Friday, May 27, 2011

The Land Where Eagles Fly

Map picture

Our visit yesterday to Dutch Harbor, Alaska actually turned out to be quite an experience. First, let me get you oriented as to where exactly Dutch Harbor is located. Dutch Harbor, Alaska

“Dutch Harbor” is technically the name of the port located on Unalaska Island, which is one of over 300 small volcanic islands that make up the chain of islands known as the Aleutians. This chain of islands extends in an arc from the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia towards Alaska, with Unalaska being the eastern most island in the chain. To the east of Unalaska, is the small chain of islands called the “Fox Islands” which lead to the Aleutian Range on the mainland of Alaska. While technically “Dutch Harbor” is merely the name of the main port on Unalaska Island, over the years people simply call this area Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

Presumably there was not much to see in this small community and so, the ship offered no tours only a school bus that made a circle around town stopping at the 3 main attractions, two museums and an old church. If that is all we had done, it would have been such a waste because in fact, there is a great deal to learn about this area, and by pure chance, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do so.

Lisa and I have met a wonderful couple with whom we share many things in common, and with whom we are having a really great time.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska

It turned out that Joe, a semi-retired surgeon, had scooped out Dutch Harbor on the internet and found a local resident who offered a personalized tour of the area for $75 per person. Originally Joe and Jan were planning on traveling with another couple, but when the cruise schedule got changed, their friends canceled their trip. So, having space available on their little private excursion, we were offered the opportunity to join them for the day; how fortunate that turned out to be.

Our guide Bobby did a wonderful job of driving us all over the area on an extensive 4 ½ hour tour that went down virtually every road on the island. Her husband is a longshoreman, and she wears several hats, one of which is being responsible to the government for maintaining a watch on an accurate count of the Bald Eagles on the island.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska

With that background, let me share what we learned. Dutch Harbor is the number 1 fishing port in the United States, and is home to around 4,000 residents. Virtually everyone works in the fishing industry. If I heard correctly, Dutch Harbor is home to the largest food processing plant in the world. Approximately 4 container ships per week come to the harbor to haul away the pre-packed frozen containers of fish products. Interestingly last year this remote community was only visited by 4 small cruise ships. The town does have an airport left from World War II that can handle small turboprops. However, because of the short runway and mountainous terrain, the aircraft cannot always take all of the passengers or their luggage, and at times cannot carry enough fuel to make the non-stop 3 hour trip to Anchorage. In those cases, the plane must stop en route to take on more fuel.

The surrounding scenery was magnificent in spite of the low hanging clouds. The area is home to a large number of bald eagles, and Lisa and I were able to obtain some “once in a lifetime” photographs of the majestic birds.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska

Let me focus on two important items that to me were fascinating. First, we were able to enjoy a private tour of the historic Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Cathedral, one of the oldest cruciform-style Russian churches in the United States.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska

The Cathedral is listed as a National Historic Landmark, and houses one of the country’s largest and richest collections of Russian artifacts, religious icons and art totaling over 700 pieces. Included among its icons are some that were donated directly by Catherine the Great. The current structure was completed in 1896, but stands atop previous chapels that date to 1808. Considering the extremely harsh weather of the region, where the winds regularly gust to over 100 mph, it is nothing short of amazing that the structure is still standing, and in reasonably good shape.

It was during our tour that I learned for the first time that during World War II, the indigenous populations of this area had been forcibly removed by the US Government and relocated to some old warehouses in Sitka that had been abandoned for over 30 years. Indeed when the ships departed with the natives, no one had decided where they were going, much less how to care for them when they arrived. All that was certain was that they were going! This church is very important to the natives and realizing what was about to happen they took extraordinary steps to hide or to take with them the relics and icons that are so historic. Many of the people did not survive the harsh environment where they were dropped, and at the end of the war, when they returned home, the government dumped them at the dock with their bags and left them on their own. Many had been transported from villages far away, and the survivors dutifully trudged with their few belongings back to their homes only to find that everything had been destroyed by the military. I cannot related the entire story, but suffice it to say that to our guide in the little church this was all very personal because it had happened to her parents. The stories were heart wrenching, and until now, I had no idea this had occurred.

Likewise the second thing I learned had to do with the importance of the Aleutians during the Second World War, and the tremendous losses that occurred here. I did know that Dutch Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese one day prior to the Battle of Midway in June, 1941. I did not know, however, that at one point in time the US garrisoned over 50,000 troops at Dutch Harbor. The island is littered with concrete bunkers and the hillsides are a maze of tunnels burrowed deep underground to house our forces. The island is quite literally a junkyard of discarded war material. When the Japanese met such resistance at Dutch Harbor, they pulled back and captured two small islands at the western end of the Aleutian chain, the islands of Attu and Kiska. So for the first time, I learned that the Japanese had actually landed and taken US territory during the war. Indeed the government went to great lengths to keep the Aleutian campaign a secret, fearing the severe impact on morale if the public realized that the Japanese were attacking from the north along the Aleutian chain. Troops, who were sent to this area, were not even told where they were going, and in fact, they were issued clothing and provisions as if they were going to the Pacific islands. Therefore many of our troops died from being improperly provisioned from the extremely harsh conditions that they encountered. The loss of life over the next three years on both sides was enormous. The two warring armies were fighting themselves, but both were fighting the weather, which in this part of the world is described as the “absolute worst on the planet.”

Our day with Bobby came too quickly to an end. Then Lisa and Jan were cold and pooped out, so we let them off at the ship because Bobby was determined that we had to drive to the top of the lookout on the island for a vista that she claimed was unrivaled. We drove, and drove, and drove right into the low hanging clouds. The hillside was littered with war surplus and bunkers, and when we finally arrived at the top, visibility was very limited. We went to stand on top of a bunker that looked over the Bering Sea, and for brief seconds the clouds would part, and the view was breathtaking, but just as quickly it disappeared.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska

On our way back down, we quickly stopped when there was a small break in the clouds and got a good picture or two, but then it was back to the ship. Joe and I were just about the last back onboard as they were preparing to raise the gangway, but it had been a truly incredible and educational day.

Today we are at sea en route to Kodiak Island, which will be our stop for tomorrow. I have the pictures from yesterday ready and should have them uploaded shortly after this is done.


No comments: