Day 6 – The East Coast of the Big Island

An enormous banyan tree shading some parked cars in Hilo

A personable, magenta-haired barista at the Waimea Coffee Company made an açaí bowl and blue smoothie for us shortly after checking out of our motel. Açaí bowls were invented in Brazil, but they came into America through Hawai’i. Despite my love of food and the presence of açaí bowls in U.S. cuisine for over a decade, I had managed never to try one. The bowl was really good and really cold. For others who have never tried this dish, an açaí bowl is a fruit smoothie crowned with various healthy toppings like the traditional combination of granola, bananas, peanut butter, blueberries, and a drizzle of honey.

Along the island’s east coast, we stopped at Laupahoehoe Point and watched the sea crash to shore in white spray against jumbles of jagged black rocks. Whoever named the Pacific didn’t do it in this particular spot. Much of the Big Island of Hawai’i’s coastline, in fact, is anything but peaceful. There is a memorial at Laupahoehoe Point for 25 people who were lost in the 1946 tsunami. Three people survived the event there, all dragged out to sea on debris and later rescued. Near the memorial were some kukui (candlenut trees, Aleurites moluccanus), a fascinating tree with husk-covered, fat-laden fruits that look like pear-shaped macadamia nuts when shelled. The candlenut was named the Hawai’i State Tree in 1959 despite being imported from Polynesia, and the nuts are reportedly toxic raw but edible when cooked.

Further down the coast is ‘Akaka Falls State Park. A driving, soaking rain confronted us when we arrived, so we went back down the road to Hilo Shark’s Coffee in Honomu and enjoyed cups of rich coffee made from beans grown and roasted there on the mountain. After visiting Glass from the Past, an interesting little antique shop next door that specialized in vintage bottles, the rain had let up enough that we tried to hike the falls again. The whole park was so beautiful! There were stands of golden bamboo, an incredibly huge, old banyan tree with notches carved in one of the myriad trunks for climbing, and other plants so dense and healthy that it seemed we were in a botanic garden, but this garden had fresh, cool air and no glass walls. First we got a sidelong glance at Kahuna Falls (kahuna means priest in Hawaiian), which were running strong from the rain, then the trail looped around to the main ‘Akaka falls. The falls were swollen from rain, and several other thin but tall falls ran nearby. Three more waterfalls were waiting for us to admire from the trail on the way back to the car. Even though the trail can be crowded, and there is an entrance fee, which was on the honor system when we visited, this trail was more than worth the stop. It’s also more than worth the entrance fee, which we did not hesitate to pay because the revenue helps support the park.

Later in Hilo, we were hankering for a burger, so we stopped at the “Hilo Burger Joint.” It was somewhat busy, even after 2 p.m. We found the food to be good but not great, but unfortunately the service was terrible. It was our server’s first day on the job. We’re usually very forgiving of this, but the poor lady had obviously not been trained, and nobody was helping her. Our order was wrong, and after we received our food, we were totally on our own. Joseph could have used another cup of coffee, for instance, but nobody came by, and it was hard to find anyone. We waited a really long time for our check before we had to get up and ask for it. On the upside, I was able to try a Hilo Breakwall IPA, which was really good. A lot of talented brewmasters live in Hawai’i, especially on the Big Island.

We rented a cabin at Volcano National Park that would be better for locals, who can bring supplies, than for visitors like us, who have been limited to airline baggage. There was only one electrical outlet, no heat, and access to a single bathroom for the whole campground. Linens were provided as advertised, which fortunately included two big comforters that kept us pretty warm but captured a lot of damp condensation by morning. There were no good hiking trails near the cabin, so I followed a game trail for a while into the ohi’a forest on the outside slope of Kilauea. A series of rock hills sounded hollow like drums when I stepped on them. They were actually underground lava tubes! After about half an hour, I turned around and promptly got lost trying to retrace my steps. Not too lost, really, because I could hear the road in the distance, and I had GPS on my phone, but it was a bushwhack back to the cabin. On the way I saw two kalij pheasant hens, one with a chick, and some gorgeous bamboo orchids (Arundina graminifolia).

