August 25-28, 2011

Adventures by Day

Day 1: Heart Lake

Day 2: The Cove, Finger Bay, and Lake Betty

Day 3: The Ridge

Day 4: Loran Station and Bering Hill

Finger Bay
Finger Bay

Day 2: The Cove, Finger Bay, and Lake Betty

Although I desperately wanted to sleep in, we had little enough time already on the island!  Morning light shown in through the window in the other bedroom and the day looked overcast but promising.  Our first goal was to drive north to the edge of a round peninsula where an old Loran station is located.  My parents had driven there and seen a rope that led down the steep bank and onto a beautiful beach, though they didn’t climb down.  Our road took us along the black sand beach near the end of the runway (the beach we'd passed over on our landing) and along the inside of Clam Lagoon.  Rain spattered our windshield on and off and I looked for birds, spotting what I suspected was a jaeger.  But it was very windy and we had a particular goal in mind, so we drove on, looking for a spur road into the interior of the peninsula.  Again the relatively short distances threw us and we overshot the road, turning around somewhat past the lagoon and returning to a complex of buildings, many of which were boarded over with "off limits on orders of CO" painted on them.  From there a road led away from the lagoon through a flat prairie in which a fire hydrant sat with no apparent purpose.  Then the road made a 90 degree turn back north and we drove along the outside of a fence warning of live munitions.  On the other side was the section island that is still off limits, and may remain so indefinitely, because live munitions are known to be there.  The rest of Aleut Corporation land has been swept and all ordnance and Rommel stakes removed (hopefully).  The road was very bad in places, washed out into deep trenches of round rocks where former drivers had made new tracks off to the side, some not much better than the original.  I admit to being extremely worried about the car, both in fear of damaging it and of getting stuck out there.  But Chris drove through without a hitch.  There were no structures beyond the complex we’d left above the lagoon, only low hills of lush grass and flowers and I thought again at what a grass paradise Adak is.  I also thought what a grazer's paradise it would be!  The caribou introduced to the island would seem to have a pretty good life--no predators (except, of course, man), endless grass without competition, and no insects.  I wondered if the Navy kept dairy cows.  How could they not thrive on Adak!?

Eventually we put the rough road behind us and drove along the side of a steep gully descending to the ocean.  We drove as far as we could until some large rocks from an old avalanche made it too tight for comfort and we turned around to park, discovering the rope at a pullout nearby.  Farther down the road we could see the structure that we thought must be the old Loran station.  But we turned our attention to the lovely cove below, edged by two long points with a reef to the left.  The wind was howling and huge seas crashed into shore.  We bundled up and headed down the rope.  It was slippery and steep, but easy going with the rope, and we soon descended to the shoreline.  It wasn’t raining, but we could feel the salt spray in the air.  The banks behind us, some leading up to higher peaks, were mostly vegetated and the constant wind made channels in the grass.  Watching the wind course through them was mesmerizing like watching a fire--it looked like the wind was running its fingers through a rich fur coat. 

We walked along the cove in the company of what I think were Lapland longspurs, song sparrows, and lots of black oystercatchers, then went around the corner onto an intertidal reef, the rim of which was clobbered with large waves that coursed through channels in the rock, frothing the ribbons of seaweed that clung there.  On the way back we looked for interesting items washed ashore but found little other than pieces of rope, so I think the cove is too protected for good beachcombing.  Although I wanted to continue exploring, we needed to be back in town by noon to catch the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (AMNWR) office during its one hour a day opening.  Climbing back up the rope ladder was exhilarating and a little harder than going down! 

We made it back through the rough road, past the hillsides in the restricted zone into which I imagined officers shooting explosives, and turned back toward the complex near the lagoon.  As we approached the structures, a small brown creature scurried across the road!  My mind scrambled for a few seconds to determine what it could be, but I quickly realized it could be only one thing--a Norway rat!  Given that Norway rats are invasive, unwelcome, and destructive on the Aleutian Islands, I shouldn't have been so excited; but, I was excited precisely for those reasons.  I had seen the only mammal on the island other than caribou (also introduced).  If they were there anyway, I wanted to see one.  Before we continued on, we also stopped at a bunker on the slope leading down to the complex that had a sloping concrete entrance.  The inside was drier and in much better shape than the other bunkers we'd explored.  A door in the back warned that ear protection was required and inside were huge corrugated white tubes and machinery that looked a little like big washing machines.  I have no idea what they were used for, but I was again amazed that it had all been left behind, open to the public.

