Exploring Alaska’s remote, enchanting shores

Joining the few privileged to travel to remote and obscure offshore islands like Baby, Unga, Haystacks, Aghyuk and the Aleutians

shore alaska explore roman catholic church
The evidence of the strong Russian influence persists throughout Alaska in the form of the Russian Orthodox churches like this one – photo by Geoff Carpentier

Geoff CarpentierMy anticipation heightened as I waited for my flight. I was about to join the few privileged to explore Alaska beyond the usual ports of call, travelling to remote and obscure offshore islands.

Nome

Nome is where it all began for me.

I was surprised at the appearance of this small coastal community, for it seemed tired and well-worn – certainly not the vibrant outpost I had envisioned.

But its outward appearance belied the energy and importance of this northern town. Its residents know the land and the climate, and capably manage them to full advantage.

My tour began with a simple lunch at the Old St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where I was given my first taste of reindeer sausage – apprehension soon turned to delight as I savoured its pleasant flavour.

Gold was discovered at Anvil Creek near Cape Nome in 1898. Thousands flocked here from all over Canada and the U.S. to find their fortune. Among them was Wyatt Earp, the legendary desert lawman of Arizona.

Richard Benneville, wiry frame topped with a tattered grey top hat, enthusiastically told us the history of gold mining in Nome, what the town is today and why he was there. His story was fascinating, his storytelling even more so.

He said he was invited to interview as a stage performer and was offered the choice of jobs in Point Barrow or Cordova. He wondered why he had “come this far north to go south to a place that sounded vaguely Mexican,” so he chose to go to Barrow on Feb. 1, 1982, a day when it was -40F and the “snow blew straight up!”

Eventually he settled in Nome, where he entertained and taught us about gold panning. We were were soon swirling the muddy slurry looking for a “picker” – a small piece of gold big enough to keep. Most were lucky and found some – not so much because the area was still so rich with it, but more because the samples had been spiked.

Gambell Island

Aboard the Clipper Odyssey, where I was to work as an expedition guide and where I would make my home for the next four weeks, we sailed to Gambell Island, a small community on the northwestern shore of St. Lawrence Island.

Its people survive from the bounty of the land: hunting seals and whales, and fishing and gathering berries on the tundra.

The creep of civilization is apparent. We were greeted by throngs of local youths on ATVs. The incessant roar of the machines invaded the peacefulness.

But at the edge of town, the serenity returned and wildflowers were abundant along the blackened rocks that rose to protect the town from the unpredictable weather.

The carcass of an old airplane that failed to land safely on the beach lay strewn among the boulders, a reminder of the power of the sea and the wind.

shore alaska explore traditional dance
Photo by Geoff Carpentier

In town we were treated to a dance presentation featuring the ubiquitous drums and fur-trimmed traditional clothing. Each move was choreographed and meaningful. The story unfolded as the dancers whirled – for us it was entertaining but for those who live here it was their culture.

Walking about town tested our olfactory senses as bits of walrus, called stinky paw, were laid on racks to dry and decay. It’s a delicacy that in no way appealed to my fussy palate but one the locals relish.

We saw the seal carcasses and the remains of a bowhead whale on the beach, telling the story of this year’s successful hunts.

Some local residents excavate the small disposal pits called middens, which are located at the periphery of the town. Over the years, unwanted bones, shards, artifacts and implements were discarded in these shallow pits and covered.

The value of items in these pits has recently been realized and an important local industry has arisen. Old bones, found among the debris, are being carved and sold as trinkets, or are shipped wholesale to offsite carvers.

We were careful to avoid purchasing any offered ancient carvings, as these better belong in a museum than our homes.

St. Paul and St. George Islands, Pribilof Islands

The Pribilofs are a cluster of four small islands in the Bering Sea. They were discovered in 1786 by Gavriil Pribylov, a Russian sailor searching for the breeding site of the northern fur seal.

One seal pelt represented half a year’s salary for a Russian worker. On one of the first hunting expeditions here in 1791, over 40,000 fur seals, 2,000 sea otters and 14,000 pounds of walrus ivory were harvested.

By 1910, the population of seals crashed and the U.S. government took control of the islands and the hunt. Eventually the royalties of the hunt exceeded $7.2 million and paid for all of Alaska.

The evidence of the strong Russian influence persists throughout Alaska in the form of the Russian Orthodox churches and the town clocks. The clocks were introduced in the late 1800s when workers began to be paid by the hour.

