This is the second of a two part series on our “road-trip” along the Aleutian Islands to visit Dutch Harbor with a return trip through Kodiak. In Part I, we have been on the beach of Hallo Bay at Katmai National Park, camping with bears, and being held in by high winds.
And so begins the continuing tale:
We are just back from being held over on the beach at Hallo Bay for several extra days, but in time to depart Homer on the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry, aboard the Tustumena. This trip will take us down the first stretch of the Aleutian Islands, as far at the Tustemena will take us. The Tustumena, one of the oldest boats in the state ferry system, was built in 1964, the same year a 9.2 earthquake rocked the Alaskan block. Affectionately known at the “Trusty Tusty,” sometimes derogatorily known as the “Rusty Tusty.” and previously known at the “Vomit Comet,” we prepare for the night with a dose of Dramamine.
Our first night out is the run to Kodiak. We are rocked to sleep in seas of 7-9 feet. (This is a measure of the distance between the crest of a wave and the neighboring trough.) On this part of the run, we have had to settle for a twin bunk stateroom, which is pretty cramped when the luggage is stowed, as there really is no provision to stow luggage. If you robbed a convenience store, you would be given better accomodations at the county lock-up. Luckily, we will be assigned a four-berth “stateroom” for the rest of our trip, which will give us bunks for the suitcases. Much of my luggage is camera gear.
Day 2 – High seas continue, and I find it is very helpful to use the handrail in the hallways of the ship. Progress is generally a matter of two steps forward and one step back. It is a continuing roller coaster ride. We are treated to wonderful rainbows along the way, approaching the fishing village of Chignik.
This small fishing village hosts a cannery, but is largely closed down and buttoned up for the coming winter. At Chignik, we enjoy a population swap. The ship’s population departs and sets about to roaming town, while the town’s population boards the ship to visit the ship’s cafeteria and score a “McTusty Burger,” a big event in town with the Tustumena visits every few weeks.
There is not much to do or see in town, as the cannery is closed, but there are plenty of lines and textures that become eye candy for a photographer.
Lines create forms, and forms beget textures. The town is a trove of textural treasures and colors, from ancient iron on beached anchors, to mossy reclamation of boardwalks, to stored ships and relic pier structures
After a few hours, the boat is scheduled to depart, and the ship’s population heads back down the dock, passing the town population returning to their hamlet, with to-go burgers in tow. It looks to be a pretty equal exchange. Passengers were happy to explore town for a brief visit, and townies were delighted to climb aboard ship for some “exotic” fare. It is a well anticipated event in Chignik.
The light falls marvelously on Castle Rock as we round the point from Chignik. While the Aleutian Islands are composed largely of volcanic islands, occasionally horizontal beds indicate islands composed of sedimentary rock.
Winds make it hard to stand outside and take pictures. The surface of the sea is shrouded under foam whipped up from white caps.
Magical moments of inspiration seem to be endless as we ply our way along the Aleutian Islands chain.
Day 3 – We have a bit of an overcast day today, which is unfortunate as the day has promises of active volcanoes sporting smokey plumes along this stretch of the run. Overall, we cannot complain about the weather so far, so we accept the day’s loss graciously. The treat of the day will be a long stop at Cold Bay, population of about 100, where we will be treated to a visit to Izembek Wildlife Refuge.
Izembek Wildlife Refuge personnel offer ship’s passengers a shuttle and tour into the refuge. Usually, a lottery is held on board the ship to see who gets to enjoy this limited capacity excursion, but at this time of year the ship’s population is small enough to allow everyone who is interested a seat on the bus. Along the way, a family of red foxes pose for us outside their den.
Our “guide” (who qualified himself as “not a guide” but a mechanic who takes advantage of the occasional opportunity to get out of the shop and show folks around) very graciously offers us the option to ask for the bus to pull over and make a stop at any point we want to take a closer look at anything along the way. I had to take advantage of the offer, and requested a stop along the road to indulge in this wonderful wildflower moment.
Boat notes: The Tusty is a small and intimate boat. Nothing is too far away between the forward lounge, the solarium, and the stern, where our “stateroom” is located. It is not overcrowded, as are many of the ferrys in Southeast Alaska and passengers on the Tusty quickly get to know on another. There is always a place to sit! There is no cafeteria, per se, the dining is in a sit-down galley where you order and food is delivered. Lot’s of dining options, though they all seem to come with fries. Tipping is not allowed.