Ohi’a forest at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

After dark, we drove to the crater rim and hiked to an overlook to experience the red glow of liquid lava. Earlier in the week, visitors were allowed to the parking lot below the Jaggar Museum, which now sits a lot closer to the Halema’uma’u Crater than it used to. The museum is part of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory. The museum building was damaged and closed during the 2018 eruption and may never reopen. The Jaggar Museum isn’t the only casualty of Kilauea’s recent eruptions. There was once a road that circled the caldera rim. Aerial views show how sections of this road were obliterated as the caldera’s rim began to shift. Pieces of road can be seen still intact below the rim. Tonight, we were only allowed to go as far as the Kilauea Overlook, one parking lot down from the Jagger Museum, but we could see the red glowing gases well as they rose in the light rain, a sight not soon forgotten. We would find out later that an old friend, Lani Lisa, had come to this same caldera rim during the 2018 eruption. This is where she began to embrace her birth name, Lani, which had previously been only a leading initial L. Even a sideways glance into the goddess, Pele’s, home has the power to change a human life.

The cabins were a ten minute drive from Volcano House, the only place still open where we could get some warm food and hot drinks. The drinks consisted of weak Swiss Miss hot cocoa mix, but the food was pretty good, especially the hot tomato bisque. Everything was terrifically overpriced, as National Park Service vendors tend to be. COVID precautions meant that dinner was served in styrofoam containers in stapled paper bags, which servers delivered to the front counter for us to pick up. Dining at Volcano House in happier, pre-pandemic days may have been more charming, but styrofoam tends to siphon off a lot of charm for me.

Back at the cabin, I walked to the nearby campground. It was closed to campers during the pandemic but open to walkers. I wasn’t sleepy and wanted to catch a glimpse of stars. Even from the campground, Kilauea’s red glow stretched across a slice of the sky. Later in the night, I would wake up from my dreams, imagining the volcano’s enormous magma chamber churning deep below. Pele’s bodily form is understood to be the volcano itself – the lava, the vents, the fumes. All of it is Pele. Magnified by the darkness, the goddess was even more disconcerting from our tiny cabin, perched on her back.

The Abandoned North: Part VIII – Amchitka Island: Natural Beauty on a Small Scale

Shoreline
Amchitka Island shoreline

Some of the first things I notice when I arrive at Amchitka Island are all of the coral-reef colors of anemones, sea stars, fish, and kelp that can be seen below the dock in Constantine Harbor. It reminds me that the Bering Sea is a richly diverse place in spite of harsh conditions on the  surface.

Nootka lupine
Nootka lupine

There is a lot of natural beauty here, but it isn’t like the stark, volcanic mountains, waterfalls, or wild ocean spray of many of its neighbors. This part of the island is quite flat, although there are small mountains in the distant wilderness area that I can’t glimpse through the heavy clouds.

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A tiny ecosystem on an old sawn board, with an urchin shell ornament

 

Amchitka’s beauty is on a smaller scale: flowers, lichens, mosses, birds, and urchin shells. Whole communities of mosses and other tiny life forms are even developing on the tarmac. On the island’s soils, in low areas that have been undisturbed for at least a few decades, thick pillows of peat have formed, with their own complement of plant life.

At higher altitudes, the ecology becomes more complicated. In these exposed areas, winds dry out the soils and plants, creating bands of miniature shrub communities built around crowberry plants that alternate with with bands dominated by tundra grass. Neither is considered to be a climax community by ecologists because the bands shift over time, a constantly morphing patchwork of slow-growing life. Different still are the verdant ecosystems near the ocean. There is huge diversity here, if you stoop down and look closely enough.

Runway
Bryophyte communities growing on Amchitka’s abandoned runways

Mooring
Plants along the shoreline near a rusty battleship mooring

One of my favorite experiences on Amchitka Island was witnessing flocks of Aleutian Canada Geese. They look like miniature replicas of the large flocks I see migrating in Colorado, complete with their striking black and white heads. But these have white collar feathers, and their honks are higher pitched. Every time I hear them, it makes me smile. Aleutian Canada Geese were listed as endangered in 1967 but upgraded to threatened in 1991. They recovered enough to be delisted in 2001. In the early 20th century, trappers brought nonnative foxes to the Aleutian Islands to expand the fur trade. These foxes decimated the nesting grounds of the geese. Lots of people worked to remove the foxes from the islands and relocated populations of the birds. These included efforts on Amchitka Island, where the geese were once extinct.

