Trekking into the storm-battered, golden beauty of Adak Island

By Alaska standards, Adak — with its lack of trees, brush and bears — is surprisingly amenable to backcountry travel, and everyone on the island has a story.

ADAK ISLAND — We smelled the sea lions before we saw them. The pungent, fishy odor began at the wave-scoured sea lion rookery, climbed towering black cliffs of volcanic rock and finally reached us on the grassy, lake-dappled tundra. Our group of three had just reached the tip of the Yakak Peninsula, on the southernmost end of Adak Island and what felt like the edge of the world.

For three days we had scrambled through deep ravines, skirted lakes and wandered through seemingly endless foothills of golden grass to reach this spot. Today we had walked nearly the entire length of the Yakak Peninsula, following a ghostly line of abandoned wooden utility poles left over from Adak’s days as a major military installation. Glass insulators still adorned the tops of some poles, while others had been stripped down to their knotted heartwood cores or snapped in half by Adak’s famously hostile wind. Caribou in their white winter coats stopped to stare at us before leaping into the air and prancing away. On the horizon, cone-shaped volcanoes arced up into the clouds.

Before I saw the sea lions I heard Michael yell: “Holy s---! Get over here!”

Cale and I raced across the grass to find Michael pointing out into the Pacific Ocean. Six or seven orca dorsal fins broke the surface, packed in tight formation. Then we spotted another group of orcas, and another. From our vantage point on a steep slope, we could see a dozen endangered Steller sea lions below us. Just beyond the rookery, nearly three dozen orcas circled relentlessly. The sea lions were safe on the rocks, but hunger would eventually drive them back into the water.

For nearly an hour we watched this life-and-death game of chicken play out below us, a thrilling and sobering reminder that life on Adak is both precious and precarious.

Adak Island lies near the middle of Alaska’s storm-wracked Aleutian Islands, almost exactly equidistant from Tokyo and Seattle. For centuries the island was inhabited by the Aleut people, who thrived on an abundance of marine life and developed sophisticated technologies to handle the harsh maritime environment. In the 18th century, Russian fur trading, missionaries and the introduction of Eurasian diseases greatly altered the Aleut way of life, and there were no longer permanent Aleut settlements on Adak when World War II broke out.

During the war, tens of thousands of American troops were deployed to Adak to repel the Japanese invasion of Alaska. The island was strafed by Japanese aircraft but never invaded, and American troops staged from Adak successfully retook the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska. After World War II, Adak became a strategically important Cold War base housing over 6,000 people. The military went to extraordinary effort and expense to make the island hospitable for personnel and their families, and at its height Adak featured numerous cabins, playgrounds, a movie theater, recreation center, downhill ski area, and the westernmost McDonald’s in the world. Then, in the mid-1990s, the base was abruptly closed. Today, nearly all of the facilities and much of the housing have fallen into decay, and many streets elicit inevitable comparisons to ghost towns and zombie movies.

Still, the island hangs on. Its 300-plus residents work in the fish processing plant, harbor, school or airport. Others provide lodging and services to visitors, who often come to Adak to hunt caribou. Calves from the Nelchina herd were introduced by the military in the late 1950s to provide food security and recreation for the base, and the herd now numbers between 2,000 and 3,000. For many, hunting caribou on Adak is the adventure of a lifetime. But on this trip we left our firearms at home, and set out to explore the vast and rarely visited southern portions of the island armed only with cameras.

Our trek began with the dramatic flight from Anchorage to Adak on an Alaska Airlines 737. The twice-weekly, federally subsidized flights are often nearly empty, allowing passengers to spread out or jump from one side of the plane to the other looking for the best views of the volcanoes and islands below. The flight attendants always seem to enjoy this laid-back leg, and this time, after telling us we were “crazy,” they made us a small care package of airline snacks.

As soon as our backpacks were unloaded, we hitched a ride in the bed of a pickup to town and set out on a maze of old ATV trails for Husky Pass. By Alaska standards, Adak is surprisingly amenable to backcountry travel. There are no trees and no brush, and the caribou mow down the springy tundra characteristic of the Aleutian Islands. Adak is almost entirely covered with sparse, dry grass, from the oceanside to the summits of the peaks. In flat light it can look dull and dead, but when the sun appears the entire landscape shimmers like battered gold. The terrain is constantly rolling and cut through with steep ravines. Adak is almost never flat.

We camped the first night at the head of a small canyon, and ate our meals next to our tent. There are no bears on Adak, and no concerns about cooking in camp or even eating in tents. Though invasive rats are present, a federal biologist had reassured us that they are neophobic — afraid of new things — and would avoid us. The feeling was mutual.

For the next two days, the weather was sublime. The Aleutians are notorious for clouds, cool weather and wind, and the climate on Adak is too harsh for naturally growing trees. But the island is surprisingly far south; in terms of latitude, Adak is about halfway between Ketchikan and Seattle, and when the sun comes out it feels like the sun of a more southerly state. We dropped down to T-shirts and shorts as we hiked past lakes named after midcentury military sweethearts: Lake Angie, Lake Beverly, Lake Carol Mae. We took long breaks and watched caribou weave across the tundra while Michael played his travel guitar.

Toward the end of the second day we crossed a narrow land bridge called Slaughter Alley and reached the Yakak Peninsula, a 10-mile-long thumb of volcanic rock jutting into the north Pacific Ocean. Compared with the rest of the island, the Yakak was relatively flat, dotted with countless lakes and ponds and ringed on all sides by tall black sea cliffs. But we were most surprised to find the line of utility poles traversing the peninsula. We had seen many traces of Adak’s military past, from collapsed structures and excavations to big plates of rusty iron, shattered on the ground like shards of pottery. But none were as startling as the utility poles, both because of their scale and stark contrast with the otherwise untouched landscape.

After watching the orcas hunting at the sea lion rookery, we headed back across the Yakak Peninsula and along the edge of Hatchet Lake, the largest freshwater lake on the island. Just past Lake Leslie Ann, still covered in a skin of blue winter ice, we set up camp. That night it began to rain. We woke to find that the meadow we had camped in had nearly turned into a lake, and a nearby creek had turned into a torrent. Low clouds churned through the passes and the rain nipped at our shells. We circled Gannett Lake and, navigating entirely by GPS, climbed through snowdrifts at Hikers Pass to Lake Betty. By now the wind had picked up to 30 to 40 mph. Whitecaps raced across Lake Betty and crashed into the shore like ocean waves. At the far end of the lake we rejoined the road system, and I was able to arrange a ride to town via my satellite communication device. Back in town, we rented a condo for $130 a night, peeled off wet clothes, and enjoyed the best hot showers of our lives.

For the next few days until our flight, we explored the town and talked to residents. Everyone on Adak has a story — or many — and we had plenty of time to listen. We looked at Steller sea lion skulls at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office, talked to a young man making a living as a mechanic, and wolfed down jalapeno burgers at the Bluebird Café. In the evenings we played guitar, cooked and watched DVDs. As often happens on backpacking trips, some of the most memorable times came after the backpacking was over.

On our last day we rented a pickup truck and set out to climb Mount Adagdak, a 2,001-foot volcanic remnant on the northeast tip of the island. After a few hours of climbing up springy tundra and past rainbow-colored volcanic rocks, we stood on the summit. We looked out on the vast blue-black sweep of the Pacific Ocean, punctuated by the bright white slopes of snow-covered volcanoes. To the south we saw the ruins of the old military recreation facility, the sweeping arm of land circling Clam Lagoon, and beyond that the town of Adak and mountains beyond — enough beauty and strangeness to last, if not a lifetime, then at least a very memorable portion of one.