Today, these vibrant communities persist by subsistence hunting supplemented by tourism.

We visited two northern fur seal colonies to see what opened these lands to the world.

One colony was made up of young seal males, unmated but full of testosterone. The roaring, bellowing, pushing and fighting was unrelenting all day as each male tried to establish his dominance.

shore alaska explore seal
Photo by Geoff Carpentier

The other colony was comprised of the large barrel-chested males, each mated to several females who were caring for their pups. It was more peaceful here but still the noise and the smell overpowered at times.

A low-lying mist periodically clouded the view and then, teased by the wind, lifted to show the scene in detail. All around, seabirds thronged, particularly at the Ridge Wall Cliffs, where we encountered birds by the thousands – red-legged and black-legged kittiwakes, red-faced cormorants, parakeet, crested and least auklets, puffins, and common and thick-billed murres streaming past in an incessant parade.

In St. George we once again were treated to the essence of Alaska as we shared in superb local dance and song, always to the beat of the drum. We ate local delicacies such as flipper soup, seal stew, reindeer sausage and halibut cakes.

As we arrived to cruise the shores of Garden Cove, the expansive sheer cliffs rose above the inner bay. Brown algae was strung across the surface like tendrils of a sea monster.

The seabirds moved to a rhythm known only to them. Every nook and niche was occupied by the dozen or so species that call the cliffs home – there were hundreds of thousands of them.

The din and chatter was unending, but the scene was strangely peaceful.

But as we watched, a catastrophe unfolded: a large chunk of the cliff face cracked, slipped and fell to the rocky shore below. We stared awestruck at the carnage. Thousands of nests that had been perched on the cliff face were destroyed, eggs and infants killed as it all fell into the sea.

The birds would spend some time looking for their lost young, but soon would abandon the futile effort and return to the sea to start over again next year.

The Aleutians

This Aleutian Islands chain stretches more than 160 km from end to end across the north Pacific. The western tip lies just 430 km from the Russian mainland.

Kayak Island is near the head of the peninsula and was where Vitus Bering and Georg Steller landed in 1741 at the behest of their Russian overseers. They were to make contact with the local people, find safe harbors for trade, explore mineral reserves and survey the wildlife.

The largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century occurred at the Katmai volcanic cluster, located north of Kodiak Island. Between June 6 and 8, 1912, about 28 cubic km of ash, cinder and rock shot into the atmosphere. The lava flowed to a depth of 180 metres in the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes.

Dutch Harbor, on Unalaska Island, is divided into halves, each simply named “the other side.” A bridge that joins the two sides of the town, fondly called Bridge to the Other Side, is now the source of controversy. Archeologists are seeking access to historical artifacts unearthed during the refurbishing of the bridge.

Baby, Unga, Haystacks and Aghyuk Islands

The Baby Islands are a cluster of four or five outcrops that host tens of thousands of birds and mammals. As we cruised the near shore areas, we saw thousands of puffins and auklets. The rocky isle is used as a haul-out by the harbour seals, sea otters and Steller’s sealions, each defending the shore against intruders.

One of the most spectacular spots we visited was Unga Island, a small outpost where decrepit buildings, tombstones and other artifacts are witness to the past. Abandoned in the mid-20th century, the townsite is a stark reminder of the hardy souls who mined, hunted and sealed here.

Purple orchids, chocolate lilies, anemones, lupines and beach peas tumbled over the remnant buildings.

A tiny headstone, facing the sea, marks the grave of a girl, barely five years old. She died here in the fall of 1916 – a reminder of the frailty of life and the harshness of the land.

The pyroclastic outcrops of the Haystacks greeted us as we wound our way through the inner islands towards Chignik.

It was here that we experienced the spectacle of the cetaceans.

We had seen several grey whales in more northern waters, but now we gazed in awe as 12 humpbacked, eight sei and three fin whales moved, as if choreographed, to the rhythm of the sea. The were chasing prey that drew them as magnets to the area.

With them were several Dall’s porpoises, mere sprites among the massive whales. Each shot up its characteristic rooster tail as it sped through the crustacean smorgasbord with purpose.

The remarkable panorama of the shore of Aghiyuk Island spread out before us. Above an overgrown bank, strewn with driftwood, rose a pastoral expanse of tundra plants. It was as if a master horticulturalist had planted the lilies, orchids, paintbrushes, anemones, wild celery and net-leaved willows.

