From this teaser you may know that I recently spent time on Adak in the Aleutians, a chain of 69 islands, many of them volcanic, extending 1,200 miles from the mainland of Alaska towards the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Here’s a map to give you a better idea:
I love numbers, so let me throw some out for you. Adak is:
- 2,700 miles from the north pole
- 2,700 miles from Davis, California where I live
- 1,300 miles from Anchorage, the biggest city in Alaska
- 870 miles from the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia
- 450 miles from Dutch Harbor, the nearest inhabited place in the Aleutian Islands (if you’ve ever watched the reality TV series Deadliest Catch, you might have heard of it)
- At the same latitude as Vancouver, British Columbia
- Horticulturally speaking, in USDA hardiness zone 8, the same as Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington; Anchorage, in comparison, is in zone 4; Fairbanks, in south-central Alaska, in zone 2
- Between the Bering Sea to the north and the North Pacific Ocean to the south
If you head due south from Adak, you won’t encounter land for 4,700 miles—not until you reach the islands of Fiji in the South Pacific.
First glimpse from the air
This should give you a pretty good idea of how utterly remote Adak is. Aside from occasional fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels, Adak’s main life line to the outside world are the biweekly Alaska Airlines flights from Anchorage every Sunday and Thursday, weather permitting. Even on a Boeing 737, these are three-hour flights.
Northeastern tip of Kuluk Bay
You might be wondering what the heck I was doing in such a far-flung place. That’s a fair question. I would never in my life have gone to Adak if it hadn’t been for my wife’s cousin Shannon. She’s an environmental consultant based in Anchorage, and one of her clients is Aleut Enterprise, which manages the fuel farm on Adak, among other facilities. Shannon does inspections and training on Adak several times a year and had been wanting me to come along for quite some time. I was finally able to clear some time in my schedule and accompany her as her official photographer. At least that’s what I called myself when people asked me what I was doing on Adak.
Adak airport, formerly known as Navy Air Facility Adak
Adak doesn’t get a lot of tourists, and people are generally surprised to see new faces. Although I usually prefer to remain anonymous as I walk among the masses, there are no masses on Adak so I would have stuck out like a sore thumb anyway. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed meeting folks on the island. I was treated with great kindness from the start, whether it’s the nature of the good people of Adak or whether it was because I’m related to Shannon, whom everybody seems to know and like.
But let’s start at the beginning:
Sunday, September 6, 2015.
We arrive on Adak at 5pm local time. (The Aleutian islands are on the same time zone as Hawaii—one hour ahead of mainland Alaska, and two hours ahead of Pacific Time). Since Shannon was the one who made arrangements for our accommodation and rental car, I mostly stay behind, looking at the displays at the tiny airport terminal building. I also meet Shannon’s friend Elaine, a local who wears many hats (city council member, co-owner of the one store on the island, co-owner of a fresh-fish shipping company) and will be my guide tomorrow. Or, as it turns out, my guide for the next four days since we I hit it off.
Elaine and yours truly. I need to work on taking selfies because this one makes me look like a character from a Bugs Bunny cartoon
When we step outside the terminal and I see the rental cars, I can’t help but smile. On Adak, you don’t get a new(ish) car from a major agency like Hertz or Avis. Instead you get somebody’s personal vehicle which they rent out for extra income. Shannon’s Ford Escape, a small SUV, is on the newer side—by that I mean less than 10 years old—but the truck one of the engineers in our small group gets is from the early 1990s and has some memorable quirks, like the rear passenger door virtually falling off each time you open it. That, too, is Adak: You make do with what there is.
Gawain’s early 90s GMC truck
Our accommodations, less than 5 minutes away, is a unit in a triplex built by the U.S. Navy in the 1980s. This particular unit is maintained by Aleut Real Estate as a rental and was in excellent condition: 2 bedrooms, 2½ bathrooms, living room, kitchen, dining room, laundry room. Well heated and spotless. I’m very impressed. This is housing where military families lived until the closure of the naval base at the end of 1996.
Our home away from home (right unit in the blue-roofed triplex)
Before I go on, a few sentences about the military history of Adak so you understand where all the buildings you’ll see in my photos came from.
After the Japanese invasion of Attu and Kiska, the westernmost islands in the Aleutians, in June 1942, the U.S. Army established an air base on Adak in August 1942. After the end of WWII, staffing at the Adak base declined. But then came the Cold War. Alaska became the first line of defense against Russia. A vast network of radar and listening posts was installed in the Aleutians. In July 1950 all facilities on Adak were transferred to the U.S. Navy. A year later a special cryptographic and telecommunications command was established. By August 1941 there were 4,400 military personnel on Adak. Life was rough but starting in the 1960s and continuing into the 1980s many new facilities were built for soldiers and their families, including an elementary, middle and high school, a hospital and dental clinic, recreational facilities, and the world’s most westernmost McDonald’s (which is still perfectly preserved, as you will see later). In the late 1980s, the population of Adak was 6,100, which made it the sixth largest community in all of Alaska.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communist Eastern Europe marked the end of the Cold War. The spy facilities on Adak were no longer necessary. The Adak naval base was closed in December 1996 and the facilities were abandoned. In March 2004, the Adak naval complex—47,000 acres in the northern part of the island, including the airfield, the town and the deep-water port—was transferred to the Aleut Corporation, one of 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 to settle aboriginal land claims. The airfield, in turn, was transferred to the Alaska Department of Transportation, which continues to operate and maintain it today. (It was quite a surprise to see such a large airfield for such a sparsely populated island, but then I remembered that it was originally build for military purposes.)
