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Welcome to Umnak, a land of cows that assaults the senses

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 1, 2015

NIKOLSKI — Waves of wind rippled silver-green as we strolled away from a scant cluster of buildings here, setting cottongrass tufts head-banging to its rhythm. A small lake blew sideways across our path. A small bird blew sideways between my son's legs. Sand stung our eyelids.

But this was a warmish summer day. The wind was nothing any resident would notice. It was as mild an introduction as you get in the Aleutians. So I told my daughter she shouldn't walk in the lake if she wanted warm feet. And I told my son to turn his face from the blowing sand. And I told myself this was only day one of 49 — surely we'd soon be transformed into a well-oiled expedition machine.

Umnak Island is part of the Fox Islands in the Aleutian chain, one step farther west than Unalaska. I'd flown to its southwestern end from Dutch Harbor with my husband, kids and mother — putting our expedition age range from 4 to 61. The plan was to paddle and hike our way back to Dutch on a meandering 300-mile path.

Why? Because it's the Aleutians! Because I feel an irresistible pull to glaciers and volcanoes, to storm-washed coasts and tumultuous pasts, to shifting climates and shifting seasons. A pull to places that transform. My son Katmai shares his name with a famous volcanic eruption. My daughter Lituya shares hers with a famous tsunami. So we embraced our small disasters—and set out to traverse the island.

Umnak Island smells like the salty decay of washed-up kelp. It smells like sweet flowers and crushed grass. It smells like cow piss. It smells like a wild 700-square-mile barnyard. A dozen cows had staked out a lee on the beach, behind cliffs painted monkey flower yellow. Their brown and white hides rippled with muscle as they pounded away, leaving us their campsite. The cows honked like geese with bronchitis. The kids mistook my husband Hig's snoring for a cow.

There were 22 villages on Umnak Island when the Russians arrived in the middle of the 1700s, home to some portion of the Aleutians' 15,000-18,000 Unangan people. There are 22 people now, in the single village of Nikolski. There are somewhere around 7,500 cows.

The trails we followed were nearly all theirs. Hoof-terraced switchbacks cut into a sandy slope, leaving archaeological history crumbling out beside them. Sea urchin spines poured into my hand, layer upon layer of fragile green shards, shot through with fish bones, charcoal and a bone harpoon. Whale bones stuck out. A layer of pumice sliced through the center of the midden — one tumultuous interruption in those layers of life.

Umnak is a place of tumultuous interruptions. It was hard to imagine this hoof-pocked island before the cows got to it in the late 1940s. It was just as hard to imagine the 12,000 sheep that preceded the cows, and the bustle of WWII military life that sprawled across the island in roads and airports and Quonset huts, shipping out the people who were here before them.

All those sheep are gone now, disappeared along with the military as the cows spread out across their former range, as the ranchers set up shop in the former Fort Glenn, and as some of the people made it back.

Of course, volcanoes were building and transforming Umnak long before the Unangan people arrived 9,000 years ago. A few days from Nikolski, we climbed through the fog that spilled from Mount Recheschnoi, where a scant cover of plants crept across a black stubble of lava rock. In the distance, the hills steamed. Our route traced a dot-to-dot path between the geothermal vents and springs that dotted the middle of the island.

Geyser Bight

Sulfurous steam shrouded my family, revealing them in foggy and discontinuous pieces — two tiny silhouettes linked hand in hand with Hig's larger form. He guided them carefully. It was easy to imagine that a wrong step here could send you to the center of the earth. In the middle of Umnak, the ground roared. Hissing jets of steam spat from puddles and flowed away in searing streams, past cauldrons of bubbling red mud. Geysers erupted every minute or two, then gulped their boiling water back down. The mountainside around them was an unbound riot of energy and color — of lush ferns, tall grass and sphagnum so thick that when I plunged in my hands, they were swallowed nearly to my elbows. In the threads of that moss I could feel the Earth's heat.

Geyser Bight has the only geysers in Alaska, and some of the hottest and most extensive geothermal springs in the state. Cow bones turned to chalky dust in a crusted white pool. In another, we placed our pot of couscous, boiling dinner with five minutes of geothermal energy — handy on an island with no trees for firewood. In a milder pool, the kids and I wriggled on our elbows, dragging naked bellies across the smooth slimy mats of green and brown algae, like we were ancient creatures wallowing in the primordial ooze.

Volcanoes remake the world. When you walk over them, you can't help but imagine how everything transforms, your mind swooping through past and future. Their bulk seems so imposing, but their skin — that rough unvegetated rock — so naked and brand-new. Compared to most mountains, volcanoes are babies.

Okmok Volcano

Grayish water sliced through shelves of black scoria, and shot down waterfalls of gray. I clutched Lituya's hand, holding on to the stretched-out cuff of her too-big long johns. She was my baby cow, pretend-munching the last of the grass on the volcano, well above where the real cows traveled. We'd gone nearly 6 1/2 miles already that day. At 4 years old, after a week and a half of travel, she had suddenly transformed into a fast and capable hiker. We crunched over dirty snow. We crunched over hills of volcanic rocks spit over the 3,000-foot rim of Okmok caldera until we stood at the top, socked by the cold wet wind and by the prospect of the 50-foot cliff interrupting the long slope between us and the crater floor.

The mist was so thick that it swirled in the beam of my headlamp, forming veils of tiny white droplets. Our paddles became shovels, digging a flattish square through hills of sharp black scoria on the slope below the crater rim; it was late, we couldn't descend in time, and we had to sleep somewhere. The rocks covered snow left over from before the 2008 eruption of Okmok. The snow was older than my kids.

I crawled into my sleeping bag, balancing on a sleeping pad blown into an awkward balloon from a strange manufacturing defect, and scanning a blown-up map of topo lines on a tiny phone screen. Is it even possible to get down?

The kids giggled from their sleeping bags. That was when I knew we really had transformed into a well-oiled expedition machine. Not because we could suddenly descend cliffs or hike 20 miles in a day (we couldn't), but because every one of us took the uncomfortable uncertainty in stride.

We found a way around the cliff the next morning. Crater lakes glowed milky turquoise under a glowering gray sky, as we scrambled through an maze of badlands and gullies — ash made solid, rivers made dry, monster-shaped lava boulders set on hills of sand. It looked like a cross between the desert Southwest and Mordor.

Around 8,000 years ago, Okmok spewed out cubic kilometers of molten material, destroying all life to the coast and burying one of the island's oldest village sites. Some 2,400 years ago, it did it again. About 1,000 years ago, a giant crater lake overflowed, wiping out everything downstream in an apocalyptic flood. Seven years ago, it turned the green caldera floor into an ashy badlands, sending the cattle ranchers scrambling to flee by helicopter.

As we reached the end of Umnak Island, we visited the ranch, where they were preparing to round up thousands of cows by helicopter. They gave us a long 2x4, and we prepared to transform a trio of packrafts into a nearly untippable, tied-together contraption that would take us through 4 miles of currents and rips between Umnak and Unalaska Islands.

Transformation, and adventure, continued.

Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia. Author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski" and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska." The latter won the Outdoor Literature category in the 2014 National Outdoor Book Awards. You can find her at GroundTruthTrekking.org.

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