Adak, Alaska: day 3
Tuesday, September 8, 2015
Day 3 on the island and I’m falling into a routine. Get up at 8 a.m. just before the sun rises, have coffee, do some work, then head out for a little walk before meeting up with Elaine at noon.
This morning I don’t have much time because of work. I can never really get away from it unless I go to a place that has no Internet at all. But even Adak, population 100+, has Internet although it’s expensive. Another surprise: There’s decent cell phone coverage, even away from town. But only on AT&T. As a T-Mobile customer, I get no signal whatsoever. I must admit it feels strange being disconnected from the world like that. Strange, but healthy.
This morning I check out the abandoned McDonald’s in town. This was once the westernmost McDonald’s in the world. As you can see below, the building itself is in almost perfect condition. As is the inside, from what I can see through the window. Apparently the building is still used for civic functions so the city keeps it heated in the winter to prevent damage.
The coolest thing is the drive-through menu. I can’t believe it’s so well preserved after 20 years of Aleutian weather! The prices seem shockingly high to me—except for coffee, which at $0.25 for a small and $0.49 for a large was cheap even then.
Later, I use an inflation calculator to see what these 1995 prices translate to in today’s dollars. A BigMac Extra Value Meal was $4.59 then; at a cumulative rate of inflation of 56.4%, that’s $7.18 now. The Adak McDonald’s had to have been one of the most expensive fast food places in the world back in the day. Considering what little servicemen made, eating there was probably not a daily occurrence.
Here are some photos of the building. The roof looks great. Even the paint job has kept up exceedingly well.
This is the side with the two drive-through windows:
At noon, Elaine and I head away from town towards Finger Bay. The scenery couldn’t be more spectacular. The treeless landscape looks so primal, I half expect to see dinosaurs grazing in the distance. The low-hanging clouds and slight drizzle enhance the sense of mystery. I’m mesmerized by how the ridges of the hills recede layer by layer towards the taller mountains in the distance.
Be sure to click on each photo to see a high-resolution version that shows much more detail.
Now we are at Finger Bay. This map shows you where it is in relation to town.
The clouds over the entrance to Finger Bay, with the North Pacific beyond, are dark and menacing but we’re spared the torrential downpour I’ve been expecting—probably because I put on the rain suit I’d bought specifically for my Adak trip.
Again, I cannot overstate how stunning this place is.
But even here, in a seemingly untouched spot, there are remnants of the islands military past. No abandoned buildings, mind you, but something even more intriguing.
This massive steel net, now just a tangle of metal on the edge of the water, was intended to trap Japanese submarines entering Finger Bay during WWII. I’ve found no indication that such an incursion ever occurred and I’m not sure the net was every deployed. Maybe for drill purposes. Now it sits there quietly rusting away, like it has been for over sixty years. Elsewhere it would have been hauled away by a “collector” a long time ago.
Another surprise: a bald eagle using the net as a perch. Remember, there are no trees for birds to sit on, just the occasional power pole. Elaine stops the car at a safe distance and I get out. Armed with my telephoto lens, I slowly walk towards the eagle. It pays very close attention to what I’m doing but doesn’t move. It isn’t until I cross some invisible threshold that it begins to fidget. Just as it prepares to fly away I snap this shot:
We continue up the dirt road that follows Finger Bay Creek. The hillsides are as lush as the legendary Nā Pali Coast of Kauaʻi.
We stop just before the creek begins to narrow. There’s even a small waterfall.
The creek is alive with fish, mostly pink salmon, the smallest and most abundant of the Pacific salmon species. They have come up the creek to spawn. Afterwards they quickly die. In fact, there are quite a few dead fishing in the water already. Elaine says the season will only last another couple of weeks.
The eggs hatch in the winter, and the hatchlings spend another few months in the freshwater where they were born. Then they swim downstream until they enter the ocean. As two-year-old adults, they return to freshwater to reproduce and then die.
As you can see in this short video, there are so many salmon, you should be able to catch them with your bare hands.