The human footprint since the 20th century on the Aleutian Islands is heavy and undeniable. But, here as everywhere, nature eventually creeps back into the works of human beings. My trip to Amchitka Island has reaffirmed for me the need to continue to attend to the remote places, the need to help them heal. Maybe they are the most important places of all.Chimney

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

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, […]

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 IV – Adak Island: Unexploded Ordnance

 

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Craig Goodnight at the top of a porphyry dome, Adak

Unexploded ordnance: these are two words I encounter often during my visit to the Aleutians. Called UXO for short, it comes in many forms – bombs, artillery shells, bullets, torpedoes. In the Aleutian Islands, it also comes from many

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A warning poster aimed at children to avoid UXO, featuring Boomer the Otter

places – ordnance left by the United States during World War II to defend against Japanese attacks, ordnance left by the Japanese to defend against U.S. attacks, ordnance used for weapons testing during the Cold War, ordnance launched but unexploded, and ordnance intentionally buried, or maybe even stored and forgotten. Large tracts of land on the northern  part of Adak Island are still being cleared of UXO, and we’re told that it’s possible to find it in unexpected places outside of this area. Warnings are everywhere, most prominently warnings for children. UXO even has its own mascot, a helmet-wearing Boomer  the Otter.

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Warning signs along the perimeter of an area where UXO is still being cleaned up

Unexploded ordnance is not the only danger to people of Adak Island. There are also a lot of abandoned buildings with hazards like disintegrating materials and broken glass. Some date back as far as 1942, when the U.S. Army first arrived. At the peak of the World War II Aleutian military campaigns, Adak Island was home to 30,000 people. There were probably between 6,000 and 7,000 residents living here later, during the Cold War, maybe more. According to the 2010 U.S. census, it is now home to 326 people, although the year-round population is said to be closer to 100.

Humanity’s ruined structures hold a particular fascination for me, as they do for many others, and, like skeletons, they only become more fascinating as they age. Don’t ancient Egyptian tombs hold more intrigue than homicide scenes? For this reason, I find the older quonset huts more compelling than the newer barracks, the older Bering Chapel more beautiful than its newer replacement.

Two World War II era quonset huts built in the 1940s. According to a historical guide published by the City of Adak,  the structure on the right was part of an early hospital facility.

Left: The historic Bering Chapel, built in 1944 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with newer windowless, abandoned dormitories in the background. Right: The now abandoned Bering Hill Chapel that replaced the older structure in the 1980s.

Left: View of an abandoned neighborhood in Adak. Some of the condominiums are missing walls, probably from Arctic hurricanes. Center: More abandoned condominiums, with snow-capped mountains emerging from the clouds. Right: A derelict vacuum cleaner, complete with its cord, outside one of the empty military facilities on the island.

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Unexploded ordnance is on the menu at Bay 5

As I expected, my favorite thing about Adak Island turns out to be the natural world, but before I get to that (in Part V), there is one more piece of UXO to mention: the Unexploded Ordnance at Bay 5. A fellow named Bernardo Diaz is the proprietor of Bay 5, Adak’s Mexican American restaurant. The establishment offers a unique dessert that consists of a deep-fried Snicker’s bar topped with cinnamon-sugar, chocolate, and whipped topping. It’s tempting, but I decide not to buy one, as I am already full from delicious chicken enchiladas swimming in unpredictably fresh and authentic red chile. Surprises from remote Alaska never cease.