The 2010 census recorded a population of 326, but according to my guide Elaine there are only about 100 people actually living on the island today (another 50 are registered to vote there but live somewhere else).
Later in the evening, cousin Shannon gives us (me, and the two engineers she brought along for inspection work) a quick tour of the northern part of the island. We take Gawain’s red GMC truck and, sitting in the back next to the door that wants to fall off, I hold on for dear life. It doesn’t take long before we make our first discovery: a partially sunken boat. It turns out that it’s not as old as I originally thought; the accident that led to its demise happened circa 2010.
The next place we stop to explore is a ruined cabin. Nobody knows when it was built, but from the many liquor bottles and graffiti inside, it must have been quite a party place. Gawain finds a perfectly preserved copy of the Navy Times from 1999. This blows me away: The interior of the cabin is completely exposed to the elements, and a newspaper should have disintegrated a long time ago.
Next we stop at two Quonset huts originally built during WWII. Amazing that they’re still in such good condition. Those guys knew how to build things, even when they were in a hurry!
The Quonset hut on the right is empty…
…but this one looks like somebody tried to turn it into a man cave of sorts
There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of Quonset huts left on Adak
All around us is scenery so breathtaking, I don’t even know where to look first. We stop at the crest of a dirt road and see a small lake that could be in the Scottish Highlands. The heavy gray sky, blustery wind, and light drizzle add to the atmosphere.
Cousin Shannon finds a small purple wildflower and a piece of caribou jaw, complete with teeth. Caribou were introduced in the 1950s by the Navy to make sure there’s meat for the soldiers in case the island gets cut off. Now there are 3,000 of them. At this time of year, they are in the rugged and inaccessible southern part of the island so we didn’t see any.
Our next stop is Bering Hill. Shannon takes us to an old ammunition bunker:
There’s nothing to see inside—just a dark cavernous space—but I’m fascinated by the pattern a rusty chain makes on the door as it swings in the wind. Shannon tells me this chain caught her eye years ago.
The most prominent building on Bering Hill is the Old Bering Chapel. It was originally built in 1944 and fell into disrepair after the Navy had constructed a larger chapel in the 1980s. However, because of its cultural importance it was restored in 1990 and had just received a new roof and a fresh coat of paint when the Adak naval base was closed in 1997. Now some of the stained glass windows are broken and the interior of the church is open to the elements, sustaining ever more damage. It’s heartbreaking to see.
Just down the street from the chapel is a complex of barracks. It once housed hundreds of soldiers. Now it’s empty like so many buildings on the island. As a city slicker from the lower 48, I find it hard to believe that anybody can just walk into these buildings.
From what I understand they’re now owned by the City of Adak and I’m sure that there are rules in place that forbid trespassing, but nobody seems to mind. After all, there’s nothing of value left to take, and vandals have long since done their damage.
Walking through the dark corridors, I’m glad I’m not alone. Because of the wind, there are all kinds of eerie sounds. Plus, I have seen way too many horror movies to know what can happen in a place like this when you let your guard down!
Most bedrooms (if that’s what you call them in a barracks) still have furniture. In some we find newer mattresses and empty beer can. Somebody must be having parties here—away from the prying eyes of parents or neighbors.
The others explore a few more buildings but I’ve reached my fill and stay outside. I’m struck by how much these deserted streets look like movie sets. If Adak were easier to get to, I bet movies would be made here. On the flip side, the island wouldn’t be what it is if more people came. Being selfish, I’m happy that what’s left from the military days has been preserved in this state of arrested decay.
WTF moment: where did these boots come from and who left them there outside one of the barracks?
Another Quonset hut behind one of the barracks
Hard to drive faster when there’s no road left!
It’s 8 p.m. now, and we have to hurry if we want to grab a bite to eat. There are only two restaurants on the island. One has irregular hours (I never do get to eat there) and the other, the Blue Bird Café, technically closes at eight. I’m saying “technically,” because it seems to stay open much later than that, especially if you’re friends with the owner, Imelda. After all, the Blue Bird Café is located in a residential unit just like the one Shannon and I are staying in. The dining room is where the living room is in ours, the kitchen is, well, where the kitchen is. It’s odd eating in somebody’s living room, but again, this is Adak. Imelda is 52, originally from the Philippines, and so friendly and outgoing, it seems you’ve known her all your life.
Blue Bird Café
Because everything you consume on Adak (except fish) has to be brought in—usually as air cargo on the biweekly Alaska Airlines flights—food is expensive. A no-frills hamburger at Imelda’s will set you back $12, a 12-pack of beer at the only liquor store on the island $36. That’s why Shannon and I brought quite a bit of stuff to Adak, both for ourselves and some for Elaine and Imelda. (As an MVP member, Shannon has a generous luggage allowance on Alaska Airlines.)
After dinner we sit and talk for another couple of hours. Even at 10 p.m. it’s still not entirely dark outside so people seem to stay up later than they would elsewhere. I’m utterly exhausted when I finally fall into bed. What a day full of unforgettable images. And it’s just the beginning!