Day 4 finds us at our destination along the Aleutian Islands is in Unalaska, and the city of Dutch Harbor, where we will disembark from the Tustumena and take up residence for a few days at the Grand Aleutian Hotel (the only real game in town) until we fly out to Kodiak. This will allow us a few days to explore the area at some length, rather than get back on the boat a few hours after docking for the four-day return to Homer.
Dutch Harbor is ranked as a top fishing port with more than a billion dollars transferred each year. Huge harvests of pollock and cod in the Bering Sea are part of this total. The Bering Sea has a continental shelf that is one of the world’s largest, and supports a rich ecosystem.
Crab is king in Unalaska, where Deadliest Catch is filmed as commercial fishermen challenge hard seas to make fortunes in King Crab. There are mountains of crab pots everywhere.
Fort Schwatka is one of the first points of interest we explore in Dutch Harbor. This military base had guns capable of firing two miles out to sea to protect US waters, but during the Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor, the guns were too large to be of any defensive service. The only times they were fired was an occasional practice shot out to sea.
Much of the fort atop Mount Ballyhoo has been destroyed through removal or weathering, but there is a lot of the fort still standing and open to exploration, including underground magazines, pill boxes, and gun emplacement mounts. Nothing is closed or locked off, and the sense of history that pervades accompanies me as I hike and explore.
There are no bears on Unalaska. This squirrel atop Mount Ballyhoo at Fort Schwatka was the largest mammal we saw during our visit. The hilltop is covered in lupine, though not in bloom, and I want to come back in the spring to see the carpet of color that must blanket the island. I understand during the early summer birds nesting around these structures would offer an exceptional photographic opportunity as well.
In 1825, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Ascension was built in Unalaska. This landmark church is a must see in Dutch Harbor. The founding priest, Ivan Veniaminov, later canonized as Saint Innocent of Alaska, composed the first Aleut writing system with local assistance, and translated scripture into Aleut.
Holy Ascension of Our Lord Cathedral, as it stands today, was built in 1896. The structure was restored in 1996. The interior is from the original chapel with the exception of the lower level of the bell tower, which had to be replaced. The current cathedral is the 4th church built for the Unalaska parish. This site has been used for a church as early as 1808 when the first chapel was built.
So we have opted to fly out of Dutch Harbor, through Anchorage, to the town of Kodiak, where we will spend a few days exploring before reconnecting with the Tustumena that will return us to Homer, where our car is patiently parked.
We have a wonderful waterside vacation rental. Sunrise on a perfect day; something Kodiak is not well known for: good weather. Our rental was at the Bayview & River Inn, which I would highly recommend. You will need a rental car to enjoy this out of the way location.
We are not terribly interested in paying for another back country flight to go see big bears, as we have pretty well had our fill in Katmai.Exploring the island we were treated to sightings of the giant Kodiak Grizzly Bison.
So far what has really been on my wish list of things to “shoot” are puffins and sea otters. To this end, we signed up with Galley Gourmet for a dinner cruise around the island with the idea that we would have the opportunity I have been hoping for.
Marty and Marion are our hosts with Galley Gourmet. Marty used to be the harbormaster at Kodiak, now retired, and Marty is a photographer and great cook. Six guests in addition to Marty and Marion make for an intimate and friendly excursion in the family yacht. Our first bit of wildlife was a group of sea lions on a float built just for them at the edge of the harbor.
Along the way we were treated to puffins, cormorants, oystercatchers, and sea otters. A bit of a challenge to photograph moving water fowl from a rocking boat with a 500 mm lens, but it can be done.
Perhaps the cutest things on the water are the sea otters. Often far off, the challenge to get a clean shot with a big lens and a great distance on a rocking boat is compounded by the additional challenge of convincing the camera to focus on the eyes and not the feet, which are often predominant in the classic shots. Take enough pictures, and you hedge your bet that some will turn out.
Our last day in Kodiak was spent enjoying the tidal pools of Fort Abercrombie, which is another of the historic ruins of a World War II coastal defense installation. Pools were full of interesting items such as this anemone and chiton and shell fish. At the end of the day, we once again boarded the Tustumena for the return run to Homer. We slept through the voyage, and arrived slightly after dawn to carry on our journey home to Haines.
I believe my next blog will be in celebration of foliage along the autumnal Alaskan highways that leave is breathless during our return journeys.
Meanwhile, should you care to enjoy full resolution photos of this adventure, as well as many that are not included here, but found along the way of the Aleutians, I invite you to visit my dedicated gallery at: https://timenspace.smugmug.com/Collections/Aluetian-Road-Trip-2015/
And there is always more adventure to be found along the full range of photo galleries through Time & Space at: https://timenspace.net/photo-galleries/