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A first visit touches on the soul of Unalaska

  • Author: Heather Lende
  • Updated: September 2
  • Published September 2

Crosses on a hill in Unalaska in August 2017. (Heather Lende)

UNALASKA — When my daughter JJ announced that she had been hired as the new principal at the elementary school in Unalaska, I looked at the map. "Unalaska is farther than Seattle," I said to my husband.

"And harder to get to," he said.

"At least she's still in Alaska."

Unalaska is 1,200 miles as the crow flies from Juneau. In theory, we could have arrived in less than six hours on our combined flights from the capital to Anchorage to the Dutch Harbor airport in Unalaska. (A bridge connects the port of Dutch Harbor to Unalaska proper.)

It took us more than 48 hours.

I'm traveling with JJ, in part, because her husband can't leave his old job for the new one out here yet. Also, I am curious to see the Aleutians. I imagine blowing rain, darkness, bleak landscapes, "Deadliest Catch" crewmen staggering around swearing.

Beautiful, friendly, energetic

What I find are energetic, friendly people; a walkable, multicultural small town (population 4,700) with great schools, a pool, a new community and recreation center that has public music and art rooms, an award-winning library stocked with books and DVDs for children and adults in many languages; and a public radio and TV station. All that on spectacularly beautiful green mountainous islands that remind me of western Ireland.

I admit I had my doubts that JJ's 8-by-10 area rug would arrive with her other boxes and bags, but I kept them to myself. Locals at the PenAir gate in Anchorage, where we spent two days, had a lot of extra baggage, too. Carts stacked with coolers, boxes, totes and empty dog kennels.

Dogs slept on the floor at their owner's feet. Everyone agreed that waiting in the airport on standby and weather delay was preferable to flying all the way out to Unalaska only to be turned back. Their stories about Aleutian travel fiascos put them in a can-you-top-this festive mood. We laughed a lot. I liked this crowd.

Later in Unalaska, I asked the longtime superintendent: What's the worst weather he's seen? He described a winter storm with 100-mph winds and rain on top of ice. The staff made a human chain across the parking lot to help the students crawl from the buses to the building.

While JJ familiarized herself with her new district before the school year began, I took walks past the little old houses on the bay, the historic Russian church, down through a fish-processing complex, back up through a military memorial park and the cemetery on the hill above it. The not-so-simple tall white, Orthodox Christian crosses planted in the flowering meadow prompted a silent prayer. Up a dirt road I picked blueberries and salmonberries, and reflexively looked for bears.

But there are no bears here, only curious foxes and pushy eagles. Across the harbor I could see the bustling docks and processors. Everywhere there are rusting or concrete World War II-era ruins. An evangelical church broadcasts Christian radio on loudspeakers downtown, and one rainy evening the smell of garlic and spices pulled us into a steamy cafe serving Vietnamese pho (pronounced "fah"), a noodle soup in bowls too big to finish.

Survivors’ heartbreak

At the Museum of the Aleutians, I paused among the baskets, carved and painted visors, the kayaks and tools to view what I expected to be a few minutes of a documentary about the Unangan Aleut people's forced evacuation and internment in abandoned canneries of Southeast during World War II and was riveted for an hour.

The voices of the survivors and their heartbreak slayed me. One elder recalled standing on the rail of the crowded ship to God-only-knew-where dressed in her Sunday best clutching an overnight bag, waving goodbye to her father along with her mother and sisters. He was an Englishman and thus was prohibited from leaving the island with his Native family.

There was an old photo of him and their house. It was one of the pretty cottages by the memorial park. I began to cry then, and the story only got worse. For three years they suffered or died in the "care" of the United States government. When the survivors were finally released, they might as well have been told to swim home from Juneau — it was that difficult to make their way back. Those who did found their property in shambles or destroyed. A lot of families never were reunited.

Children cross a bridge in Unalaska in August 2017. (Heather Lende)

I don't really know much about Unalaska. I was just a visitor for a week. But I do know I didn't imagine the feeling of melancholy on that hill among those crosses, despite the optimism and youth of its newer settlers and the big brawny port. There's a soul to this place, and it knows some truths that are best not forgotten.

When we unrolled JJ's rug, I recognized the same design that's on the carpet in her older sister's living room. I loved that my daughters taught at the same elementary school and lived on the same Juneau street. Red-haired baby Molly and toddling James don't know a time when Auntie JJ wasn't a daily presence in their lives. We all miss her.

"I hope you and Dad come back out next fall, so I can really show you around now that I'm starting to get things figured out," she said the other day. "This place is amazing."

And it's really not that far. Maybe we can bring a niece or a nephew too, so they can break in that new rug.

Haines author Heather Lende's third book is "Find the Good." Check her blog or Facebook page.

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