The Abandoned North, Part III – Adak Island: Birthplace of the Winds

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Horseshoe Cove on Adak Island

When I was in high school in Denver, Colorado in the late 1970s, we were all trained to fear the Soviet Union and to worry about potential nuclear warfare. At that time, I’d never heard of Adak Island, although it was an important military base. Activities on the Adak Naval Air Station were not advertised during the Cold War. It wasn’t easy for civilians to visit, and other facilities such as Shemya Air Force Base, west of Amchitka, were completely top secret. The base on Adak closed in 1997, and officials chose the least expensive option to disposition the facilities: abandonment. Most of the buildings are now empty, their shattered windows and tumbled walls open to the wind and rain.

We land at Adak Airport, on a runway that I later learn has been in continuous use since the end of World War II. As we descend the aircraft stairs, we are greeted by a large sign reading, “Welcome to N.A.F. Adak, Alaska, Birthplace of the winds.” Inside, a small crowd is forming to await the delivery of our bags. There is an old map of the city on one wall, a diorama of shorebirds on another, and a video on a high-mounted television warning about unexploded ordnance. Nobody is paying any attention.

Adak Airport sign
This is the sign that greets us as we step off the jet and into the Adak airport. Unangan call the island the Birthplace of the Winds, although the name “Adak” comes from the word “Adaq,” which means “Father.”

The City of Adak came into being in 2001, and it is composed mainly of repurposed military housing units, some of which may be rented by visitors. One of the rental companies is Little Michael Lodges, chosen by our team because the condominiums have wifi, as not all of the rentals do. Little lines of caribou skulls are posted like troops along the front of the homes, left by past hunters. Some of the skulls sport green antlers and little topknots of moss. Inside, a bottle of wine and a plate of chocolates welcome us into the kitchen.

It is expensive to bring materials to Adak, so the rentals are not quite like cabin rentals elsewhere. Visitors need to be flexible. There is not a full complement of cooking implements in our condo, so we improvise, and I discover that a wire whisk is actually one of the best ways to mash potatoes. There is plenty of bedding, but the bedroom curtains are thin, so I hang some of the sheets over the windows to block the long daylight that interferes with my sleep. The most inconvenient adjustment is the cold water in the showers upstairs, but otherwise the condo is cozy, clean, and comfortable. None of this is a real cause to complain. After all, I didn’t expect to be pampered in remote Alaska, at the edge of the Bering Sea.The Adak National Forest in its entirety

“Birthplace of the Winds” is a perfect name for Adak Island. Early on my first morning there, I go for a run along the beach with our team geologist, Craig. The temperature is well above freezing, but the wind cuts through me, bracing and invigorating! There are frequently hurricane-force winds here. Although we don’t experience any of these, there is barely a minute during our visit when there isn’t a strong wind blowing. It is so often cold and windy on the Aleutian Islands that trees can’t persist. Many decades ago, servicemen planted small groves of conifers on Adak Island as a morale boosting exercise. One of these stunted groves is famously known as “Adak National Forest,” the entirety of which can still be hiked in less than a minute.

We continue to tour the town. There are one or two small stores, several restaurants,  and warehouses operated by the Aleut Corporation, which owns moSunken Navy tugboat at Adakst of the northern part of the island, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the wildlife refuge in the south. There are also a whole lot of empty buildings and a collection of docks in Sweeper Cove, Adak’s harbor. Some are in use, while others are decaying. There is a sunken tugboat in one corner, still tied to shore. It is the Mecosta, built in the early 70’s and sold by the Navy in the early 2000s. A second tug, the Redwing, also once served in the harbor and lies underwater nearby. Something about the repose of the well-crafted boat is picturesque, maybe even beautiful.

 

The Abandoned North, Part II – Anchorage: Midnight Sun

View from Elderberry Park in Anchorage
Mt. Susitna, “The Sleeping Lady,” and Cook Inlet from Elderberry Park, Anchorage

The last time I saw Cook Inlet was in early March, 2012 as my husband and I left Anchorage on the way back from the Alaska interior and the ceremonial start of the Iditarod sled dog race. At that time, the inlet was filled with a flotilla of ice chunks, their edges worn round, dim in the twilight beneath the plane. This summer, the water of the inlet is calm and clear, topped with blankets of low-lying clouds and surrounded by a land shaded green. Plant life abounds in the city as it basks in over 19 hours of daylight. At 61 degrees north latitude, this is the land of the midnight sun.

