August 25-28, 2011

Adventures by Day

Heart lake
Heart Lake

Day 1: Heart Lake

Adak.  It' s not a place on many top ten vacation hot spot lists (unless you're a birder and you've been everywhere else in the Aleutians and the Bering Sea).  But, Chris and I had been talking about visiting this bizarre little community way the heck out in the middle of the Aleutians for a while.  So, when my parents offered to buy us a vacation anywhere we wanted to go, Adak came to mind.  My dad expected something more along the lines of the Bahamas, but, well, Chris and I aren't the usual vacationers.  This trip report records our adventures on Adak as well as my impressions and a little information about the town and the island.  There’s a lot of detail in the text, but the photos really tell the story better (scroll down for more).

Booking our August vacation to Adak Island mostly involved simply contacting Aleut Real Estate for lodging and, it turns out, a car.  We were admonished to bring our own food, as the small grocery store is very expensive and the only other food option is the bar (we were lucky to wind up in Adak during the half of the week when they serve food).  There are only two (heavily subsidized) flights to Adak each week--Thursday and Sunday.  We over-nighted in Anchorage Wednesday night, then hopped on the 3:00 pm non-stop to Adak, two and a half hours away.  During the flight we watched the water off the coast turn colors, possibly marking the transition from the Bristol Bay watershed runoff into pure salt water.  Beyond that, tiny round cloud shadows made a bizarre display on the green ocean. 

And then we were flying along the cliffs of northern Adak Island where the planes come in so low over the beach and road that we later saw signs warning vehicles of low flying aircraft!  We trundled off with the other 20 or so passengers (who collectively didn’t take up much space in the 737) and milled around the small airport lounge waiting for our luggage.  There we met up with someone from Aleut Real Estate who gave us keys and a map to our room.  Soon the anteroom was packed with luggage and we vied with the other passengers to find our bags (rather a lot considering our short visit) and squeeze through the narrow door.  We found our way to an SUV outside and Chris managed to navigate us to our room several blocks away. 

Well, it wasn’t so much a room really....more like a house!  It was, in fact, a large duplex.  Adak was once home to some 6,000 people up to14 years ago--Navy folks, their families, and whoever else they needed to run the cold war base (originally established during the occupation of Attu and Kiska during WWII).  The town proper consists mostly of housing developments, each section comprised of clusters of identical duplexes, triplexes, or quadraplexes.  When the Navy turned the property over to Aleut Corporation (the Alaska Native corporation for Aleutian Islands natives), they wisely maintained some of the scores of units for visitors.  We were lodged in former officers' quarters, which made for pretty nice accommodations!  For less than the price of a decent hotel in Anchorage during the same time we had a two-story, two bedroom, three-bathroom duplex complete with full kitchen, laundry room, dining room, living room, and sunroom.  Also a piano!  It was furnished and very comfortable.  Although we never turned on the television, we were led to believe there was cable as well. 

We were delighted with our lodging, but I was antsy.  It was only 5:00 (we had gained an hour by entering the Hawaii-Aleutians time zone) and a quick exploration of the island seemed in order.  So we opened up the big U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) map of Adak Island we’d borrowed from my parents which showed the roads and trails that crisscrossed the relatively small northern section of the island.  There were green dotted lines all over the place designating hiking trails with a table that indicated trail length.  We decided to circumnavigate Heart Lake in the middle of the island.  But first we had to find it among all the myriad dirt roads!  It took a few minutes just to figure out how to get beyond the runways that separate the main town from the rest of the island, but we finally made our way south along the water and past the small boat harbor in Sweeper Cove.  There we made a stop to take a photo of the boats lining the sheet pile harbor—the result of millions of federal dollars meant to boost Adak’s economy by encouraging small fishing vessels to fish and moor there (in addition to the large vessels that already regularly deliver to Adak Fisheries, the only major business in town).  I’d made a site visit to Adak in March of 2006 to see the harbor when it was first constructed, partially funded by a grant program I worked with at the time.  I was pleased to see that nearly the entire length of dock was occupied (see photo to right).

