August 25-28, 2011

Adventures by Day

Base housing with a rare spruce tree

Day 3: The Ridge

The next morning we decided to go for a hike, taking the advice of the USFWS agent.  It was the best weather we'd had so far--mostly cloudy, but the clouds were high, above all the peaks on the island.  Better yet, the incessant wind that blew through the thigh-high grasses outside the back of the duplex (once manicured lawns gone wild) was relatively mild.  We found our way to the "trailhead" parking area at a bunker where the road continued around a hill to the left and an ATV track branched right.  The agent had suggested that we park there and follow a ridge line that arced to the left of the road and around a lake, so we walked down the road a few feet, then took off toward the first hill we could see to the left.  It didn't yell "ridge" to me and was, in fact, a rather modest hillock that stood alone in the landscape.  But, her directions were clear--the ridge curved around to the left of the road and we had a map that corroborated.  So we tromped across the tundra, passing tiny ponds and rivulets, but mostly walking across the easy, spongy ground.  The vegetation there was much less lush than what we'd experienced around Heart Lake and the walking couldn't have been easier.  Once off the road we were immersed in a wild landscape of rolling hills; just beyond the military portion of the island, there were no more bunkers or other structures to be seen. 

Then we climbed a little hill and saw the town spread out behind us, discovering that the only hill between us and the water was the peninsula we'd driven over the day before that separates the town from Finger Bay.  That's when we finally decided we were definitely in the wrong place.  We started heading back toward the road, finding that we'd put in a surprising distance already.  At one point Chris and I separated briefly and it took a surprising amount of time to find each other again in that hilly terrain.  While we were walking I noticed that I was on standard wildlife alert, waiting for any tiny motion or color to stand out and reveal a coveted creature sighting.  It was odd to contemplate  that there was no possibility of seeing any mammals whatsoever!  Well, we might see another rat, and I suppose there was a slim chance of coming upon a caribou, but neither was likely.  It was an odd situation!  Post-apocalyptic in a whole different way from the town--as though all the animals had died, leaving behind only vegetation.  Of course I did flush songbirds here and there along the way, mostly from the tops of windy knolls, allof which appeared to be Lapland longspurs.

Chris and I finally wound up on the top of a steep-sided hill and got a better idea of where we were.  In the valley before us, and some distance behind, we could see the end of the road we'd left, heavily pot-holed and dissipating in a muddy mess (not much beyond where we'd left it).  Across the valley was a ridge, and we decided to see if we could climb the side of it; being the highest mountain in sight, that was surely where we were meant to hike.  The terrain was deceptive, the valley much deeper and wider than it looked from our vantage point, but the hiking was so easy that we reached the bottom of the ridge in no time and started the steep ascent.  Here and there we found metal poles stuck in the ground that indicated USFWS ownership and warned against disturbing them.  Other than that, the land was wild with rocky outcroppings covered in lichen, bare patches of dirt in some of the steeper sections, and soft tundra on the rest.  It was a steep and tiring climb, but in no time at all we'd made our way to a little saddle overlooking another valley.  On the other side was a mountainous region in which we could catch a glimpse of a lake, which we guessed was the lake we were supposed to circumnavigate by way of the ridges.  The ATV track that branched from the parking area came up this valley and, apparently, to that lake; what the ranger should have told us was to follow the ridge to the left of the ATV track, not to the left of the actual road.  In any event, the location was phenomenal, so it was good advice in general.  We had a granola bar, then started heading farther up the ridge.  The wind was fierce in exposed areas, so strong that it was hard to stand upright when we stood on the highest rocky outcroppings.  From there we could see far in all directions.  The lake we’d glimpsed turned out to be several lakes tucked between low, round knobs only a little lower in elevation than us and the higher, sharper peaks behind them.  We were finally convinced that we knew where we were since we could now identify most of the lakes in view on our map.  In addition, we could see the town and Finger Bay to the east, the slopes of Mount Moffett to the north (its peak now shrouded in gathering clouds), Shagak Bay to the west, and tall, snow-capped volcanic mountains to the south which we later determined were on other islands.

