current in Unalga Pass and Avatanak Strait without having to worry about also getting through Unimak Pass.

The weather was a little clearer than most of the days we’ve been traveling and we enjoyed beautiful views all morning:

Trident Bay indents Akun Island, which is home to a small but significant population of cattle. The cows were brought to the island in the early 1900s by a Russian fur trader. The trader hoped to use the cows to provide fresh meat for his crew. However, the cows eventually escaped and became feral. We had no idea we’d see cows out here and were quite surprised when we spotted them on the hill.

Near where we anchored was this small camp. Google Maps images didn’t show it at all, so it must be somewhat new. We didn’t see any people there and don’t know what it’s for.

We also saw three horses on the island:

Other than the horses, cows, and camp, we had Trident Bay all to ourselves. I flew the drone around for a different perspective than we have at sea level:

Many of the Aleutian Islands have high volcanic peaks. Most of the time these peaks are obscured by clouds, but occasionally we see them. The scenery close to the water is beautiful, but it’s a real treat when we see the snow covered mountains in the distance, too. This is 4200-foot Akutan Peak as seen from Trident Bay:

We left before dawn the next morning to take advantage of favorable currents out of Unimak Pass. By late morning we were out of the Bering Sea. By early afternoon we were weaving between gill nets:

In the photo above you might be able to make out the tiny yellow floats leading away from the bow of the boat. These mark 1800-foot-long gill nets. We zigged-and-zagged around dozens of these, which requires concentration and good binoculars. Despite the care required, it is fun to be back in the middle of the Alaskan salmon fleet. We will see much more of this in the coming weeks.

Near the salmon fishing fleet we saw this shipwreck on the Unimak Island shore:

While dodging nets, I looked up and saw a giant splash. Moments later, this humpback whale swam by. Frustratingly, it refused to breach again.

We anchored in East Anchor Cove along the shore of Unimak Island. Unimak Island is the easternmost of the Aleutian chain and the only Aleutian Island to have resident bears. Alas, we saw none, but we are excited to start seeing them in the coming days and months.

For the first time, we shared an Aleutian anchorage with other boats: a half dozen tenders/packers and many more small gill net boats. Here’s a gill net boat (red) rafted to a tender (Rogue):

In order to keep the smaller boats fishing, processing companies contract larger “tenders” to anchor near the fish. When the fishing boats get full or need ice, they raft to a tender, offload their catch, resupply, and get back to fishing. This saves much time since the fishing boats don’t need to motor hours to port every time they fill their hold. It’s fun to watch.

Tomorrow we’ll leave the Aleutians in our wake.

  • Andy Howard
    Posted at 19:00h, 16 June Reply

    Great posting Sam, many thanks

  • Doug Cole
    Posted at 21:30h, 16 June Reply

    Another great post. I compared the B-24 landing gear remnant to a photo and they do match.

  • Jared Cook
    Posted at 21:51h, 16 June Reply

    Wonderful photos!

  • Patrick OToole
    Posted at 21:55h, 16 June Reply

    Fantastic. Served as Navy Weather, Adak 1979-80.
    Adak has never left me.
    Appears rare, calm day today.

  • Donna Stabbert Hawley
    Posted at 23:32h, 16 June Reply

    This is an area that I have never seen. or read about before.
    I learned so much from your pictures .and the details that followed . Sent crew to Dutch Harbor years ago . First pictures of Dutch Harbor area. Great Post and pictures . Thanks

  • Michael S.Castleton
    Posted at 00:19h, 17 June Reply

    Beautiful pictures Thank you !

  • Chris
    Posted at 00:46h, 17 June Reply

    Great comments and photos, some have an amazing three-D quality. Thanks for the update have been tracking you daily.

  • Michone Walker
    Posted at 02:19h, 17 June Reply

    Sam, we have really enjoyed all of your posts. Most of all your drone photos. It gives a great perspective of the surrounding areas.

  • Kat and Jim Petron
    Posted at 15:08h, 17 June Reply

    Amazing photos!
    Informative and very interesting posts.
    Thank you!

  • Peter Lelievre
    Posted at 16:12h, 17 June Reply

    True wilderness. So few visit so incredible to see.

  • Sharon Porter
    Posted at 02:27h, 19 June Reply

    This is a journey so few people ever undertake, and I feel as if I have been with you at every stop. If you put it into a book, I would buy it.

  • Janice Churma
    Posted at 16:36h, 02 July Reply

    The photos are amazing. Nicely done, Sam!

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