It’s not quite as easy, but it doesn’t take Elaine long to make her first catch. Not using her hands, of course, but a regular fishing rod. She’s only interested in females because she wants both the meat and the eggs. Any male she catches she lets go.
Since I don’t have an Alaska fishing license (very expensive for out-of-staters) I’m not technically allowed to fish. So let’s just say the salmon I’m holding up is one of Elaine’s. It did go home with Elaine, after all.
Once she’s caught as many salmon as she wants, Elaine cuts off the heads (the birds will eat them) and takes out the eggs. Here she is washing them:
The color of both the roe and the meat is such a bright orange, it almost looks unreal. And these salmon weren’t fed dyes like farmed Atlantic salmon you buy in the store or eat at a restaurant.
It’s hard to tear myself away from this serene spot but Elaine wants to drive up the road a little further.
It’s still the same stream, but more shallow. There are fewer live fish and more dead ones, all spawned out.
I find a few Kamchatka aconite (Aconitum maximum) that are still in bloom. It has very pretty flowers, but like all monkshoods, it’s deadly poisonous, especially the roots.
Very soon the road peters out and we can’t go any further. Plus, we’re out of cellphone range here so we couldn’t call for help if we get stuck. Time to turn around.
On our way back, we see this fellow again. We’d spotted him earlier in the day where the creek enters Finger Bay. It’s a seal, but I don’t know which species.
A little further down the road, near the submarine net where I’d photographed the first bald eagle, we spot another one. This one is a juvenile and doesn’t look nearly as majestic as an adult. Again, it lets me get closer than I thought it would before it flies off.
Heading back towards town, we stop past the dilapidated cabin I’d photographed on Sunday evening. The fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium, previously Epilobium angustifolium), is in its full autumn glory. From a distance, it looks like the leaves are vibrant flowers.
In the spring, Elaine had found a dead sea lion that had washed onshore (dead of old age, apparently). Always the gatherer, she wanted to collect his bones for her yard but decided to wait until nature had taken its course and the flesh had rotten away. Even now, six months later, there’s an undeniable aroma to the bones but it’s not overwhelming. So into the Jeep the bones go.
After dropping the sea lion bones and salmon off at Elaine’s house, we head to Clam Lagoon northeast of town. Apparently, this is a paradise for birds although I didn’t seen many. We did spot a family of seals relaxing in the water. But the scenery alone is worth a visit.
On the edge of Clam Lagoon is another military installation. This used to be a naval communication station.
The buildings still stand, decaying at their own torpid pace.
We walk into this cube-shaped building. It has no windows at all, just a few doors on the ground level. Inside there are three levels. Elaine doesn’t know what the original purpose of this building was but when the barracks for the communication station you saw above were being built, the military personnel was housed in this windowless cube. It must have been miserable.
We pass a fallout shelter Elaine had never explored. It turns out it’s the best preserved one she’s ever seen on Adak. Only the fold-down bunks are missing. Elaine knows of a shelter that does have bunks but the rest of the structure is in much worse shape.
My mind is blown again. Where else can you walk into an abandoned fallout shelter, just like that?
The seat of the chemical toilet is still in what looks like its original plastic wrap. Quite possibly it was never used. I decide not to post a picture because it has limited appeal (ditto for the plastic urinal in the next stall).
I don’t know what to think. I’m inside what was once considered a place essential for survival. At least for the military big wigs of this site. There would not have been room for lowly enlisted men. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it was like living in a climate of paranoia when people were genuinely terrified of Russian missile attacks because of what their government told them.
I feel a sense of relief when we head back to Clam Lagoon. I want to see Candlestick Bridge, an old wooden bridge on the northern side of the lagoon. It turns out the road is gone, taken over by sand dunes. Elaine says the sand gets removed every few years but it just comes back.
I do see the bridge from a distance. That’s enough. I don’t need to get closer.
I’m much more interested in photographing the sea grass growing in the sand.
What simple yet captivating beauty!
I love the semicircular patterns made by the grass as it moves in the wind.
What a great way to end yet another great day exploring Adak!