The Abandoned North: Part VII – Amchitka Island: Military and Nuclear Devices

Rommel stake

World War II-era Rommel stake on Amchitka Island

We have all enjoyed breakfast and dressed in waterproof, cold-weather gear before we arrive on the deck of the Tiglax. The crew has already used the boat’s crane to lift gear, including a bunch of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) from the deck to the ancient military dock. The size of the dock is appropriate for battleships, not for research vessels, and my question about how we’ll come ashore is answered right away as the crew attaches a nautical man lift to the end of the crane. Basically, we’re just a little more cargo to be unloaded. I prepare myself for my first trip in a man lift. It turns out to be fun.

Man lift

The man lift in operation

During World War II, when the island was used as a forward base in the campaigns to retake Attu and Kiska Islands, a road was built for access to various military facilities. The road runs the length of the 40-mile (64 km) long island and is called Infantry Road. In 2011, during  the previous Department of Energy monitoring trip, full-sized vehicles were used to access the monitoring sites. Since that time, earthquakes and storms have damaged the road, making it passable only by ATVs. To get to the farthest site, it is necessary for us to ride over 25 miles each way. The temperature is in the low 40s (4-5 °C), it is raining, and there is a brisk  wind. I feel like a popsicle by the time we arrive at “Drill Site E” to begin our monitoring.

Lunch

Me, Stephen Pitton, Craig Goodnight, and Danika Marshall eating lunch on Amchitka sheltered from the wind

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife  Service published a fact sheet that might help a reader get better acquainted with Amchitka Island. Most of the structures associated with World War II campaigns, Cold War nuclear detonations, and  Relocatable Over-The-Horizon Radar (ROTHR) facilities were removed during cleanup in the late 1990s. What is left is a treeless tundra, filled with the austere beauty of lakes, bogs, and mist. Much of the mountainous northeast end of the island, beyond Drill Site E, is designated wilderness. The remainder of the island is part of the wildlife refuge.

Paul

Team leader Paul Darr on the Amchitka tundra

That said, plenty of evidence remains of the military and other federal operations that once took place here. The lines of disturbance can plainly be seen on satellite photos. Some  structures remain, including a toppled officer’s club, an aircraft graveyard, a 2-mile-long (3.2 km) runway, and thousands of Rommel stakes poking up through the blankets of peat. Rommel stakes were used during World War II to make up wickedly simple defense lines. They are made of sturdy, rounded bars of iron, and the top is sharpened to a point. Loops were made in  the long, iron stakes themselves, and the loops were used to string lines of razor wire. Stakes like these are still being removed on more populated Aleutian islands, but they are visible across the landscape of Amchitka.

Left: The disintegrating wing of a World War II aircraft graveyard near Constantine Harbor. Right: The remains of an officer’s club from the 1940s. This building stood intact until only a couple of years ago. Now, only the chimney still stands. The island is slowly leaning back towards wilderness.

Long Shot

Monument describing the Long Shot detonation

It is hard to imagine how much effort went into planning and executing the three underground nuclear detonations on this island. The first was called Project Long Shot, conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1965. The second, Project Milrow, was ordered by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1969 under chairman Glenn T. Seaborg, after whom the radioactive element, seaborgium, was named. In 1971, AEC concluded its underground nuclear tests with the largest in history, Project Cannikin. All of the detonations required weeks to months of drilling time and the construction of temporary villages to house the engineers, scientists, and workers.

Cannikin, the largest and deepest, needed a bore hole about  7.5 ft (2.3 m) in diameter and 6,150 ft (1,875m) deep, although the concrete plug at the top of the borehole is about 30 ft (9 m) wide. It feels strange standing above the sites, wondering what the eerie detonation chambers far below are like. Nobody really knows, but the detonations were expressed on  the surface, most notably at Cannikin. It is interesting to note that the international environmental activist group, Greenpeace, got its start protesting the Cannikin detonation. The fishing boat they used to voyage to Amchitka was named the Greenpeace.

