August 25-28, 2011

Adventures by Day

The view west from the Loran station

Day 4: Loran Station and Bering Hill

Sunday was our flight home, but thankfully the flight didn't leave until 6:00 pm so we had all day to play.  Our main goal was a return to the north end of the island to explore the old Loran station and beach comb along its more exposed beach.  On the way we stopped at the top of the hill just north of the town by a tank farm to take some panoramic shots of the area.  The view was unimpeded, the sky mostly cloudless.  We could see that the big volcanoes to the south that we’d spotted from the ridge top were, in fact, separated from Adak Island.  In the housing complexes below we could see buildings with manicured lawns and pickups, sharply contrasted with the wild and overgrown lawns nearby.

Adak proper from the nearby hill

Adak and the edge of Kulu Bay

Kulu Bay from the hill near the town (photo by Chris)
We then headed back north, made it through the grim road along the live munitions area, and parked in the same place, this time continuing down the road on foot to the one-story structure overlooking a rocky beach.  We entered a wing at the end and walked through what must have been a shop (identified by the names of tools on the wall where they were once hung), then into the adjoining room which housed three huge generators.  Beyond that was a long corridor with rooms to either side which could have been offices or quarters.  We found a vault, some bathroom facilities, a "foul weather" closet, and other odds and ends, but the rooms were, for the most part, gutted.  Through the broken windows we saw views of the ocean and the surrounding green hills--stunning scenery that I think would have made any work detail there pretty tolerable, and I think manning that station would have been a good gig. 

As we were exploring, Chris yelped and claimed that a bird flew right in front of him, disappearing into a nearby room.  I investigated and jumped when a dark song sparrow buzzed by and out a window.  After that we saw many song sparrows fly in and out of the building as though they owned the place.  Next door we entered a separate building, sodden and falling down, and absolutely cram packed with racks and racks of....well, I'm not sure what it all was, but I think you might call it a machine room.  There were gages and wires and all sorts of items, jumbled up all over the place.  Song sparrows came in and out the whole time we were in there, sometimes several at a time, sometimes singing.  They clearly knew their way around that room and were quite bold.  In fact, they appeared to be attracted to us!  Sparrows kept coming in, eyeing us, then hopping cautiously in our direction.  I think they may have been begging!  Several web sites I looked at about bird watching on Adak suggested sprinkling bird seed to attract birds; although it seemed like an out-of-the-way location for a bird watcher to target, I can't account for the behavior of these sparrows any other way.  In fact, I felt rather bad that I had nothing for them, they seemed so eager.  The song sparrow of Adak, called the Aleutian song sparrow, is apparently a year-round local, isolated from song sparrows on the mainland.  Song sparrow songs are notoriously diverse across the continent (sharing the characteristic song sparrow trill at the end), but these songs were the most distinct I'd ever heard and I may not have recognized them as song sparrow songs if there had been any other similar common bird on Adak.

Outside, the sparrows flitted from one tall lupine stalk to another.  Chris and I headed down the long grassy slope to the beach below, winding up among waste-high hummocks of grass and ferns where it leveled out.  Beyond was a beach of basket-ball sized round red metamorphic rocks (I think), punctuated with flotsam washed up from the ocean.  Chris headed to the right to beach comb up to the nearby point, and I looked around where I was.  We both found big plastic buoys, but I didn't see anything else very interesting.  When Chris came back, though, he showed me a non-descript plastic bottle, like many lying around.  I was unimpressed, but based on the look on his face I inspected it more thoroughly.  The cap had Japanese script on it!!!  He'd found a Japanese bottle.  It hadn't even occurred to me to look at the plastic bottles, but I scoured the beach for them from that point on.  We walked along the beach back to the area below the car, inspecting all debris along the way.  We each found about three really neat bottle caps with Asian writing on it and Chris found a Russian bottle cap as well.  We also found a bottle of Japanese shampoo (or something like that) that still had product in it, a Japanese soy sauce bottle, the wrapper for Japanese rubber gloves, a hard hat, buoys, ropes, and lots of other refuse.  Additional wildlife included a charming group of mystery sandpipers and an Aleutian Pacific wren--another regional variant like the song sparrow.  More song sparrows inhabited the vegetation at the edge of the beach and foraged around the kelp-strewn rocks at the water's edge.

The cliffs at the beach where we stopped was a near-vertical wall of vegetation which we climbed up hand over fist.  The weather was partly cloudy and the scenery stunning--we could even see some of the reef at the edge of the beach through the water.  Clutching our washed-up treasures, we made our way back to the car and headed south for one more adventure.  I wanted to drive to Shagak Bay on the western shore of the island (across the island from the town).  A long sand spit nearly enclosed the lagoon and it sounded like a neat place to explore.