Although we wanted to make sure we reached the office in time, we made one other stop on the way back, pulling over at a culvert along the edge of the lagoon where a tiny trickle of a creek drained the hills nearby.  Where the creek entered the culvert the stream formed a pool about ten feet in diameter that was absolutely packed with pink salmon.  Coho were supposed to use that stream as well, which is one reason we stopped, but these appeared to be all pinks.  I inadvertently spooked them and they rushed and crashed around the pool to escape, but there was nowhere to go.  Beyond the pool, the creek was only about a foot wide, winding its way between two hills.  A tiny creek packed with salmon!  Neat.  We also verified that the bird we’d been seeing swooping around the lagoon was a jaeger, parasitic I think.

We left the car at our duplex, freshened up briefly, then walked caddy corner across the street to the USFWS office, which was located in an identical duplex to ours.  The side on the door said that it was open from 9-11 Monday-Friday!  I'd specifically asked the Aleut Real Estate representative at the airport when the office was open, and she had led us astray.  There were two numbers on the door, so I called both.  I could hear a phone ringing inside when I tried the first, but a lady answered when I tried the second and, when she heard our predicament, said she was just on her way to the post office and would stop by.  Sure enough, moments later a middle-aged woman came by and opened the door for us; she turned out to have been on the island for 20 years.  The living room area of the duplex had a desk, a wall of interpretive materials, and some shelves with military and natural history artifacts.  We were hoping this agent would talk to us generally about the island and spark a conversation, but when gently asked she just said "What do you want to know?"  And so we were obliged to ask very specific questions.  We learned that sperm whales are sometimes seen from shore, that the unexploded ordnance everyone is concerned about is the result of military drills, that we needed a permit from Aleut Corporation to fish in any of the lakes and streams on their land, that the arctic foxes that once lived on the island (likely introduced by Russians) were extirpated a few years before, that the caribou summer on the south side of the island and were only then starting to show up on the north side where they winter, that there is an endangered species of fern that grows on the mountaintops that may or may not be the same species found in Asia, and that the USFWS maintains eight duplexes and uses Adak as a staging ground for a lot of research.  We also learned that the "trails" marked on our map are not trails at all, just suggested places to walk; we told her it was pretty misleading and she agreed, saying that every time they reprinted the maps she suggested that they do away with them altogether.  We realized later that the “trails” indicate public use easements where anyone is allowed to hike without a permit from the Aleut Corporation, which makes more sense; a little explanation on the map would help, though!

We also picked her brain about where to go.  The odd thing about the AMNWR on Adak Island is that there's no way to reach it by road.  All the roads are, of course, on former military land, now Aleut Corporation land.  The only way to get on the refuge is by boat or by walking.  She suggested a couple of places for us to go, one sparked by our interest in trout fishing.  Lake Betty is split between the refuge and corporation land, so we could drive close to it, then hike along the edge and feel safe fishing about half way down.  She also showed us a nice hike east of there through some draws on the south side of Finger Bay and a ridge hike in the interior around Lake Bonnie Rose (most of the lakes on Adak appear to be named after women—military wives and sweethearts, perhaps?).  Her young kid and, we guessed, her husband or partner showed up, making me wonder how they'd met if she’d been on Adak for 20 years, and we headed back home for lunch.  She was pleasant enough and knowledgeable, but could work on her presentation, as we had to prompt her for every piece of information (a good interpreter will pick up on her audience’s interest and run with it).

The old McDonald's

Power poles failing

The edge of the cove

The rope to the cove

The cove

Ripples of grass

Debbie in the intertidal area

Beach flowers

Debbie climbing up from the cove

The complex near Clam Lagoon

Debbie climbing out of a bunker

The inside of the bunker

After a little rest we put our poles together and headed out.  We figured this was the best time to visit the high school (a.k.a., the hub of city offices), so we drove the two blocks to get there and stepped inside.  The high school was built about two years before the military abandoned the island, so it is in pristine condition, and rather classily done, I thought.  When I visited in 2006, the city offices were located upstairs between rows of shiny blue lockers.  There was a small gift shop there where I bought an Adak refrigerator magnet, and the gymnasium housed a small store with two shelves of goods and a cafeteria at lunch.  Things had obviously changed in the last five years.  The upstairs was closed off entirely, the store and cafeterias apparently permanently closed, and the city offices were now in the home ec room adjoining the gym.  Most of the downstairs was blocked off for the current Adak school, so we were limited to visiting the small museum/post office area off the entryway, the empty gym, and the city offices, which we did not enter.

