During the past decade I’ve been to Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska – one of America’s last frontiers, potentially the planet’s next Singapore, home base for the loved-and-hated “Deadliest Catch” – seven times. Much has changed during the years, for me and for the place.
I first came this far west with close friends (Barry Tessman, Sean Farrell and Scott McGuire), three years later with French filmmakers (led by French television and political star Nicolas Hulot) and most recently as a visiting lecturer. I’ve arrived by ferry, small fishing boat, big fishing boat, small plane, helicopter and cruise ship; I’ve also kayaked along Unalaska’s rugged shores and climbed a handful of its volcanic peaks.
Dutch Harbor is annually the nation’s number one or two fishing port (trading off with Gloucester and followed closely by Kodiak). When I first came there was barely a bridge in town; today the town’s center has gravitated to a couple strip centers across from the airport. Its most famous bar and brawling center – the Elbow Room – is long closed. Yet its future looks oddly bright, and not because of the success of the Discovery Channel show, but because of the Arctic Ocean’s disappearing ice. As the Arctic’s ice lessens each year – some suggest it will be gone for good in another ten years – it makes the Northwest passage a much more commercially viable shipping route from Europe, Africa and the U.S. cutting thousands of miles off each trip, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars and gallons of diesel. The main port west of Canada? Dutch Harbor. There are many who believe the towns biggest boom is on the horizon.
When I arrived in 1999 it was on the strength of a first grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council; six grants since have helped take my teams and me around the world. That first trip took Barry, Sean, Scott and I further west, to the Islands of Four Mountains, by kayak. Since then I’ve traveled literally around the world by kayak. Then my biggest corporate sponsor was Mountain Hardwear and my favorite jacket was its Windstopper Tech fleece (black/black). Today my biggest corporate sponsor is Mountain Hardwear and my favorite jacket is its (brand new) Windstopper Tech fleece (black/black).
From all the adventures I’ve had during the past decade some from that first expedition are still among my favorites. We arrived in Dutch by ferry from Homer, having slept on its deck for four wet, cold nights. And we still needed to get another 150 miles to the west before we could start kayaking. Unfortunately when we arrived we discovered that the guy we’d arranged to carry us the last leg (Scott Kerr) didn’t actually have a boat. I’d spent an anxious half-day walking the fishing docks before finally convincing Don Graves and his Miss Pepper to carry us another fifteen hours, in exchange for a sizable wad of cash. The night that followed was one of the hairiest we’d experienced then or since:
(From BIRTHPLACE OF THE WINDS, my book about that 1999 adventure …) “We had convinced Scott Kerr to meet us off Nikolski and accompany us aboard the Miss Pepper out to Kagamil, where we would be dropped off. (Don) Graves had no idea where he could safely drop anchor and unload us. We had leaned on Kerr to make the crossing, point us to the best drop-off point, then return to Nikolski with Graves.
“He’d agreed, in return for us bringing him $88 worth of groceries, Purina dog food and Red Man chewing tobacco. Just after midnight Graves calls out to me, saying we were nearing Nikolski … I grab the VHF radio and try to raise Kerr. No response. I try again. ‘Miss Pepper to Scott Kerr. Come in, Scott Kerr.’ After several tries he finally picks up. Groggily, he asks, ‘What’s your intention?’ as if we hadn’t explained it to him a dozen times.
“I shout over the roar of the boat and the sea that we are near Nikolski and that we’ll be offshore within a half hour. Then we lose communication. I can only assume he is on his way. (He later admits that when he heard the radio, he was very tempted to ignore it, roll over, pull Agrafina closer to him, and go back to sleep.)
“At 1 a.m. we pull into a wave-socked bay; a half-dozen lights a mile towards shore indicated Nikolski. Because Graves doesn’t know the entry through the rocky bay, it is too dangerous at night to get any closer. Soon we spot a giant, single headlight coming at us through the sea – Kerr in an 18-foot metal skiff. He pulls alongside, trying desperately not to bang into the Miss Pepper in the heavy seas. He is not alone. As he headed down to his boat, he’d knocked on the door of a sleeping neighbor – introduced as Rex – saying he needed help. Rex was barely awake; he thought he was coming out on a grocery run.
“Once they are aboard, it takes several passes to safely tie the skiff off the back of the boat. Empty .410 shells rattle around on its floor, making me wonder, what had these boys been hunting? We would be pulling the skiff behind, through the heavy seas, and Kerr is concerned that it not end up upside down, being dragged. Though he made the rendezvous, he doesn’t appear happy to be here. When he pulls back the hood of his forest green sweatshirt, wild, long, unkempt hair billows from beneath his ball cap. Around his waist he wears a rope belt loaded with knives and a heavy flashlight. He smells of wood smoke and tobacco.
“After brief introductions, he returns to his earlier question: ‘What are your intentions?’ Apparently Kerr has still not gotten the message. He thought we were bringing him his groceries and then crashing on his floor. Unrolling our maps, I focused on getting as much information out of him as possible in the limited hours we have together; first we tackle the question of the initial landing. Graves’ navigational system says we were 43 miles away from a sand beach on the north end of Kagamil, where Kerr says we’ll have no problem getting ashore. It will take us another three to four hours. In the dim light of the boat’s interior we study the maps together, us asking questions, him giving back little more than grunts.
“The final few hours of the fifteen-hour, 150-mile trip are spent trying to stay seated and picking up maps, coffee makers, donuts and rain gear as they fly around the cabin. The metal skiff tied to the back of the boat kept banging dangerously in the rough seas.
“I try to sleep sitting up. Scott Kerr admits to feeling slightly seasick and lies down on a bench. So much for our expert guide.
“Rex, dressed lightly considering the conditions, in blue jeans, hooded cotton sweatshirt and a Carhart vest, complains it is too hot in the cabin. For the bulk of the ride he stands on the back deck. I stand with him for a while and ask what it is that motivates him to live way out here. ‘Oooh, I been in some sit-eee-ations, that’s for sure, some real sit-eee-ations,’ was all he would say. Turning away he mutters, ‘It’s hot out here, ain’t it? Just like Florida.’ “
Within a couple hours everything had gone awry; we’d lost the hatch cover to one of our big kayaks, Kerr’s metal boat was swamped and filled with sand and seawater on the beach at Kagamil and Rex was nearly hypothermic, smoking what might have been his last cigarette ….