“Good bye to my lady, good bye to dry ground.
I’m off to a place where the place where the crab can be found.
Raise your glass high boys, you’re drinkin’ on me,
I’m off to Dutch Harbor on the cold Bering Sea.”
— Hobo Jim, “Off to Dutch Harbor”
Fishing is the front door to Unalaska and the Port of Dutch Harbor, located almost 800 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Aleutian Chain.
Most people who come to Unalaska are arriving to work in the processing plants, or on the fishing boats that Hobo Jim sings about.
But Unalaska’s first settlers, the Unangan people, have called the island home for 10,000 years.
Before the crab and pollock fisheries, Russian explorers arrived in the 18th century to harvest fur seals. In 1942, Japanese planes bombed Dutch Harbor — and World War II brought massive changes to the Aleutian Islands.
On final approach to the airport, two separate container ship ports are visible. Empty shipping containers are stacked high all around the huge cranes and cold-storage buildings.
Right now, the community is getting ready for “B Season,” when giant ships drag the ocean floor for pollock. Once it’s processed and frozen, it’s packed into the waiting containers, loaded onto the ships — and sent to market.
The “B Season” pollock fishery helps push the Port of Dutch Harbor to the top of the list of fishing ports in the U.S.
To service this giant fishing fleet, the community of Unalaska hosts mechanics, fabricators, underwater divers, stores and marine supply shops of all kinds.
Giant seafood companies like Unisea, Trident and Westward have large dock facilities and processing plants. Trident is constructing a new, multimillion-dollar processing plant to speed the delivery of fish around the world.
The massive fishing industry hums along 24 hours a day. But visitors to the island can learn about the history and culture of all those who came before and have left their mark on this community of 4,000 people.
Learn about the Unangan people at the Museum of the Aleutians. As soon as you enter, you’ll see the big kayak frame. On display is a one-person hunting boat. But there also were boats made for two, three or more people for trade and hunting excursions.
The museum portrays the life of the Unangan, which includes information and models of the birds, plants, sea lions, otters and whales in the area.
The world changed for the Unangan when the Russians arrived in the 1700s. The explorers, including Vitus Bering, were accompanied by naturalists, scientists and Russian Orthodox priests.
Detailed information on the trading, settlements and integration of the Russians is available at the museum and the city’s new library. But the most impressive remnant of the Russian period is the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of our Lord.
The cathedral is located right on the water in the middle of town. It’s one of the most-photographed icons of Unalaska.
Call ahead to the Unalaska Visitors Bureau to arrange for a tour of the inside of the cathedral, as it’s not always open to visitors.
Inside the cathedral are icons from the 18th century, as well as new icons of Alaskan saints. Father Ioasaph, the resident priest, patiently described how looking at icons is like gazing into heaven. “Each icon tells a story,” he said.
Even before World War II started, construction had started to fortify the Aleutian Islands against potential attacks in 1940.
The buildup continued as the U.S. entered the war when Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941. But the war came to Unalaska when Japanese bombers struck on Jun. 3, 1942.
The Museum of the Aleutians has a comprehensive gallery on the war years, including the forced evacuation of Aleutian Islanders to internment camps in Southeast Alaska.
After the war ended, many communities had been abandoned or destroyed. Many islanders died while in the camps — and some died because they were taken prisoner by the Japanese (in Attu).
Right next to the airport terminal building, there’s a visitor center for the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area. There are exhibits on the Aleutian campaign, as well as a timeline showing the evacuation and internment of the Unangan people.
Upstairs on the second floor is a reconstructed radio room, complete with equipment from the 1940s. The room has a wrap-around view of the airport runway and served as an important weather forecasting station for pilots and ship captains.
The visitor center and the airport sit at the base of Mt. Ballyhoo, which was home to Fort Schwatka during the war. Hike up the road to the summit on the back side of Mt. Ballyhoo to see some of the old battlements. Here, soldiers kept a vigilant watch for enemy ships and planes. At sea level, anti-submarine nets were strung across the narrow bays.
Four important periods are on display in Unalaska: the time of the Unangan people, the impact of the Russian explorers and traders, World War II and the Aleutian Campaign and the modern-day fishing industry.
To make the trek to Unalaska, consider taking the Alaska Marine Highway from Homer. Sail on the Tustumena first to Kodiak, calling at Port Lions, Sand Point, Cold Bay, False Pass and a couple of other communities on the way to Unalaska. The one-way ticket is $411. There aren’t any cabins available, so travelers can bring their sleeping bags and camp on the deck under the solarium.
There are five remaining dates for the summer: June 13, July 11, Aug. 12, Sept. 5 and Sept. 19. The Tustumena arrives about four days later.
After arriving in Unalaska, check out the sites, the trails and the museums. Spend the night at the Grand Aleutian Hotel. It’s the only hotel in town, although there are some Airbnb listings.
The Grand Aleutian is owned by seafood giant Unisea and hosts a sumptuous seafood buffet each Wednesday evening. I think they should rename it the “King Crab Buffet,” since everyone was lining up by the giant basket of crab legs!
Across the parking lot from the Grand Aleutian is the “Norvegian Rat Saloon” which is a favorite with the “Deadliest Catch” crew. Fans of the show will recognize many in-town landmarks and boats — if they happen to be in the harbor.
Fly back to Anchorage on Aleutian Airways or Ravn Alaska. You can use your Alaska Air miles on Ravn Alaska, which flies the Dash 8 (40,000 miles one-way). Aleutian Airways flies a faster plane, the Saab 2000. In mid-July, ticket prices range from $719-$749 one-way.
Unalaska is built for fishing. But the area has a long history of sustaining its original people, the Unangan. The earth-shaking events of Russian contact and World War II are well-documented for the curious visitor.
The morning I left, it was about 55 degrees. The sky was blue. There was no wind. It was beautiful. But for my trip “Off to Dutch Harbor” I packed my Xtratufs, insulated rain pants, a waterproof jacket, gloves and a hat. Although I wasn’t going on a boat, preparation is important.
Correction: A photo caption in an earlier version of this column incorrectly reported the company building a new seafood processing plant. It is Trident Seafoods, not Unisea.