From there we headed south to Finger Bay, a spot my dad had mentioned we should visit.  Finger Bay is a long narrow fjord where my dad thought that submarines had moored at one time.  It sprinkled as we drove over the peninsula that separates the bay from the town, but stopped by the time we reached the head of the bay.  There we found a nice little creek that was packed with pink salmon.  We parked at the end of the road and started hiking along the side of the creek, meeting up with a group of people along the way who appeared to be exploring like us.  One of them stopped and chatted with us, and he turned out to be a frequent visitor on the island.  He told us that there were trout in the deep holes among the chum salmon (I think he meant pinks) and that he'd seen some USGS folks catch some silver bright cohos at the mouth of the creek the week before.  He and his group went back to their cars and we then had the little valley to ourselves.  The creek, between five and 20 feet across, drained Lake Betty, meandering attractively down some gentle falls, though the valley, and around the corner to the ocean.  The sun began to come out and the scenery was gorgeous.  Chris and I stopped to check out the creek here and there, noticing more iron debris in it (including something that looked a lot like a bomb, though I'm sure it wasn't), then hiked up a steep slope to the shores of the lake.  Although we knew this was still Aleut Corporation land and we technically shouldn't fish it, we didn't think anyone would really mind, and that it was pretty unlikely that anyone would see us anyway.  I certainly would have gotten a permit ahead of time had I known (Aleut Real Estate representatives, though extremely pleasant, could also improve the quality and quantity of information they provide to tourists).

The edge of the lake near the creek was edged by large rocks.  We forded the mouth of the creek and found some nice spots to cast, with absolutely no luck.  The scene was, in some ways, quite desolate.  The lake stretched before us was calm and, in the shallows at least, devoid of life; green hills surrounded us shadowed by a gray sky.  Somewhere along the shore was the edge of the wildlife refuge, but there would be nothing to mark it.  One of the amazing things about the Aleutians (with few exceptions) is their pristine condition.  Save for some WWII artifacts and structures, the remains of pre-Russian Aleut settlements, invasive rats and foxes on some, and the trash littering the beaches from the ocean, these islands are more of less untouched.  In how many small streams on how many scores of islands do Dolly Varden swim undisturbed?  The reason for this lucky position is, of course, isolation.  Adak harbors a variety of sea birds (none of which nest in accessible locations on the northern end of the island, unfortunately), and quite a few transient migrants, but very few land-based locals.  Lapland longspurs, snow buntings, song sparrows, and winter wrens seem to be about it.  And, of course, no native mammals call it home.  I guess it's a mixed blessing, but it sure is interesting.

We fished for a little while, then decided to head back down the more scenic stream and seek trout there in the holes, planning to wind up at the mouth to fish for cohos.  The first pool we tried was quite small--only about 15 feet across--but in it we could see a school of about six fish (probably pinks), and at least one fish that was far too small to be a salmon.  We enticed this fish to follow our lures a few times and improved our aim impressively in such close quarters, but eventually gave up on the wily trout and moved downstream into a brisk section of creek where there appeared to be a deep spot along a cut bank.  Located prior to any major falls in the creek, this area was alive with pinks.  I made a cast or two, then wound up fixing something that went wrong with my pole while Chris continued.  Before I'd finished my small task, he had a fish on that wasn't a pink.  Sure enough, he'd pulled in a beautiful little pan-sized dolly.  We made a flash decision to keep it for dinner and pulled it ashore, not knowing whether we'd have the chance to catch another.  The decision turned out to be a good one because the hook had curved up into an eye.  What a gorgeous fish he was, a dolly reared in Adak waters!  We cut a piece of fishing line to string him up and went on our way, enjoying the song sparrows that sang and flew from seed cluster to seed cluster in the deep grasses.  I wasn't too keen on catch and release, so we stopped fishing in the creek, though in retrospect we probably could have eaten another similarly-sized fish that night.

Plus I was anxious to fish for cohos at the mouth.  The intertidal area (only a few feet wide at that point), is public land, so there was no concern about fishing there without a permit. In the deep, clear waters where the stream emptied into the head of the bay, hundreds of pinks hovered or swam about in big schools.  We pulled our lures in front and through these schools endlessly without one of them showing any interest whatsoever!  We also walked down the shore fishing in salt water with similar success.  It was very puzzling!  All those fish and not a single strike.  The sun showed through here and there, warming us a little and brightening the bay.  We fished hard, but to no avail, and eventually headed home.  We ate stuffing and trout for dinner and called it a day.

City Hall

School playground

Finger Bay

The creek at Finger Bay

Lake Betty

Overlooking the valley

Tundra in the valley

Chris fishing a pool

Dolly varden

Chris fishing at the mouth of the creek

View across Finger Bay

Dinner in the duplex

Next segment (day 3)