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Treat kids to mix of history, nature and unusual ferry trip out the Aleutians

  • Author: Erin Kirkland
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 10, 2015

DUTCH HARBOR -- Standing at the crest of a grassy knoll strewn with wildflowers and the beginnings of a berry patch, my son and I momentarily forgot where we were. The sweeping meadows and craggy cliffs of Ireland, perhaps, making our way to the nearest castle?

Wrong. Instead of highland trekking across the pond in search of Will o' the Wisps, we were knee-deep in the weeds and wild rose bushes of Unalaska and Amaknak Island along the Aleutian chain.

My family and I had arrived earlier in the day via the Alaska Marine Highway, ending a four-day journey that delivered us nearly 900 miles from our embarkation point of Homer. I'm not exactly sure what we were expecting in Unalaska beyond raucous fishermen and endless bad weather, but I'm happy to report, we found neither.

Our reasoning behind using vacation time for travel to Unalaska was twofold. First, I have a book coming out next year about the Alaska Marine Highway and was obligated to travel as many ferry routes as possible, the Aleutian Islands included. Second, my husband and I wanted to introduce our son, 10, to a place most Alaska children skip during their summertime adventures

Link to Alaska's heritage

Thankfully, activities in Unalaska and Amaknak (the island home to Dutch Harbor proper) weave together a valuable link to Alaska's heritage. Everywhere we went, tangible reminders of Aleut history, Russian Orthodox culture and the tumultuous years of World War II opened door after door for reflection and education.

The Unalaska/Port of Dutch Harbor Convention and Visitors Bureau has made a concerted effort this year to encourage extended exploration by visitors. Cruise ships have begun making ports of call, and Alaska Marine Highway ferries are met by eager volunteers handing out maps for easier navigation on foot. In all, according to Cathy Jordan with the visitors bureau, 14,000 activity guides are sent out globally and locally to spark the Unalaska travel bug.

"Our guide has been in high demand around the state this year," she said. "Our challenge is to showcase all we have to offer, and how to get here. Many of our visitors have already been around Alaska a few times, but never out to the Aleutian Islands." Including us.

Originally settled centuries ago by the Unangan (Aleut) People who led a wholly subsistence lifestyle patterned with a deep understanding of the sea, stars and geography, the Aleutians are a harsh, yet beautiful land. Visitors are able to see firsthand the lifestyle and history of Unangan at the Museum of the Aleutians (www.aleutians.org) and through a wide range of walks and hikes available to just about any ability level.

World War II shaped the future of Unalaska, at least in terms of infrastructure and topography. In 1940, the United States Navy appropriated Unalaska and Amaknak islands as a fortification strategy against potential Japanese attack, which started June 3, 1942. While no actual battles were fought in the greater Dutch Harbor area, the two days of bombing and an eventual presence of Japanese forces in Attu and Kiska at the western end of the chain kept American soldiers, sailors and airmen stationed in Unalaska until the war ended, up to 40,000 of them at the height of the conflict.

Connecting with the past

The concrete and steel remnants of a world at war refuse to yield to time. Even though most of the gun turrets have been removed, we saw evidence of them everywhere -- along the side of the road, in Memorial Park and even, we were told, on the playground of the local school in previous years. Unlike sites of major battles or well-known commemorative memorials, little has been done to mitigate the eventual overgrowth of crowberry bushes, grasses and a variety of animal and bird life.

A good way to explore Unalaska's past, I discovered, was to take my family to those places where young men, most dressed for desert warfare and not the wet, windy conditions of Southwest Alaska, shivered as they walked to and from their barracks to even colder, more barren gun emplacements to watch for enemy ships or planes.

If nothing else, the arrival of World War II meant the construction of roads, both in town and beyond, totaling 38 miles. Today, those same dirt roads lead to generally unmarked trails that, once explored, open a chapter of history that cannot be replicated in any classroom.

For those inclined, fishing for halibut and salmon is available, but be sure the check Fish and Game regulations for closures. Without as much pressure as other parts of the state, huge fish are available. In 1996, for instance, a 459-pound halibut was caught in Unalaska Bay by Jack Tragis. It remains the state record.

Exploring

Hikers and walkers who wish to explore the hills of Unalaska and Amaknak islands should first secure a recreational land-use permit from the Ounalashka Corporation, land owners of nearly all of the surrounding area ($6/individual or $10/family for day use). Corporation headquarters on Salmon Way also provides detailed hiking maps, berry-picking guidance and an excellent display of Unangan baskets, sculptures and art.

Within the boundaries of town, trail options are plentiful. Sitka Spruce Park and Strawberry Hill trails on Amaknak Island near East Point Road are grassy inclines with gun turrets and remnants of buildings bombed during the Japanese raid in 1942. Sitka Spruce Park also boasts a unique stand of spruce trees planted in 1805 by Russians looking to forest the area. Only three of the original trees remain, and the entire site is designated as a National Historic Landmark, with interpretive information, a playground and picnic tables.

