Posted September 12, 2012 02:01 pm - Updated September 17, 2012 11:51 am

South to Unalaska

South to Unalaska

   Last Thursday, the 6th of September, I got on the jet to Anchorage early in the morning, transferred to PennAir in Anchorage after lunch, and arrived in Unalaska that afternoon. I went north, then southwest, but if I had flown straight from Juneau to Unalaska, I would have gone in a southwesterly direction.

    Billie Jo Gehring, who was born and raised in Juneau, called me about a month ago and asked me if I would come to Unalaska and speak about women’s empowerment at the annual women’s conference, sponsored by the Iliuliuk Family & Health Services Clinic. Billie Jo and I both worked in the Department of Labor building many years ago, and I had not seen or heard from her in over a decade. It was such a surprising invitation that I couldn’t help but say, “There are plenty of women closer to Unalaska, or even in Unalaska, who could talk about women’s empowerment! Save your money!” But she insisted and made sure I came a few days early so I could take a tour of the island.   

   Even though I had been to Dutch Harbor in the 1990’s as the newly minted Director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, I didn’t realize that the island of Unalaska was actually south of Juneau. On that trip, Stephanie Madsen gave Kate Troll and me a tour of the processing plants there. (In the Small World Category, Stephanie sat in front of me on the jet from Anchorage to Juneau on Sunday.)

   Unalaska is close enough to Hawaii that a Hawaiian fisherman once delivered his tuna there rather than go back to his home port. Residents of the Aleutians also have the dubious distinction of having to pay the highest airfares per mile in Alaska. Add the cost of living to that, and you’ve got a population that learns how to stretch a buck, make it themselves, barter, or do without.

    On Thursday afternoon, I arrived at the tiny Unalaska airport for the second time and there was Billie Jo waiting for me with a big smile on her face and a warm hug. She looked terrific. She dropped me off at the Grand Aleutian hotel, the same place I’d stayed at in the 1990’s. It’s a huge hotel, and is the epicenter of activity. Locals eat there. Lots of men are coming and going all the time. Cannery workers cut across the front entrance on their way from the hardware store to the processing plants. From my room, I could see the treeless mountains that form the entrance to the harbor. (I read that the Russians named it Dutch Harbor because they saw a Dutch ship there.) In front of the hotel were rows of King Crab pots, smaller pots, nets, and other fishing gear.

   After I had a chance to get settled in, I was picked up by Eileen Scott, the Executive Director of the clinic. In the first 15 minutes of conversation, we had an “it’s a small world” experience when I learned that Eileen was from Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Her accent was quintessential New England. My husband’s family is from Rhode Island, and Eileen knew some of his distant Gamache relatives.

   Eileen gave me a tour of the clinic, which she had spruced up considerably since she got there. My favorite was the pediatrics room, which had whimsical animals painted on the walls. The entire clinic had a very soothing air about it. As we went from room to room, she introduced me to the doctors and staff. There are local people, as well as staff from all over the country.

    On Friday, I was picked up early for a three hour historical tour of the island by Bobbie Lekanoff, who owns the local tour company. Unalaska was attacked by the Japanese in World War II, and the westward side of the island is full of WWII bunkers and other structures. Bobbie said that a large number of her clients are WWII veterans who come back, often with their wives or Army buddies, to revisit where they served as young men. In 1996, Congress designated the places she showed me to be the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area.

  I would be remiss if I didn’t add that the Unangan people on the island were moved by the U.S. Government to Sitka, where they suffered tremendous hardships. (I have to admit that I’m a little confused about Aleut versus Unangan, but I’ll study up on that.)

  Bobbie pointed out the moss-covered cement “pillboxes” still scattered around. They are smaller than bunkers, and shaped like a pillbox. The ones we saw had been picked up and moved to the empty field. There was a strange broken line on the side of the mountain that I asked Bobbie about. She said that was a trench for the troops, and it was staggered like that so that only one segment could be napalmed* at a time. (Correction on 9/17: The trench was staggered so that if a grenade was tossed into the trench, the impact would only be felt by that section.) As we drove along, she pointed out the buildings from WWII that are used today for all kinds of purposes. Wood is scarce there and nothing is wasted.

  My guide is also an Eagle Counter. She keeps track of the number of eagles and how many eggs they lay that hatch. We pulled over to look at an old rusty crane that had a huge eagle’s nest in the middle. A bald eagle watched over it from the tip of the crane. Bobbie said that this nest has been there for several generations of eagles now, and the sticks kept falling through so some high school boys climbed up and rigged a fishing net under the nest. Problem solved.

   Talking all the way, Bobbie maneuvered her big van up Mount Ballyhoo’s zigzag road to show me the remnants of Fort Schwatka. There is one remaining wooden structure, but there are lots of piles of wood and rusted steel bunkers. There was even an underground hospital. I was there on a nice warm day, but men were also hunkered down there in the winter.

   One anonymous soldier wrote this short poem, “Up on a windswept mountain, And what a hell of a spot, Rattling a hell of a snow storm, In a land that time forgot…” Mt. Ballyhoo, 1941. (National Park Service Fort Schwatka Self-Guided Tour)

   I stood on the promontory that the Seabees blasted to make it flat for a gun emplacement that would guard the harbor. I couldn’t help but think of the Nazi bunkers I had seen just this past July above Omaha Beach – two fronts of the same war but on different sides of the world.

   In my next blog, I’ll share what happened at the Women’s Conference. After a day and a half on the island, I sure didn’t think the women there needed any coaching on empowerment!


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