The Abandoned North, Part I – Bound for the Aleutians

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The Aleutian Islands

The Aleutian Islands are a vast, volcanic archipelago that runs west from the Alaska Peninsula towards the mainland of Russia. On a map, the islands are draped like necklace beads between the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. People don’t crowd to get to the Aleutians, at least not anymore, since most of the United States military installations there were abandoned after the Cold War. Many born-and-bred Alaskans have never set foot on an Aleutian Island.

It is June, 2016. The desert heat in my home town of Grand Junction, Colorado, is already building, but I am loading bags full of cold-weather gear to board a plane bound for Anchorage. Our final destination is the uninhabited island of Amchitka, one of the Rat Islands in the western part of the Aleutian Chain. The site of three underground nuclear detonations, it is distant, cold, and off-limits without a special permit. It is by far the most remote place I can ever hope to visit.

Sitkin Peak above the clouds

One of the Andreanof Islands in the Aleutian Chain is Great Sitkin Island, dominated by the Great Sitkin Volcano. It is an active stratovolcano with a caldera and dome, last erupting with an explosion and a pale plume in 1974. In July and August of 2013, two swarms of earthquakes were reported at Great Sitkin. All is quiet in 2016 as our airplane glides by.

Every five years, scientific teams are sent to Amchitka Island to perform environmental monitoring for the U.S. Department of Energy, the long-term steward of the detonation sites. I am an ecologist by trade, a botanist by education, and I am fortunate to be chosen as a member of one of the teams. My job will be to measure and record the vegetation growing on landfill covers. Plants are an essential part of the cover design. The landfills contain hazardous wastes that were generated from drilling the holes for the underground detonations. The radioactive materials from the detonations themselves are entombed deep underground – none have ever been detected on the surface, in the ocean, or in the ecosystem. The once-classified detonations are now public record, and you can read about Amchitka Island on the Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management’s website. This blog in no way speaks for the Department of Energy or any of its contractors – this is simply an account of my personal adventure.

Left: The greening slopes of a volcano in the Andreanof Islands.
Right: Meltwater plunges down the black cliffs towards the sea

It will turn from spring to summer in the Aleutians, as we will spend the Summer Solstice there. If there is a warm spell up north, the temperature may top out at 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). Chilly even in summer. The Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea are not for the faint of heart. But my journey doesn’t begin with Amchitka Island. After a layover in Denver and a long flight, it begins with a night in Anchorage, the land of the midnight sun.

You Can’t Stop Evolution

… even if you don’t believe in it. You can try to get in its way, but you can’t stop it. It’s like trying to stop a hurricane by closing your curtains and making a cup of instant coffee. You feel better for a while, but you don’t stop the hurricane. And unfortunately, you have your back to it  when it arrives.

So I’ve asked myself what the future United States might look like. What might we evolve into as a country?

One thing isimg_0632 for sure: despite political promises, it won’t be filled with millions of coal and petroleum industry and internal-combustion-engine-automobile-manufacturing jobs. It also won’t host teams of men who cut down old-growth forests or slaughter vast herds of wild bison for their tongues and tenderloins. These resources are on their way out, or they are already long depleted, reduced to island populations across our continent. Only so many ancient organisms were long ago turned into coal and oil beds. Their number was vast, but now they’re depleted, too. Like the bison. Like the old-growth trees. It’s a simple fact, no matter how many curtains you draw or cups of instant coffee you brew. Whether you “believe in” global climate change or not, the coal and steel industries are not coming back. We need to choose something else.

When human beings lose resources and their survival is threatened, things usually become violent. That’s the scary part of what could happen, and don’t think that this doesn’t keep me up at night. But what happens after the violence? I’m hoping that the once-great city, Detroit, Michigan, has an answer.

I’ve been to Detroit, over forty years ago. It was a lot like Chicago or St. Louis or Minneapolis/St. Paul. Brimming with people and industry, self-important. Not so now. The auto industry declined. Corrupt politicians took their share. The giants fell. I’ve not been back there in person, but I know there was violence, lots of it. It was all over the news for a decade or more. But while I’ve been out west raising a family and contending with the increasingly difficult business of keeping up a modest living, the affairs of Detroit quietly fell out of the news.

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Recently, I was reminded of Detroit by an episode of “Parts Unknown,” a CNN show by Anthony Bourdain (Season 2, Episode 8). I had no idea that the city had disintegrated so much. Bourdain compared it to Chernobyl, the nuclear ghost city in the Ukraine that was abandoned in the 1980s. But in the midst of all the decay and graffiti are sustainable farms. And artists filled with life. And pop-up and back-yard restaurants serving local food to laughing customers. There is grit and hope and a strong sense of community among all of that bitter Rust. I’m not talking about boutique food or a frou frou future, the latest fad in local agriculture. I’m talking about surviving after the giants fall.

We could choose this future, couldn’t we? We could learn to feed ourselves again, to take care of one another, couldn’t we? Is it too naive to hope that we might be able to accomplish it without doing violence to one another? I have been to Las Vegas recently, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Detroit …

Is Detroit only a ruined city? The disgraced giants might think so. Or is Detroit actually a window into the future, a city decades ahead of its time? I want to believe that our future is filled with the seeds of hope that Anthony Bourdain found in Detroit. It looks like evolution to me.

September 23 garden