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Elusive caribou in remote 'birthplace of the winds'

  • Author: Paxson Woelber
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 10, 2015

ADAK -- Our rented pickup lurches through the tundra in the pre-dawn dark, three of us packed into the cab in a swirl of gas fumes, bullets rattling on the dashboard. A gust of wind had ripped our truck's hard-shell canopy off last night, shearing the steel attachment bolts, so our fourth member, Tim Treuer, huddles in the open truck bed with a 30-06 hunting rifle wedged between his legs. The weather is a gusty mess of half-frozen drizzle and piercingly cold wind: what meteorologists quaintly call "wintry mix" and Alaskans know as the perfect recipe for hypothermia.

Suddenly Tim bangs on the cab window, gesturing toward the hills: two caribou, alert, looking straight at us. We slam the brakes and tumble out of the truck, load guns and throw them over our shoulders, and race into the tundra. The caribou begin to trot, but we've closed just enough distance. Three shots rip the morning silence, and one of the animals drops. A half-hour later, we grab the field-dressed carcass by the legs and drag it to the truck, leaving a horde of rain-matted eagles to swoop in on the entrails. We hoist the caribou into the bed and cram into the cab, peeling off soaked gloves and hats, shivering in our down coats and mountaineering shells.

We inch back to town on a maze of dirt roads, winding between the cement shells of abandoned military compounds. We pass other pickups filled with camo-clad hunters, guns in their laps. They glance over long enough to see the caribou in our truck, nod, and keep moving. The anarchic wildness of the island, with its snow-capped volcanoes and towering ruins, its roving bands of heavily armed hunters in rusting pickups, feels almost post-apocalyptic, as if we're driving through a lost Hawaiian island in the grip of nuclear winter. As we near the edge of the half-abandoned town, the tops of the volcanoes light up red and orange with the first light of the day, and morning breaks on Adak.

Where warm, cold air meet

Adak is one of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, a 1,800-mile-long chain of storm-wracked mountains and volcanoes draped between Alaska and Russia, and which marks the border between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. Set in a meteorological no man's land between warm air surging up from the south and cold air sweeping down from the north, the weather on Adak is famously violent and capricious.

Former inhabitants tell of wind so strong that it would force servicemen down onto their hands and knees, and recall watching metal dumpsters tumble down the street. Though Adak is the southernmost town in Alaska, Adak Island, like all of the Aleutian Islands, is typically included in definitions of the Arctic. The climate here is too harsh for forests, and tundra extends to sea level.

Adak's modern history begins with World War II, when American and Canadian Allied forces used the island as a staging ground to repel the Japanese invasion of the western Aleutian Islands.

An airfield was carved into the tundra, and thousands of anti-personnel spikes called "Rommel stakes" were pounded into the ground at beachheads to stymie a feared Japanese invasion. Though Allied forces succeeded in routing the Japanese, the "forgotten battle" for Alaska was chaotic and brutal. More than 2,000 Allied soldiers were lost, including over 600 recorded as missing in action. Many were killed by frostbite, hypothermia and friendly fire exacerbated by the surreal terrain and relentlessly foul weather.

After WWII, the United States invested heavily in Adak as a strategic Cold War military outpost. The Quonset huts of the WWII years were replaced by concrete compounds, bunkers and modern housing. Over time, the military added a theater, bowling alley, saunas, basketball courts and other amenities. Children scampered over green grass lawns and played behind artful wind screens. McDonald's opened its westernmost location in the world here, just off a black sand lagoon at the foot of an Arctic stratovolcano. At its height, more than 6,000 people lived in Adak, making it one of the largest towns in Alaska.

As the Cold War wound to a close, the remote base's expense became harder to justify, and in 1995, Adak's military facilities were abruptly closed.

According to the U.S. census, the population dropped more than 93 percent between 1990 and 2000, to a count of about 300 today. Because the remote location makes it prohibitively expensive to ship goods off the island, its extensive military installations and residential facilities remain remarkably intact. Hardwood furniture sits in the living rooms of abandoned homes, yellow phones rest quietly on their hooks, and a hymnal lies on the pulpit of an abandoned church, fluttering in the wind.

The military left something else behind, too: caribou. Caribou are not native here, but were introduced for sport and to provide an emergency food source for soldiers. There are no wolves or bears on Adak, and warm winds from the south regularly melt the snow, providing year-round access to ground vegetation. The introduced caribou thrived and soon grew into a large herd, now numbering approximately 3,000 -- outnumbering the human population 10 to one.

The few humans who still live year-round on Adak depend heavily on caribou, both as a food source and as year-round fuel for the local economy. Wildlife and game management officials, on the other hand, consider the animals invasive and detrimental to Adak's indigenous plant and bird life, and a plan in the 1990s to exterminate the herd was shelved only after fierce opposition from residents and hunters. This dim official view of the caribou is reflected in the current limits: hunting parties are permitted to take up to five animals. Per person. Per day.

Those expecting an easy hunt, however, are likely in for a rude, cold and very windy awakening. The herd generally remains on the southern end of the island, a prehistoric-looking labyrinth of rocky peaks and tundra valleys, cut through with small, waterfall-draped canyons. Our party reached the southern end of the island only through an exhausting full day of wilderness backpacking, and while we spotted dozens of caribou, shooting one here and hauling out the meat on our backs would have been prohibitively difficult.

Ironically, hunters on Adak often hope for violent, snowy weather, which drives the animals north over the passes in search of food and into the web of roads near the town. Even here, hunting isn't necessarily easy. The animals know the terrain and are adept at avoiding detection, often moving under cover of darkness and hiding in canyons and gullies during the day.

Our party spent a week exploring most of Adak's well-known hunting spots, climbing to high, wind-swept passes, circumnavigating half-frozen alpine lakes, and bracing ourselves against ferocious, sand-laden wind as we inched along the shore. In the end we successfully took two caribou, and at 40 pounds of meat for each member in the party, we were content with our modest success. At the airport waiting for our flight out, several skunked hunting parties bemoaned their luck, shaking their heads, vowing not to return. Other hunters sat in silence, letting rows of full game totes speak for them.

Rugged, violent beauty

The day after bagging our second caribou we decide to head north, toward Mount Adagdak. The road climbs high above the black sand beaches, past a rocky headland doused in white spray from the big swells rolling in off the Pacific. Studding the low, rolling ridges are innumerable wooden cabins, collapsing into the tundra. Beyond the wide arc of Clam Lagoon, lively with otters and countless birds, the volcanoes of Adak climb into roiling gray clouds. There is no denying that the rugged, violent beauty of Adak Island is often as exciting as the hunting itself.

On the edge of town, there is a single stand of small, stunted trees. A large, brightly painted sign next to the trees declares: "You Are Now Entering and Leaving Adak National Forest." On an otherwise treeless island like Adak, I wonder whether this is an example of dark humor or unrelenting optimism, and in the end, I decide that life here probably demands some of both.

Paxson Woelber is a creative professional based out of Anchorage. His outdoor work has been featured in National Geographic, the Atlantic, the Huffington Post and Alaska Dispatch News.