It has been a few days since I got back from the outer Aleutians and I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the whole experience. After spending four days in Adak, the westernmost civilian settlement in the U.S., I still find it hard to believe I didn’t leave my own country.
The local population likes to say there are about 100-150 full-timers on Adak. The place is very much insulated, shielded by sheer distance (over 4,500 miles from Washington, D.C. and nearly 1,200 miles from Anchorage) and nestled among the mostly unpopulated isles of the western Aleutians. After the town of Unalaska (also known as Dutch Harbor and made famous by the TV show, Deadliest Catch), you’d be lucky to count 1,000 people living further west. Adak rounds out that count, settling in at 437 miles east of Attu Island – the very end of the U.S. The military has a small contingent on Shemya Island (very close to Attu), but in the 745 miles that separates Adak from the Russian town of Nikolskoye, you’ll find absolutely no resident civilian population.
I’ll need fellow readers to help me out on this, but Adak may be the smallest community in the U.S. with regular heavy jet passenger service. On Thursdays and Sundays, Alaska Airlines flies its 737 “Combi” planes into the island (weather permitting), bringing aboard passengers and cargo (though these models are being phased out soon). Alaska has bid on the 2-year EAS (Essential Air Service) contracts for the last few renewal periods now, with Penair the only real competition in the bidding process (and Adakians seem to prefer that Alaska runs these routes). The ticket isn’t cheap – currently pricing out at around $1200 for the round trip out of Anchorage (tack on an extra $300-600 if you’re flying from any other state). Thankfully (and surprisingly) Alaska issues reward tickets at fairly low mileage levels to get to Adak (15,000 each way from my experience). A lot of people purchase the points to use straight up instead of the full fare since it actually comes up cheaper that way.
Adak defies all conventions when it comes to travel destinations. Its not cheap, its not particularly easy to get to, you can get weathered in by frequently windy conditions, it is not outfitted with a lot of creature comforts and it is just not very well known. I’ve yet to come across an article about Adak in any travel magazine, popular blog or anything more than a sentence or two while flipping through guide books during a trip to Powell’s in Portland.
Yet, Adak has this stark beauty that is unrelenting. Whether plowing through 80+ MPH winds on a hike to the western shore or trekking up north to the bays bounded by mountains, Adak is encompasses much the same charms of Scotland or the Lofoten isles of Norway, destinations that are world-class and renowned for their rich, awe-inspiring vistas. The views of the Andreanof island chain (one of multiple chains in the Aleutians) as you drive the beach road just outside of town bring to mind those coastal Norwegian islands – mountains rising right up from the sea, just out of reach but still a feast for the eyes. Its all there in Adak, maybe on a smaller scale, but its still our own backyard.
I think that is what ultimately surprised me the most about Adak. Waterfalls are everywhere, so are huge freshwater lakes, oceans, beaches and bays. Mountains to hike? Check. Hilly vistas well worth scampering up. Check. A surprisingly large river system? Check. The feeling of truly being alone in nature? CHECK. No one is bothering you here, absolutely not one single person. We encountered a soul outside of town. Apparently some groups were hunting caribou in the southern wilderness, but we heard nary a shot fired. It was absolutely tranquility, total peace and quiet. Even when it rained…
We had one day of pure, unadulterated Adak weather. Knock-you-on-your-ass wind and rain that felt like hail hitting your face. My good friend Tormod, a Norwegian that was rather in his element in this, truthfully exclaimed, “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” We carried on all day, mostly off-trail, hiking through heavy grass (not many trees exist on Adak, and any that do have been planted there) and dodging holes between the grassy clumps – holes that could easily swallow half of my 6′ 2″ frame. I actually don’t know how we avoided twisting an ankle out there. The payoff was worth it, though, maybe if just for the sense of being truly on the fringe of our society, so far removed from the news cycle, political riff-raff and everything else that tries to taint our everyday in this country. We have it very lucky out here, and thank God places like Adak can remind us of that.
Inside and away from the elements, Adak presents something almost wholly unique to itself. This was once a sprawling Naval base and home to around 6,000 people. Nearly 20 years ago, in 1997, the Navy closed up shop and the town was abandoned. The Aleut Corporation bought the rights to the entire island (buildings and all) and a few people settled in to start anew. There are rows and rows of naval housing, all with a similar look and a good 80% of them abandoned (and many in ruins). Squint your eyes from atop the water tower and Adak has that glint of mid-90s suburbia. You could blast Smash Mouth’s “Walkin’ on the Sun” out here and feel right at home. There’s even an abandoned McDonalds, forever frozen since 1993 with advertising for Jurassic Park collector cups on its drive-thru menu (I wouldn’t be surprised if the cups were still sealed inside its locked doors).
Let’s talk about the options for food. You got the Bay 5 restaurant, tucked inside a small, annex-style building on the “industrial” side of town. Serving an assortment of Mexican and American cuisine, the friendly host of Bay 5 took all the orders, cooked all the meals and attended to everyone with a warm smile. Decent portions of staple platters (think Burger ‘n fries) for $15-20 is par for the course on Adak – and actually not THAT bad considering the sheer remoteness. Back in the residential area, you can also visit the Blue Bird Cafe, which is open every day from 8 to 8. Its just one of the many housing units of Sandy Cove, the neighborhood where a good 75% of the people live (including us for this stay). The dining room has been equipped with seating for about a dozen people, and we found it surprisingly filled for our dinner and breakfast stops here. On Sunday morning, locals gather to watch the NFL games – which kickoff at 8 AM out here (Hawaiian-Aleutian time zone). We had some interesting conversations with a group of Navy airmen who flew out here and were waiting to go on to Shemya before continuing on to Japan. We ran into this group of eight almost every time we ate out, but our most interesting discourse was with a man who moved out here for a six-month airport maintenance gig (mostly involving snow removal). This guy had lived all over Alaska (sans the North Slope) and had stories he could tell for days.
I know I said something about the lack of creature comforts out in Adak. AT&T provides a very limited 2G wireless for your cell phone. If you don’t have AT&T it may be possible to get a loaner phone. 2G means no pictures – only texts and phone calls that experience a few seconds delay. Sometimes the service is completely unavailable for many hours (and for no obvious weather-related reason). Wi-fi apparently costs $35 a day and there is a login screen at the two restaurants (and the one bar) as well as the airport. There was no instructions on how to sign up for the said $35 fee, but simply connecting to the wi-fi provides free access to Facebook. We also didn’t have cable TV in our apartment, but a nice huge flat screen HDTV was furnished for us. I brought my PS4 to while away the chilly evening hours. We were surely the only people out there dueling on FIFA and Trackmania Turbo. We probably could have hosted a party with that kind of entertainment on hand…
I’m glad I shared the experience of Adak with a close friend. My purpose in travel has always been to share with others. Yes, I do have personal goals and interests I set out to accomplish in my journeys and with travel I’ve found something I can control and succeed in without much worry about the judgment of others. At the end of the day, though, I’m most happy when I can inspire others to tap into their sense of adventure. If you’ve traveled to theme parks, resorts and the like, you’re already halfway there. I challenge you to fire up Google Maps and explore our country, our continent and our world and pick a place that looks interesting to you and find a way to get there. Maybe you’ll end up on Adak. If you do, take up a table at the Blue Bird Cafe, get some hot coffee and gaze into the big world map they have hung up on the wall. See how far you are from home. For me, “home” is meditating on that very thought. Home is literally everywhere you make it, a seemingly endless expanse of a lifetime of places and experiences. Home is a life journey and Adak will forever be apart of that for me.