Rainbow in Anchorage
View from Room 1229 of the Anchorage Marriott Downtown hotel. A bright rainbow over Delaney Park makes it look like midday, but this photo was taken after 11:00 p.m. on June 11

On our previous trip, a former Anchorage resident recommended the Rusty Harpoon to my husband, and I love this shop enough to return in 2016 with my friend and fellow ecologist, Danika Marshall. I buy some Alaskan malachite/azurite jewelry and ask the owners, Bill and Sheri, about a good place to eat dinner. They send us to the F Street Station with a warning that it will be crowded. They are right about that, but as soon as we arrive, five people miraculously evacuate a table by the front window, and we claim it for the Amchitka team. Along with Danika and I are team leader Paul Darr, geologist Craig Goodknight, and engineer Stephen Pitton. The men have all been to Amchitka many times, and I value their knowledge and experience.

Craig Goodknight, Paul Darr, Stephen Pitton, Danika Marshall in F Street Grill in Anchorage
Craig, Paul, Stephen, and Danika at the F Street Station.

F Street serves local and regional beer on tap in pint-sized mason jars. I opt for a Dolly Varden Nut Brown from Kassik’s Brewery in Kenai and order a sourdough crab roll and some Alaskan oysters on the half shell – all good choices. While waiting for food, customers can help themselves to slices of Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese, cut from a huge block placed out on the bar. In what must be an example of Alaskan humor, the cheese block comes with a  warning:

Display Only: Do Not Eat

But there is a cheese slicer sitting  invitingly on top.

The long daylight must be affecting me because I don’t get much sleep, although my room at the Anchorage Marriott Downtown is comfortable and nice. In the hotel lobby, they serve Kaladi Brothers Coffee, an Alaskan brew of a different sort. I buy a cup. I have to confess that I am a coffee snob and only enjoy fresh brews made from Coffea arabica beans. Kaladi Brothers doesn’t disappoint. Strong, black coffee in hand, I take a little walk at dawn to nearby Elderberry Park, where I stroll past jewel-bright gardens and wildflowers. There are exotic-looking mudflats along Cook Inlet and snowy mountains in the distance, including Mt. Susitna, also called “The Sleeping Lady.”

Paul recommends breakfast at the Snow City Cafe, so the team meets there. My “crabby omelette” is well worth the wait. The food is fresh and the service is excellent, but like most American breakfast places, the coffee is made with Coffea robusta beans, so I don’t drink too much. The team has a tight schedule, as we need to buy groceries for our stay on Adak Island and drop them off at Alaska Air Cargo in time for the flight later in the day. We also need some last-minute supplies for our work on Amchitka Island.

Alaska Air Cargo dock
Alaska Airlines runs passenger and cargo service to Adak Island. I love Alaska Air. They still value customer service, unlike many larger airlines. On the flight, they serve tasty, warm food and give us excellent care. We are also allowed 3 free checked bags on the flight.

In midafternoon, we board the jet for the 1,200 mile (1,930 km) flight to Adak Island, where flights end and further travel must be by boat. Alaska Airlines is the only passenger air service to the island, running two flights per week. The passenger cabin is only about 20 percent full, but the cargo bay must surely be near capacity. Reeve Aleutian Airways once ran frequent flights to and from many of the islands, but it shut down in 2000, only three years after the closure of the Navy base on Adak Island.

Raven sculptures in Anchorage airport
Raven sculptures at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. Ravens are my favorite birds, tricksters of legend. I’m hoping they don’t have too many tricks planned for us!

I’ve been doing some research on the area and am anxious to see what I can of the mountains and coastlines from the plane window. Hopefully, clouds won’t obscure everything. On March 27, 2016, the Pavlof Volcano erupted on the Alaska Peninsula about halfway between Anchorage and Adak. It spewed a fountain of brilliant red lava and created lightning, both visible from the village of Cold Bay. There were some minor explosions and ash fall in mid May, but the volcano was quiet again by June. I watch for the mountain as we fly above and can see a symmetrical white peak in the space between a carpet of clouds. It is likely Pavlof, or maybe it’s an adjacent cone called Pavlof Sister. Either way, it is a stereotypically perfect cone-shaped volcano.

