I am really glad I was not born a puffin. Imagine hatching out of your egg and tottering over to the nest edge to find your adrenaline-junkie puffin parents had set up camp in a teeny crevice a few hundred feet up. It’s mad isn’t it? That said, I expect the views are far prettier than most maternity wards worldwide. I muse on this sort of thing regularly at the moment – what with our days being filled with wild places in these wild islands we are travelling through. Now to be born a sea otter looks like a very happy lot indeed, leading what appears to be a very fun and floaty sort of existence. On our final day (Sunday) of paddling to Dutch Harbour and Unalaska City we came across a raft of otters, maybe fifty animals cosied up together in the kelp, like a gaggle of chattering geese or crew of meerkats. They dropped under the surface and slid a few hundred metres away before peering back at us from afar.
Sea lions are rather less gentle on the eye and nose and we continue to be chanted and jeered at with their guttural growls when passing rookeries, hulking giant reject males bellowing at us and hurling themselves into the water to investigate. Seals must be pupping now as we have seen some real tinies lying up on the rocks, wide eyed and worried at anything unsealish. Life is definitely blooming on and off the water and the islands are a bright riot of green grass.
Here in Unalaska City – an historic community shaped, it seems, largely by the huge fishing industry which operates out of its bustling port – the vast bunkhouses and metallic shapes of boats and heavy tackle are polar opposites of the gently coloured wooden houses peppered through the valley and nestled on hillsides. As we paddled into the misty bay I picked out cars whizzing along shore. It felt busy, even from afar. And it is, relatively. Right now there are about 10,000 people here – over half of them migrant short term workers for the fish processing plants. Over winter the residents number half that. Compared with the handful of folks in Nikolski, our last community, this feels like a metropolis. It is certainly cosmopolitan too with as many accents, languages and shades as any big city, such that signs on the Public Library entrance instruct this and that in English, Spanish, Unangax and Tigalik.
We are almost ready to leave, having spent the day sorting and repairing damaged kit and filling food bags with our resupply caches and the fruits of our supermarket sweep. The other three days of our stay in Unalaska have been far more social with dinners and drinks with new friends (both the two and ten-legged varieties), a radio session on the community station KUC and a talk to a packed audience as well as a couple of summer school sessions. Personal highlights include the tour from Roger Deffendell and Josh Wood of the WWII bunkers and tunnels on Ballyhoo Mountain and the plane ride to neighbour island Akutan. We flew there in just seventeen minutes, rather more swiftly than the few days it will take us to paddle there. I have also enjoyed buzzing about town on our loaned bikes, my legs enjoying a taste of the ride ahead and my soul lapping up the feeling of being fit and strong and surrounded by fabulous scenery painted with the rich hues of summer fresh.
Finally a big shout must go to the excellent cosy Museum of the Aleutians , chronicling the rich and often tragic histories of these islands and their people. It was special to visit with Peat Gelatniakoff and have him point out pictures and exhibits of and by his family. In the car park he proudly showed me the hand – carved wooden bilge pump his Uncle had passed down to him. I especially enjoyed the exhibits of Aleut iqyax and the animal skin clothing, glad that mine are goretex and not guts but feeling a kindred spirit with the paddlers of times gone by.Justine and I the only paddlers we have seen out on the water up until the group of paddlers met us on our approach to town, but I often wonder of the paddlers who cruised and hunted these waters before us. I wonder what they would make of us now and I would love to hear their stories and adventures round a campfire. Perhaps we already do somehow, on some level, just through the fact we are out there doing at least some of what they did.
From here we are just a days paddling away from the mainland and all that it means. … More people and bears. I have just practised my ‘playing dead’ pose and while munching dinner I narrated to Justine all the things the ‘Bear Book’ tells us to do or not in a bearish situation. More on this another time.
For now, Unalaska tops my ‘Favourite Island’ leaderboard and I leave happy thanks to everyone here who has helped and friended us. Jeff Hancock and Lauren Adams, Annie and Carlos, Roger and Billie Jo Deffendell, Josh and Missy Wood, Jim at the City Shop, Peat Galatnikoff, the lady who gave us homemade jam, the Library folks and Pilot James and all who came out to greet us. And anyone else I have forgotten!
Until next time,