The remote Aleutian Islands of Alaska, designated a Biosphere Reserve by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, offer seafaring explorers spectacular scenery and experiences beyond one's imagination. Lofty belching volcanoes rise above the clouds, tremendous onshore colonies and offshore feeding groups of seabirds thrill the wildlife enthusiast, and lush emerald hillsides painted with vividly-colored wildflowers invite hikers and botanists to explore.
The Aleutians, referred to as "The Chain" by Alaskans, span roughly 1,100 miles of the North Pacific. Unimak Island lies closest to the mainland of Alaska and features the archipelago's highest volcano, Mount Shishaldin, at 9,372 feet. At the western end of the chain lies Attu Island, famous for the brutal World War II battle fought on its flanks, as a mecca for birdwatchers from around the world, and as both the westernmost and easternmost points in the United States. This remote island is situated farther west than any other U.S. land but lies in the Eastern Hemisphere, east of 180 degrees longitude.
Long ago fire, ice, and the sea formed these islands, which now rise out of the North Pacific as summits of a submerged, volcanic mountain range. To the north lies the Bering Sea, shallow in the east and deep in the west. Spanning the gap between Russia and Alaska, this body of water is one of the most commercially productive marine environments on the planet. The extraordinary Aleutian Trench flanks the chain on the south. The abyss, produced geologically by the Pacific Plate bending beneath the American Plate, spans more than 2,000 miles and boasts depths of over 25,000 feet.
The Aleutians take their name from the area's earliest human residents, the Unangan or Aleuts. The waters surrounding these islands, which have been home to the Unangan for at least 8,000 years and perhaps as many as 12,000 years, provided and still provide rich marine resources - whales, seals, seabirds, fish, and marine invertebrates - on which the people subsist. The Unangan were skilled hunters and artisans who, at the time of Russian contact, occupied most islands of any size in the chain. Once numbering 12,000-15,000, their population in the islands plummeted to only a few thousand within 45 years of the Russians' arrival. Warfare, disease, starvation, and most recently, forced evacuations during World War II, all took their toll on the Unangan. Today only six Native villages remain - Atka, Nikolski, Unalaska, Akutan, False Pass, and Adak.
World War II had a profound effect on the Aleutians and their inhabitants. The treeless islands hosted formidable battles from 1942 to 1943 - the only battles of this war fought on U.S. soil. The Aleutian campaign involved tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel fighting to regain the Japanese-occupied islands of Kiska and Attu. Both American and Japanese forces endured the harsh conditions of howling winds, bitter cold, dense fog, and constant dampness. The Japanese, befriended by a blanket of fog, secretly evacuated Kiska Island prior to the U.S. invasion. However, opposing forces met in battle on Attu Island in May of 1943. Though the Japanese finally surrendered the island, Attu was reclaimed at the cost of approximately 550 American and 2,350 Japanese lives.
Wildlife viewing along this arc of nearly 200 islands, islets, and rocks is considered some of the best in the world. Steep cliffs and grass-lined headlands make up the Aleutian Island Unit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, home to millions upon millions of nesting seabirds. Red-faced cormorants, northern fulmars, horned and tufted puffins, and crested, least, parakeet and whiskered auklets breed here during the summer months. Another 25 million seabirds only visit the rich waters surrounding the chain seasonally - mostly shearwaters up from the Southern Hemisphere for a summer feeding binge in Alaska. The shearwaters' larger, Northern Hemisphere relatives - Laysan, black-footed, and the very rare short-tailed albatrosses - may be seen offshore searching the ocean surface for squid and fish. As for fish, the Aleutians boast more salmon spawning streams (360) than any other wildlife refuge in the United States.
Marine mammals thriving on this region's abundance of food include sperm, minke, fin and gray whales, orcas, Dall's porpoise, sea otters, harbor seals, and the endangered Steller's sea lions. Native land mammals are absent from the western Aleutians (biologists have removed most foxes, introduced for their pelts during the past 200 years), while the easternmost island of Unimak boasts native red foxes, ground squirrels, caribou, and the magnificent Alaska brown bear. At low tides, visitors may observe the sea's fascinating spineless wonders. A myriad of marine invertebrates creates a colorful tapestry at the waterline as they cling to volcanic rocks.
To observe the timeless processes of nature taking place in the Aleutian Islands is a unique and wonderful experience. Precipitous cliffs skirted by thick beds of kelp, fields of brightly-colored wildflowers amid the tall beach rye grass, immense flocks of seabirds wheeling in the sky, and frolicking sea otters or seals are just a few of the memories one gains from a journey to this remarkable land of fire and ice.