And from there we headed to the interior.  Just driving up into the hills away from town was amazing.  Adak is hilly/mountainous--the only flat land we saw was where the town proper is located at the base of the long slope of Mount Moffett, the volcano that rises behind the town.  The hillsides were all carpeted with lush green vegetation, gleaming in the overcast light.  Clouds hung low over the mountains farther away and rows of bunkers protruded from the hillsides, their curved roofs covered in turf.  The bunker doors hung open or lay on the ground, the frames rusted and rotten.  We stopped at one on the way, discovering a room that looked like a party pad.  A wood stove in the middle of the main room was surrounded by rotting couches.  There appeared to be a bar in one corner and the back was divided into two small rooms with mattresses.  If it wasn't dank and mildewed it would be a great hangout spot!  I wondered if the local kids (there aren't very many) had outfitted any secluded bunkers for their own fun.  There were no signs to warn us away or indicate private property of any kind and we encountered dozens of these bunkers over the next couple of days.

But we were looking for Heart Lake.  After a wrong turn or two (the distances were disorientingly short), we found our way around a hill and looking down on what could only be Heart Lake.  The road was supposed to intersect the trail marked on the map, but we saw nothing.  I expected a trailhead, too, but it also eluded us.  We soon discovered that our map didn't depict every road, and some not accurately, so we took an offshoot and dropped down to the shore of the lake, startling up a rock ptarmigan along the way.  Based on the map, the trail was right there, and yet there was nothing.  So we headed out along the narrow gravel shore anyway, soon climbing onto the tundra when the shore disappeared.  The grass was damp and lush and the sky was overcast, though the sun shown through a little as we walked.  I thought for the first time, but not the last, that this was a grass paradise!  No trees to take over habitat, no grazers, just endless hills to carpet.  And that goes for the flowers too.  Individual flower plants protruded from the lush grass everywhere--monkshood, fireweed (not yet blooming), yarrow, yellow daisy-like flowers, pink flowers, dozen varieties I couldn't name.  Clumps of ferns vied for territory in the moister areas, and I imagined the struggle of each plant to scatter its seeds, perhaps the greatest battle just reaching the soil through all the crowding!  And I imagined the young shoots coming up in the spring, each one struggling for its own patch of sunshine.  Most of the tundra we walked through was growing on the sides of hills sloping down to the water; tiny streams worked their way through the thigh-deep plants and into the lake.  We slogged a little and stumbled over streams, but the going was relatively easy.

On the lake itself, a lone duck paddled about, consistently moving in our direction, only to skitter off and return again.  We called him Skippy, since he spent so much time running along the water as he tried to fly.  I wondered if he was not in the best of health.  He kept us company as we reached the middle of the heart and made our way around the other half.  We eventually reached a large, picturesque creek draining the lake and worked our way down it until we found a good crossing by jumping from rock to rock.  Closer to the car we came across a strange metal contraption sticking up from the tundra and wondered what on earth it could have been, far out of site from any other structures. 

As we were hiking, Chris started to notice the swarms of insects circling above us and rising up from the vegetation as we walked.  Some of them looked like mosquitoes, but we made it through the whole hike without a single bite, or any irritating behavior.  We realized that there Weren't many animals on the island, so nothing to sustain an insect population that depends on blood or flesh!  How bizarre.

It look a little longer than expected to make it around the lake what with the lack of trail, thick vegetation, and stream crossing, so we were hungry by the time we crossed the last stream to reach the car.  There we startled up another flock of ptarmigan, which surprisingly were the last we saw on the trip.  We wound our way back through the hills, stopping at a large building on the way that could have been offices or apartments, still full of furniture.  From there we made our way into the confusing maze of the city proper and its endless housing complexes; the only way I could orient myself in the beginning was by locating the runway, which forms two sides of the city on the inland edge.  The other sides are edged by hills and Kulu Bay.  Back at the duplex I made pasta for dinner (which we ate on plates adorned with the Navy's seal) and unloaded all our groceries--the reason for having packed so heavily.  We'd brought enough food for all four days.  That night we watched a movie on a laptop, chose the back bedroom to sleep, and crashed.

Bunkers along the road

Party bunk house

Chris at the bar

Bunker overlooking a lake

Rock ptarmigan

Chris walking around Heart Lake

Skippy the mystery duck

Our tracks along Heart Lake

Lush vegetation along the shore

Chris at Heart Lake


Tundra flower

Bog cangle look alike

Creek draining Heart Lake

Asters and grass

Mystery metal

Tundra near Heart Lake

Heart Lake

Navy bulding

Inside the window of the building

The plates at the duplex had the Navy seal

Next segment (day 2)