Columns 2009

Dutch Harbor

So here’s the thing. You may be able to see Russia from Wasilla, but you really can’t see Alaska from Anchorage. This is not to disparage the beauty that surrounds Anchorage. Or to take a cheap shot at the ugliness that pervades so much of our fair city due to the absence of any credible attempt to keep strip malls and tire shops and residential neighborhoods and dump sites (which some may call their front yard) from co-existing in uneasy harmony. No, this is to say more about how vast, beautiful and wonderful our state is and how easy it can be to get complacent about having seen it all when you’ve only seen your little part of it.

I lived on the North Slope for twenty eight years. I think the most beautiful spot on earth is the beach outside of Barrow at midnight in the summer as the sun rolls along the horizon like some golden chariot wheel of the gods. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t keep looking for other spots in this state that are close to equally beautiful… spots that sometimes don’t earn much respect for their beauty because their weather or main industry overwhelms all other aspects of the place.

I recently spent a long weekend in Unalaska and discovered that there is a whole lot more to that place than fish, crabs, wind and fog… though lord knows all that is there in abundance.  In fact, it is a place of unsurpassed quiet beauty set amidst seas and harbors rich with fish, otters, whales and seals.  While some may find the giant crab pots that line the docks fascinating, I found myself more fascinated by the eagles sitting on the beach waiting for the tide to come in and bring them dinner. No need to expend any energy when nature will deposit a fish at your feet. Or the puffins floating on the sea, so heavy from their meal that it took more energy than they had to fly away as our boat approached.

I stood next to streams that seemed too small to harbor anything more than some pebbles and moss but that in fact teemed with salmon getting ready to repeat their endless cycle of spawn and die. I stood on a beach where, at high tide, the water would be deep enough for fish to swim up to the tiny outlet that formed the small stream where they would do that spawning. I marveled that these salmon could traverse the depth and breath of the sea and still come back and find this little dot of a stream they called home.

No one will ever accuse the town of Unalaska of being particularly beautiful, not unless you find oddly painted parts of Spenard attractive. But that really didn’t matter because the minute I got off the plane, I knew I was in the real Alaska. There were those light blue exteriors with dark blue roofs that must have been sold in bulk throughout the state at some unfortunate point in our past. There was the requisite purple house required of every town in Alaska looking for its bona fides. There was that house painted a green never seen in nature.  Unalaska is, no doubt, Bush Alaska.

But drive just a little ways out of town and you see green rolling hills. Birds large and small fill the sky. Eagles are perched on every street light and rocky outcropping. There are bunkers and gun placements from a war that only saw Japanese soldiers touch America here, in Alaska’s Aleutian islands. There are salmon streams to explore, hills to hike, beaches to sit and dream on.

Yes, there is wind. Lots of it. And fogs that come and go like visitors to your home in the summer. But then the sun breaks through and the beauty is all the greater for being so fleeting. Or an eagle descends from the mist like something out of prehistory and lands on the cross atop the Russian Orthodox Church, folds its wings, turns its head and gives you the yellow-eyed stare, wondering if you are someone he will have to compete with for his salmon.

I can’t believe it took me 35 years in Alaska to discover this place.  Makes me wonder what else I’m missing.