Today is very different. Yesterday at the breakfast table I looked out our kitchen window to see songbirds in the low spring sunlight filtering through the evergreens. Today I see gray, brown, and a barren landscape. I’m on Adak Island for the start of our three-week, self-supported sea kayak expedition. It’s late May and we are about to explore the Andreanof Island group in the western Aleutian Islands chain of Alaska, 1,200 miles west of Anchorage. It is one of the most remote and harsh locations in the United States.
The journey to this intriguing place started about six months ago (but the planning began long before that) when the kayaks were packed and shipped from Seattle to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, for an uncertain onward voyage to Adak. We were extremely lucky to find a small barge on which our kayaks hitchhiked a ride, literally being strapped to a crane destined for the “Adak small-boat harbor improvement project.” Our primary goal was to paddle west from Adak to Tanaga Island and explore the coastline of Kanaga Island with its impressive volcano along the way.
To our knowledge, we are the first “modern” kayakers to travel this windswept region. In fact, Adak Island is commonly known as the birthplace of the winds, and legend says it is also the birthplace of the ancient Aleut who inhabited this island archipelago until the U.S. government “relocated” them during World War II. The Aleut lived off the sea and used sophisticated skin-on-frame craft for subsistence fishing and hunting of seal, sea lion and whale. These peoples were the inventors of kayaking and plied these waters for millennia before westerners arrived. As a kayaker I wanted to connect in some way to this ancient lifestyle and understand firsthand how they managed and lived.
Our trip was not unlike Vitus Bering’s 1741 “Voyage of Discovery” that sailed in two ships, the St. Peter and St. Paul, but with key differences. His commission was to claim the land east of Russia for the Imperial Court. We arrived from the west via air and paddled in four kayaks to connect with the land, its fauna, flora and culture and to discover its rich and volatile history.
There is more than meets the eye here in the western Aleutians. This is the place where the Bering Sea and the north Pacific Ocean meet and mingle among active volcanic islands. This is where some of our planet’s most violent weather systems brew. Sea life abounds in these rich, cold waters. There are no native land mammals but there are birds from all seven continents on these islands with no trees. We discovered remnants of the Aleut, the Russian occupation, World War II and modern man all being beaten down by the constant and relentless wind. It had been an ambition of mine to travel this rich region and I was not disappointed. This expedition only whetted my appetite for more…