Cannikin lake

This lake formed only after the detonation of the Cannikin device

Our work on the island is close to the detonation sites, so we visit all three. For those that are interested, film of these and other events has been declassified and is available on YouTube (Long Shot, Milrow, and Cannikin).

The Abandoned North: Part VI – Arctic Seas

Kanaga

Kanaga Island from the Tiglax

My time on Adak Island comes to an end with the arrival of the Motor Vessel (M/V) Tiglax (also known as the Research Vessel [R/V] Tiglax). The Tiglax (pronounced Tec-lah, meaning “eagle” in Unangam Tunuu) is a boat used for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientific research. It serves the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which contains many of the Aleutian Islands. This summer, as in the past, Fish and Wildlife has kindly provided passage to Department of Energy contractors for our Amchitka Island scientific monitoring.

Tiglax

The Tiglax from the dock in Constantine Harbor, Amchitka Island

The 120-foot Tiglax was built in 1987 for Fish and Wildlife and has been working hard ever since. The captain, Billy Pepper, and five other crew members work hard as well. In fact, I can’t recall a time aboard the boat when I don’t see the cook at work. She conjures up handmade dishes like pesto-and-blue-cheese-stuffed pork roast, seafood linguine, and  blueberry pastries, all on a tight government budget, in a tiny galley, and with very little waste. I am an avid home cook and foodie, and I am impressed by her efforts in this remote place to keep both crew and passengers happy and well fed.

Flotation suits

Craig Goodnight and me in flotation suits during the muster drill

Anyone who has taken a cruise aboard a ship will be familiar with the muster drill. Similar to the health and safety briefing given before all of the government contract work I have ever done, it familiarizes the passengers with the boat’s emergency procedures. In this case, it consists of what to do if there is trouble on the  Tiglax and we have to abandon ship. The vessel is well maintained, and the crew is highly experienced, but I can’t help but think, as I try on an insulated survival suit that will keep me alive and afloat should the unthinkable happen, “This is the friggin’ Bering Sea!”

The weather is beautiful, and the sea is calm as we depart for Amchitka Island. The Tiglax will be our home during the voyage and also while we are working on the island. We share the boat with several other teams who also have work there. One is from Fish and Wildlife, who have work characterizing one of the few old structures standing on the island.

Dani on Tiglax

Danika Marshall on top of the Tiglax

The other is from the U.S. Geological Survey, who need to do maintenance on seismic monitoring equipment. Our voyage will take about a day. I spend most of the daylight hours outside, drinking in spectacular views from a perch with some of the other passengers on the top of the boat. Much of the night is spent crossing Amchitka Pass, a patch of open ocean where the waves grow large. I am jolted around in my bunk but manage to get a decent night’s sleep anyway. The first mate, John Faris, has spent the night at the helm, as he does every night during the field season. My experience on the Tiglax gives me even more respect for people who make their living on the Bering Sea. I’m not sure it’s a life I could thrive on.

Left: The corridor outside State Room No. 4 on the Tiglax. Right: I choose the top bunk

Porthole

The view from the port hole by my bunk as we voyage to Amchitka Island

A peek outside the still vessel before coffee and breakfast reveals glassy waters and a massive, old military dock in Constantine Harbor, Amchitka Island. We have arrived safe and sound. I am ready and anxious to get to work. Now I just need to know how we’re going to get ashore. The smaller docks are in shambles, and the shoreline doesn’t look gentle with its dark volcanic rocks. The tide is out, and that ancient dock is towering above the top deck of the boat. Soon, we will find out.

Dock in morning

Early morning in Constantine Harbor

The Abandoned North, Part V – Flora and Fauna

Buttercups, stonecrop, and wild daisies

Empetrum nigrum (crowberry)

Crowberry

Aleutian plants are generally small, unlike the monster-sized devil’s club and thimbleberries that festoon Alaska’s Inside Passage. The Aleutian Islands are at latitudes mostly south of the Inside Passage, so they should be warmer, and the plants should be larger, right? But they’re not. Both parts of Alaska have a maritime ecology, but the Aleutian Islands are far more exposed, mostly to wind but also to constant cold. Although they have no permafrost, they are covered in tundra, so there are a lot of peat bogs and dwarf plant communities. The islands have what ecologists might term “low energy systems.” But there is nothing low energy  about the abundance of flowers that are now blooming on Adak Island. Each time I see a new species, I figure out what it is and fall in love with it.

