Northern Fur Seals, St. George Island, Pribilof Islands

Alaska or Bust

Kevin Clement|April 19, 2009|Blog Post

I had a grandfather who came to Alaska during the Depression, when he was a young man. He rambled around a good bit and tried his hand at various things: commercial fishing, prospecting, mining in the Fortymile country... Then he came back to the Lower 48 to start a family.

Years before I dreamed I would ever visit Alaska, let alone someday call it home, he used to tell me stories about it. He’d say, “Gettin’ up there and gettin’ around isn’t easy. But then, if it was easy, anybody could do it.” I remember he called it “the big country,” and it sounded so expansive, so wide open, and just so different from the California orchard farm where I was growing up.

And it’s true—Alaska isn’t like most places where people live. Most people don’t have grizzlies ambling through their backyard or glaciers across the street or huge concentrations of wildlife around the corner. Of course, things have changed since Gramps’ time. Nowadays you can go to Alaska and have a pretty ordinary, manicured experience. You can ride on a big cruise ship and shop in the portside malls and sign up for city tours. But you would miss what Alaskans consider “the real Alaska,” which only exists well off the beaten track. For that kind of experience, you have to get to places like Little Diomede Island, set in the middle of the Bering Strait not far from the Arctic Circle. Here, Aleut natives live a subsistence lifestyle in a tiny village clinging improbably to a rocky slope surrounded by a huge colony of crested auklets. For the record, this is the part of Alaska from which you really can see Russia, in the form of Big Diomede Island, looming a mere three miles away.

And then there are the Pribilof Islands. Even to most Alaskans, “the Pribs” are a kind of Neverland—a place you hear fantastic things about from time to time, but which you are unlikely ever to get to. There are, however, about 800 Alaskan Natives who call St. Paul Island home (making it the largest Aleut community in the world). So do some 700,000 northern fur seals. A fur seal breeding beach in full swing is a rough and rowdy place, like some giant country western bar on a Saturday night. Massive males battle to collect, corral, coerce, defend, and impregnate the females in their huge harems. It’s a relentlessly demanding occupation—no wonder they’re so ill-tempered!

To those who live on the mainland, Dutch Harbor is another legendary place. It’s a tiny town in terms of population, or extent of paved streets, but a metropolis in terms of tonnage landed—that is, the amount of seafood the fishing fleet brings in. By that measure, in fact, it’s one of the biggest cities in the world. The Alaskans’ image of Dutch Harbor derives largely from the glory days of the king crab fishery, when it was a boom town and as wild a place as Dodge City ever was. Before that, it was the WWII base of operations for the task force assembled to dislodge the Japanese invaders who had established a foothold farther out in the Aleutians—the only time since independence that a foreign power has occupied American soil. The relics of that grim, frightening, heroic time are scattered all around Dutch Harbor.

The chain of half-submerged volcanoes that comprises the Aleutian Islands delineates the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. On a map the Aleutian Arc stretches across the North Pacific like a string of paint splatters flung from a saturated brush. Many are almost unknown except to commercial fishermen and native subsistence hunters. Some, like Uminak, Unga, and the Semidis, are also home to many millions of puffins, auklets, murres, seals, sea otters, and passing whales. Those volcanoes rise from the ocean toward the eastern end of the chain and become the Alaska Peninsula—rugged, beautiful, and nearly uninhabited. An area the size of Wales has been set aside as Katmai National Park. Katmai is renowned for its brown bears, and one of the best places to see them is Geographic Harbor. These are the world’s largest land carnivores, but capable of speeds that absolutely belie their great size. On the shores of Geographic Harbor, however, we usually see them doing nothing more violent than digging for clams. Clams are easy prey, and after all, bears are not stupid. The photo ops here are terrific, by the way!

Places like these are not easy to get to—if they were, they would be on the beaten track. My grandfather would have said that the real Alaska begins where the beaten track ends. I think if he could have seen the itinerary for our Wild Alaska voyages this summer, he would have looked at it, whistled in admiration, then maybe said, “Hey…got room for me on that there trip?”

Related Blog Posts