In all, the view was amazing.  A snow bunting and a Lapland longspur hung out with us on that high knoll, braving the searing wind.  The hint of blue sky we'd seen when we left the duplex had long since disappeared and the sky was now solid clouds, encompassing the higher peaks.  We descended along the ridge, enjoying the hardy lupines growing like bonsai trees in the rocks, and the quiet meadows of yellow flowers in the lees of the outcroppings.  I passed what appeared to be a burrow, about six inches in diameter--it seemed too small for a fox, and too large for a rat, but I know little about either.  Before we knew it we'd descended right down to the car and were on our way home for a late lunch. 

On the way we took a little driving tour of the rest of the town.  Our housing development--consisting entirely of duplexes, triplexes, and quadraplexes of the same basic design--was fairly close to the runway and the school.  Closer to the ocean were several more housing complexes in a maze of winding streets and cul de sacs.  There were about half a dozen different models, from rather bare bones apartments to strange, ‘70s style units.  Some of the roads were unused, cracked and overgrown with moss.  A few of the buildings had garage doors missing or windows broken, and one had apparently suffered a fire and was missing an entire wall; most, though, were intact, and I wished I could sneak in and steal a plate from a cupboard with the Navy seal on it like the ones in our duplex!  With so many houses and so few tourists, the supply for keepsakes must be endless.  (We didn’t actually break into any of them, though).  The lawns in front were grown up and gone wild and every few blocks there was a little playground.  One or two buildings had a spruce tree growing in front, and I imagined how the occupant had carefully nurtured their tree, a rare treat in the grasslands.  They were only about eight feet tall now, so I wonder how small they were when they were left behind and how long they’d been tended?  We'd passed the "Adak National Forest" before while driving--the cute name for a cluster of spruce trees to the north of town (I believe there's a pet cemetery there as well), but I was surprised to see several other stands of trees and individual trees growing elsewhere on the island.  They didn't seem to be growing or spreading very fast, but they didn't appear to be dying out either.  I imagine an expedition some 50 or 100 years down the road when the invasive spruce tree is culled from the island.  It would be an unusually mellow eradication effort, I think!

Worn out from all the fresh air and hiking, we had lunch and curled up on the couch.  Although I was loath to waste any time indoors on Adak, we were both exhausted and the weather had turned harsh.  Dense rain and wind enclosed our cozy living room and we napped and whiled away the afternoon.  Our timing with the weather had been impeccable so far.  Although it had rained while we were inside, and rained while we were driving, we had yet to be rained on while hiking around.  The weather overall had improved day by day and, to be honest, I enjoyed the coziness of the storm and the excuse to relax.

That evening we decided to eat out at the bar.  I directed Chris to the old VFW hall near the small boat harbor, a lone concrete building with a big covered entryway and a huge anchor out front.  As we pulled in it didn't look promising.  The only other vehicle there was dilapidated and we saw no lights.  A peek inside suggested abandonment, but I was sure it was the same building I'd been to before when visiting the "V" (the local name for the bar, given its location in the old VFW hall).  Puzzled, we drove back to the duplex and called the bar to get directions.  It turned out that they'd moved the year before to a building in the middle of the housing complex not far away.  The inside looked much the same, and I was pleased that it was very warm and cozy.  Unfortunately, the bartender smoked, and so did some of the patrons, so it smelled extremely unpleasant after the smokeless bars of Juneau.  We ordered beers and bar food (wings for Chris, pizza for me) and devoured them when they came.  We had a brief conversation with a telecommunications contractor from down south who was in town to move a tower to the top of White Alice (a hill that the military had flattened) to improve cell phone range for nearby vessels and to align satellites.  He said he came to Adak about once a year.  We had another beer, then Chris and I called it a night.

Heading out along the road

View heading out

Bunkers on the hillside behi
Tundra stream

Tundra on the hike

View on the hike (Chris in the distance)

View on the hike

Lake Mitt and Lake Leone


Crossing the valley to the ridge

Debbie climbing the mountainside

Small pond at the top of the ridge

Snow bunting

Lapland longspur
Chris on the ridge, Lake Bonnie Rose behind

Shumak Bay and Lake De Marie

Finger Bay from the ridge

The town of Adak

Debbie sitting on the ridge (Shumak Bay to the left)

Lupine in the alpine

Mountain crevasse

Chris in the final descent to the road

The inside of a bunker

Overgrown yards in unmaintained housing

Unmaintained road in a housing development

Unkept lawn of abandoned housing

The manicured front lawn of our duplex
(contrasted with the lawn across the road)
Next segment (day 4)