 

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Arctic willow

There are many species in common between Adak and Amchitka Islands, so getting acquainted with the local wildflowers will help  me with my botanical work on Amchitka. Back home in Colorado, I am somewhat notorious for interrupting hikes in favor of “botanizing.” Things are no different here in Alaska! My botanizing adventures result in a lot of notes and photographs, and among my favorites are those of the the  full grown arctic willows. They are elegant, twisted little dwarfs, decades old but only inches tall.

Along numerous trails on Adak Island, the crowberry is in bloom. I have always wanted to see crowberry, as it’s mentioned in what is still my favorite television program, Northern Exposure. There will be no berries on these plants for months yet, so I can’t try one,  but  there is an abundance of other wild foods on Adak Island in the early summer.

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Hiking across the tundra on the way to Lake Betty

On a hike to Lake Betty, we find fiddleheads, which are the curled, emerging leaves of the ostrich fern. Craig, Danika, and I nibble a few raw, then I pick a small handful to cook later. They are marvelous, much like the variety of fiddlehead I grew up with in Maine. I also know that all violet flowers are edible, so I nibble on a couple of those as well. They are mild and sweet, and a tiny bit flowery. I wish I could meet a member of the Unangan people who would be willing to show me what else I might be able to sample.

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Craig and me nibbling on fiddleheads

Edible plants are not the only reason I would love to  become acquainted with the  Unangan. Their ancestors are believed to have lived on these islands for at least the last 2,000 but possibly up to 9,000 years. The Aleutian Islands, and the wild seas that surround them, are among the most formidable places on earth. I have a lot of respect for people who have lived here for so  long and who continue to  persist in spite of the adversity and atrocities brought to their home since long before the 1940s. They are certainly among the hardiest and most capable of people, with a history and culture that I would love to know more about.

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A chiton

Among the biota samples collected for monitoring by the first Amchitka team last month are the traditional Unangan foods of reindeer moss, chitons, and Dolly Varden. Reindeer moss is a type  of gray-white lichen, which I am reluctant to taste raw but don’t know how to cook. Chitons are dark, prehistoric-looking sea creatures. I find one on the beach and pick it up, only to have it curl up slowly on my glove like a pillbug. Obviously it’s still alive, so I toss it back into the sea, wondering what something like Eagle on Adakthat could possibly taste like. Dolly Varden is a native species of trout. I dined on a lot of trout as a young person in Colorado and usually feel like I’ve had enough of it, but Craig, who wielded a  fishing-license, caught an extra (the others went into a sample bag as background samples for the monitoring). It was a delicious, firm fish that I would gladly eat again.

One of the most astounding things about the Aleutian Islands is the diversity of wild things. Bird life is abundant, especially eagles, gulls, cormorants, and a variety of shorebirds. It is here that I see my first puffins, the Arctic answer to penguins, although puffins fly relatively well, unlike their southern hemisphere counterparts. They have cute, stout bodies and heavy,  colorful beaks, both of which give the impression that their wings can barely keep them aloft.

Pack of sea otters in Clam Lagoon

Sea otters in Clam Lagoon

A cruise around Adak Island’s Clam Lagoon is a treat. We see groups of Northern sea otters, flocks of sea birds and shorebirds, harbor seals, and bald eagles. On the beaches around the lagoon are thousands of Pacific razor clam shells. On other beaches around the island, I find the shells of butter clams, mussels, sand dollars, and plenty of barnacles along with washed-up kelp and enormous amber-striped jellyfish. People don’t always think of the North as an abundant place, but the Aleutian Islands are rich with life everywhere I go.

Barnacles and friends on the left, a huge jelly washed up on the beach on the right