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.
That’s nuts. I just got on Google Maps to look up Adak. Then I zoomed out to see how far it was from…. anything. And I kept zooming out, and zooming out, and zooming out, until finally I saw something I recognized. That place is OUT THERE! Seriously seems like a foreign country. Sanka at McD’s? I had to look that up too. Got a kick out of the green Grand Cherokee Limited being used as a police rig. And I’m surprised the wifi & cell connectivity was in place at all in an area so remote. I think I would love to retire and buy that old shanty on the shoreline. Talk about privacy. Thanks for sharing the post and story to those of us who may never get to experience a place so exclusive!
Yeah funny thing about Sanka – my grandparents used to drink that stuff. Decaf heated poo water basically, ugh. As far as the police rig, it isn’t even being used right now. They did have a local officer for a few years but for now have a couple people licensed to conduct a round-the-clock watch at a holding area of the airport until someone from Anchorage gets in to process them. Two people have been arrested in the past five years, so I guess it does happen…
Philip, what a wonderful post about a place I fell in love with last year. Your photos are stunning–the next best thing to being there.
BTW, I love your site. You’re living the dream and giving folks like me the opportunity to travel with you. For that a huge THANK YOU.
Thank you so much for the kind words, Gerhard. I take these comments very much to heart – I’m glad I could give you the opportunity to re-live the Adak experience! A truly wondrous place.
I am headed to Adak to work for awhile and was so glad to come across your travel blog! I can’t wait to explore…
Have a great time, Julie. My friend and I wondered aloud what we’d do for a few months there. Plenty of free-roam hiking to do, but the tall grass can be killer. Pace yourself! Very serene and peaceful place, even if the weather can be messy (it’s even better that way, to be honest!). Enjoy it!
Hi Philip, I came across your blog while looking for other Adak stories. Great story & great pictures. Brings back memories for me.
When I was 20 yrs old, I was in the Navy Seabees stationed on Adak from June 1974 to June 1975. It was a very active base with about 6,000 people onboard. We lived in Bering Hill barracks The Marines and base police lived in the barracks next to the Bering Building.
The only recreation facilities we had were the Bering building across from the Bering Hill barracks and the bowling alley across town near the Navy Exchange store.
Very primitive technology then. In the 70’s there was no such thing as wifi, cell phones, satellite connections nor a McDonalds.
There was a lot of other recreation and other things to do if you got out and did it.
There is a lot more to my story for my one year on the rock, but to lengthy to post here.
I have shared your blog link to a couple other Adak military veterans.
I appreciate your great story. Keep up the great writing.
Bob, thanks so much for the kind words. You mention the bowling alley – apparently that still was (partially) operating until just a few years ago. I know there are a lot more like you who have far different experiences and memories from a relatively thriving military community than one would have visiting now. It is hard for a tourist to appreciate how busy the Adak base was when a lot of the buildings sit empty now.
Oh wow! Thank you for this post! I lived here during my junior high years in the mid80s. My dad was stationed there. It looks so much the same. It really does make me so sad to see it in disrepair and unused. I mean really sad, but I felt the same seeing El Toro and Tustin bases however Adak is more personal. I lived in one of those blue houses with the green house looking things in the back. I remember going to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at the building on Bering Hill across from where the movie theater and Badkin Robbins were. I very much remember the McDonald’s and watching basketball games at the community center near there. We used to go hiking (had to take a safety course where they told you about unexploded ordinances from WWII) and went salmon fishing-so beautiful there! There’s a great documentary on Adak in WWII on Netflix. I was there when we had a 7.7 earthquake (during school!) and the whole island had to evacuate to higher ground for a tsunami threat that didn’t really come (it was tiny). Only time there was a traffic jam! Lots of kids crying and scared. But no major damage! Thank you again for these pictures and article!!
Loved reading this, I lived in Adak as a boy in 1968 and 1969, I was 8 and 9 years old. The Adak National forest was there and the trees were my height at that time. We played kickball in the streets at midnight during the summer and then slept with our windows covered so that it was dark inside. In the winter recess was during the brief period it was light out. We stayed away from the fields with unexploded bombs from WWII but we did a lot of exploring and Bald Eagles were a common sight everywhere. Great to remember my time there!!
I stumbled across this fascinating blog by way of an old post of yours on TripAdvisor.
I’m a European planning some island hopping in the Aleutians in early October. The idea is to experience some rugged remoteness in Unalaska and Adak (3 nights each) before flying down to visit relatives in Vancouver.
I’m already an avid island hopper and backpacker, and for this particular trip, I’m looking to enjoy solitude as well as encounters with locals and fellow travelers alike. I don’t really have any set expectations, I just wanna be really far away from home for a few days. I don’t drive, so I’d be hiking and strolling around, and maybe joining a sightseeing tour if there are any tour operators still active in October. Do you have any recommendations for tours or activities, or any other tips for me as a solo traveler?
Thanks a lot in advance!