Bunker Hill, also on Amaknak, is where visitors capture their first sense of the U.S. military's attempt to establish itself as a protectorate. Accessed near the Carl E. Moses Small Boat Harbor, this old military road is closed to motorized vehicles, leaving a wide switchback of trail tread that winds up and around the hill, past abandoned tunnels, bunkers and a concrete turret that overlooks town. As you make your way back to town, look along the sides of Bunker Hill for a series of carefully dug trenches in geometric patterns, designed to prevent Japanese troops from advancing overland.

On the other end of Amaknak looms Mount Ballyhoo, so named, we heard, by author Jack London, who passed through Unalaska on his way back from Nome's gold fields in late 1899. At that time, ships would stop in the harbor for coal, water and provisions during a long, arduous journey to and from the far north.

Ballyhoo is the site of Fort Schwatka, site of the largest Army base on either island. Almost unseen by the casual observer, Fort Schwatka provided housing, medical care, offices, communications bunkers and a series of tunnels running back and forth through the hillsides. Evidence of mankind is everywhere. Skeletons of Quonset frames, bleached wood from barracks and even a kitchen sink and stove from post dining hall were left where they fell.

Like many military-themed hikes, Fort Schwatka feeds the imagination. Although this remote military installation provides proof of worldwide conflict in a different era, it's also a reminder of the people stationed here -- young, naive soldiers who may never have traveled before being dropped on what amounts to the chilly northern equivalent of a desert island, watching and waiting for an enemy known for stealth and surprise. When the wind blows hard enough, whistling across the summit of Mount Ballyhoo, or clouds blow a misty breath across the open front of half-buried turrets, it's easy to visualize -- and difficult to comprehend.

Other hikes

Unalaska's lush hillsides are available to those who wish to test their mettle against the island's steep, windy slopes. Some trails are old military access points. Others, like the Ugadaga Trail, are historical thoroughfares of the Unangan people. Camping is allowed in designated areas, provided a land-use permit has been obtained. A map of the area, provided by the Ounalashka Corporation, is a must, as many trailheads are only vaguely marked.

Ugadaga Trail: Take Overland Road from downtown Unalaska to the trailhead. Plunging 800 feet toward the opposite shoreline, this is a 1.5-mile hike most families can tackle. Allow two hours roundtrip.

Peace of Mind Trail: Meant to inspire and bring about a certain outdoor zen, Peace of Mind is a moderate 3-mile hike affording nice views of Summer Bay and marine traffic, with a marshy lowland lake midway through. Allow three hours roundtrip. Take the Summer Bay access to Overland Drive, where the trailhead is marked.

Agamgik Trail: Located along picturesque Summer Bay Road, this trail is longer and more difficult. Rated as "moderate," the trail nonetheless has a few stream crossings that require care. After a bit of a climb near the beginning, the trail levels out as it nears Agamgik Bay. From there, hikers who wish to continue can access English Bay Trail, another 5.5 miles of hiking to the bay itself. Best for older tweens or teenagers who have experience hiking variable terrain.

Look for fox, ground squirrels, nesting eagles, rock ptarmigan and more than 120 varieties of wildflowers along the way. Allow plenty of time for wet, slippery conditions.

Beware, there is little, if any, cell phone or Internet service in many parts of Unalaska and Amaknak Islands, so plan to be responsible for yourself and those in your party. Bring plenty of food, water and layers of warm, weatherproof clothing. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back.

Unalaska/Dutch Harbor - if you go

By air: Alaska Airlines partners with PenAir for service between Anchorage and Unalaska. Alaska residents should use Club 49 and Alaska Airlines mileage plan discounts if possible, as tickets are notoriously expensive. Website: alaskair.com.

By sea: The Alaska Marine Highway travels between Homer and Unalaska/Dutch Harbor between May and September, arriving once every two weeks via the M/V Tustemena. Weather can often be a major deterrent for ferry travelers, so come prepared for waves, wind and rain. Typically, the ferry trip takes four days each way. Website: ferryalaska.com.

Lodging: The Grand Aleutian is the only hotel on either Unalaska or Amaknak Islands. With three restaurants on-site and one near the UniSea headquarters about a mile away, it is the best bet for full-service accommodation. Website: grandaleutian.com.

Car rental: BC Auto Rentals provides all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicles to customers, a must if traveling beyond the basics of downtown. Located within the Tom Madsen Airport. Phone: 907-581-6777.

Information: The Unalaska/Port of Dutch Harbor Convention and Visitors Bureau has a wide range of tour information and suggestions for visitor services and activities. Website: unalaska.info.

Erin Kirkland is publisher of AKontheGO.com and author of the guidebook "Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children." Reach her at e.kirkland0@gmail.com

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