Pavlof Mountain, active volcano
Pavlof Volcano – or maybe it’s Pavlof Sister – from the window of the Alaska Air jet

The Pribilof Islands, far north of the Aleutian chain, were once part of the Bering Sea land bridge. Woolly mammoths foraged long ago on meadows that are now sea floor. According to recent scientific discoveries, the Pribilof Islands were one of the last refuges of the woolly mammoth after the Ice Age. While mammoths went extinct on the North American mainland between 13,000 and 14,000 years ago, they persisted on St. Paul Island until about 5,500 to 5,700 years ago. It seems an unlikely place for huge animals to live, as there are few large mammals up there now. I wonder if any of the Aleutian Islands are hiding fossils too, and what unexpected surprises they might hold. I look out the window of the plane. Through choppy sea-clouds that resemble cave popcorn, I glimpse a wild coastline. It must be at least 20 miles long, with no houses, no buildings, no roads. It tugs at my heart, and it seems like anything is possible down there.

The Abandoned North, Part I – Bound for the Aleutians

aleutian-islands
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

Winter Solstice

First snow tree at night

Some people believe that the winter solstice − rather than All Hallow’s Eve − is the time when the veil is thinnest between the worlds of the living and the spirits. The mystic in me wants to embrace this idea, but my inner skeptic wonders if there is a spirit world at all. One thing I am certain of: there is more in nature we don’t understand than we do. And that’s okay, as it should be. There is something about the winter solstice, about the interplay between light and darkness, that makes me want to believe in a world of shadow and mystery.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac calls the December full moon the “Cold Moon” or “Long Nights Moon,” according to Native American tradition. I’ve also heard it called the “Moon of the Popping Trees,” because in some places it can get so cold that the sap freezes in trees, expanding and breaking the bark in the middle of the night with a loud crack. In that kind of weather, a person could step outside to relieve themselves, be enchanted by the prismatic beauty of moonlight on snow crystals, and freeze to death in the span of ten minutes. It could take even fewer minutes in a northern ice-scape without trees at all. Best be careful, little human being.

I had the fortune to spend this past summer solstice on the Tiglax, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research vessel for Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. For years, I’d longed to experience the Bering Sea. It is more formidable than I ever imagined. And more beautiful. Its slate gray waters − even in summer − could have claimed my life in the span of five minutes if I fell overboard. No warning signs are necessary on that boat’s pitching rail.

To some, the whole point of the winter solstice is the rebirth of the sun, the relief that it won’t keep fading away, that light and warmth will come back to us. That’s vital, but only half the story. I believe my Irish ancestors – the ones who called themselves Druids and who named the winter solstice Alban Arthuan – might agree with me. It’s not only about the return of the light, it’s also about embracing the darkness, beyond the recognition that there are things out there that can hurt us, freeze us, kill us. Humans are not in control. We never have been. It’s good to be reminded on this shortest day of the year. Often there is strength, even survival, in concealment.

Civilizations that live near the Earth’s poles seem to understand the winter solstice best. The myths of Iceland are filled with creatures like Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat. Icelanders are direct descendants of Vikings, who must have loved cats. Recent archeological research hints that they may have been the ones to bring house cats to Europe. But the Yule Cat is not a pet. It’s a creature of the darkness, eating people who have been too lazy to wear out their working clothes during the course of the previous year. I understand that Icelanders still typically give gifts of clothing for Christmas to ward off Jólakötturinn. You don’t have to literally believe in the Yule Cat to embrace a tradition like this, to be watchful, especially in the frigid night of winter.

We need to take care, but we don’t need to fear. Darkness is beautiful, like the silvered waves of the arctic seas. Somewhere in the long night is also a warm hug, a fire, a feast, someone we love. And there is no better time to tell a good story, the sort of intricate tale that emerges from the blackness and takes hold. This solstice, turn toward the darkness as well as the light. Conceal yourself in it. But don’t forget to be vigilant. Always be watchful.