So peaceful was the setting that many of us, rather than exploring, simply lay down on the floral carpet and enjoyed the aroma, the ambiance and the peace. Reluctantly we eventually rose and followed a small snow-melt stream. We saw fox sparrows, Wilson’s warblers and lapland longspurs as we walked.

A whale carcass, a remnant of a successful spring hunt, sat on the shore and was picked at by numerous gulls, including the slaty-backed, a visitor from Asia. We watched as a pair of cliff-nesting bald eagles, with one large chick, oversaw the scene. Eventually, they too join the assemblage feeding on the whale remains.

Reluctantly we left these shores, launching our Zodiacs in the shadow of the rock spires, below which a female sea otter frolicked with her pup. We were later to see more than 400 of these formerly rare animals in a single pack.

Geographic Harbor

The Alaskan brown bear, known variously as the Kodiak or grizzly bear, is legendary for its size and cunning. Unpredictable and sometimes dangerous, confrontations are feared. But these animals generally avoid conflict. They’re far more interested in finding food and caring for their young than attacking unwary travellers.

The coastal bears are massive, often reaching 450 to 630 kg and standing over three metres tall.

Geographic Harbor is a remote outpost, north of Kodiak and adjacent to the Katmai volcanic cluster. The steep rock outcrops common elsewhere are replaced with gradual treed slopes and expansive mud flats.

A tiny rangers’ cabin huddles near the shore, in an area where hundreds of bears feed daily. The two occupants of this remote outpost, guardians of this shore, explain why the bears are there, the lay of the land, clues to the bears’ moods and a primer on how we should behave in the presence of a bear.

Before we left the ship, we saw our first bear. The lumbering giant cruised the shore at mid-tide, anticipating the feast to come when the waters dropped to their lowest and the clam beds were fully exposed. It seemed almost impatient as it paused in its search, swaying side-to-side and then moving off down the shore.

The Zodiacs headed out to search for more of the giants. With each sighting, the boats moved in for closer looks. When we were done, we had seen at least 12 bears.

These are large and dangerous animals that warrant reverence and respect. We’re the intruders and they’re not there for our amusement. A male will kill the cubs of a sow without hesitation if she’s in estrous, or heat. She knows this and keeps her distance, and will protect her cubs to death. Should we show any less respect?

We generally held off about 100 metres from the shore rather than coming inside their comfort zones. They moved as if we weren’t there but their apparent acceptance was deceiving, for they were ever watchful of us. They were ready to flee or charge, as necessary.

We later met some Tsimshians of the village of Metlakatla. They’re a proud people who align themselves with an animal as their totem – the wolf, orca, eagle or raven. As families intermarry, the totems mix and the strengths of each is passed to the family. Their tradition is strong and the dance they did for us showed both pride and gratitude for what the land had given them.

Skagway

Skagway, a frontier town, cherishes its heritage. It dates back to 1896, when George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie found a tiny amount of gold in Bonanza Creek in the Yukon. The only way to get there was via Skagway and so started one of the greatest gold rushes in history.

Men risked everything, including death, to trek the hundreds of kilometres through dangerous terrain to find wealth in the gold fields. Often they arrived to find all the claims staked or the gold gone. Many never finished the trip and their remains lie scattered along the route.

But some did survive and a few prospered. Between July and November 1898, the mints in Seattle and San Francisco received $10 million worth of Klondike gold and another $38 million arrived in the next year.

By 1908, ever-hopeful prospectors still came by packhorse, on foot or by train, for the Baldwin Locomotive Works Co. of Philadelphia had delivered two steam locomotives that would run people and gear along a dangerous route between Skagway and British Columbia for the next 46 years.

Old Engine 69 still runs but is more a showpiece than a workhorse. By the 1950s, newer diesel engines were linked to the trains and these now haul mostly tourists along the historical trail to the Klondike.

In Skagway, a young guide’s entertaining and enthusiastic style brought life to the history of the area. She spoke of bawdy houses, local hardships, dreams and scoundrels. Soapy Smith was one of the latter. He used a scam involving soap, shills and the promise of riches to dupe unwary miners out of their meagre gleanings. He would be killed by a local townsman who himself turned out to be a scoundrel.

Finally, we rode the White Pass and Yukon Route train to British Columbia, along the path of the 30,000 hopeful who stampeded to the gold fields of the Yukon.

The mysteries of Alaska are now a part of me. It was an adventure I shall never forget.

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online at www.avocetnatureservices.com, on LinkedIn and on Facebook.

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