Orphaned fire hydrant

Looking down on the cove

Parked near the cove and Loran station

The Loran station


View out the station window

Hallway inside the station

Song sparrow on lupines

Song sparrow on the roof

Chris inspecting the machine room

Friendly song sparrow in the machine room

Looking out from the buildings


Song sparrow in the seaweed

Mystery sandpipers

The beach looking west

Beach rocks

Japanese gloves wrapper

Colorful rubble

Looking back toward the Loran station

Asian bottlecaps

Beach flowers

Chris and a hard hat

Chris climbing the slope
The end of the beach from above

White flowers

The complex near Clam Lagoon (note the sign)

On the drive past the runway we stopped for a bald eagle perched on a post at the side of the road.  Adak eagles are pretty easy to approach and, given the lack of trees, tend to perch and fly low to the ground; this one let us get within about ten feet before flying off.  We also passed a sturdy building with seven bays surrounded by barbed wire that, we were told by our telecommunications friend, were build to house nuclear bombs.  We soon got into some trouble following a long-unused road which had washed out on the top of a knoll behind the runway, then retreated and found a better road that led around White Alice.  The terrain to the right of us sloped down to the bottom of a valley and on the other side we could see the lower slopes of Mt. Moffett.  The gently sloping land was cut with many branching channels, carrying water down to the stream at the bottom.  It was the most obviously volcanic terrain I've ever seen.  Unfortunately, once we got to the hill, we were unwilling to continue on the existing roads.  After trying several routes around it, we eventually gave up; the roads were too bad for our comfort, some of them half full of soil from a large ditch being dug alongside them (we assume it was related to the telecommunications work at the top).  Unfortunately, the only way to access the other road to the lagoon was back in town and we were out of time.  We wound up on a different road heading south, stopping on the way to explore another bunker.  There were caribou jaw bones on the ground outside.  Continuing on, we wound up turning and approaching the town from the southwest, passing through a whole community we'd never seen before.  It was Bering Hill with its two of churches, what appeared to be barracks, a community center, etc.  It looked like the place I'd like to live if I was stationed there. 

Instead of going straight back to the duplex, we made one last stop at the black sand beach near the end of the runway.  I’d stopped there in 2006 and found an intact sand dollar (which was later broken by a window washer at work) and I hoped to find more.  We parked and entered the beach where Airport Creek drains into the ocean and started walking.  Chris found the first sand dollar and I found the second (and last).  The afternoon sun made the scene in the bay dramatic and the smooth black sand beach was undisturbed and beautiful.  We found a few crab shells and other flotsam and romped around some of the sand drifts before turning around and heading back to the creek.  There we watched a lone salmon scurry up and down the shallow channel through the beach (I think it may have been trapped there for the duration of low tide) and saw dozens of fry-sized fish there as well. 

Unfortunately, we then had to head back to the duplex to pack up and make our way to the airport, our luggage considerably lighter without all the groceries.  The flight back was gorgeous; we passed over more of the Aleutians, one of which was covered in clouds that piled up behind a volcanic cone hidden beneath..  We over-nighted in Anchorage and took the early flight back to Juneau, thoroughly pleased with our vacation.  Adak is fascinating on two counts: the military ruins (and current community) and the wild Aleutian island it inhabits.  Either one is worth a visit in itself.  The military ruins are endless, so many of which have doors hanging open inviting exploration.  Nowhere did we see warnings or signs prohibiting entry (with the exception of the boarded up doors at one complex that were closed by orders of the CO!).  In addition to the obvious military complexes and bunkers, there were random buildings all over the place, some of which may have simply been weekend getaways for families.  We could picture bored men stationed on Adak with limitless time and ample resources building recreational cabins anywhere they liked.  The roads outside of town provide access into the original Adak Island, the lush and pristine hilly tundra open to endless exploration or a different sort.  As Chris said while hiking the ridge, there was really no bad place to set up a tent!  A person could tramp around and camp in the refuge forever.  Not only would you be unlikely to find people beyond the roads, but you wouldn't run the risk of stirring up any bears or other wildlife either!  I'd like to go back and track down the caribou in their summering grounds on the southern end of the island, eating trout from the lakes and streams.  If you find either or both of these topics interesting, I highly recommend a trip to Adak!

Grove of spruces

Rare view of Mount Moffett from the north

Nuclear bomb storage

The slopes of Mount Moffett

Bunker in the landscape

Entering Bering Hill

Strange bunkers at Bering Hill

Old church at Bering Hill

Bering Hill community center

Black sand beach on Kulu Bay

Wind designs

Our living room