I’m in the waiting area of the Dutch Harbor/Unalaska airport in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. I’ve been here for less than 24 hours accompanying some colleagues on some consultations with Alaskan fishing communities. This place is all about fish, and that is all: pollack, halibut, salmon, cod and of course the world famous crab fleet which plies its trade in the Bering Sea on the World’s Deadliest Catch. The motto on the wall here at the airport is “The highest degree of opportunity” and that is indeed what this town is all about. Opportunity abounds to make money for sure but also in many other less savoury ways. This town has been cobbled together from old Russian church missions, native communities, from army and navy bases, from decades of fishing the richest waters on the planet. Everything here is opportunity, roughshod and utilitarian, sometimes brutal and vicious, but set in a landscape that is stunning.
Everything here is lifted and dropped. The mountains have been lifted from the sea and the fish and crabs are lifted from there too and dropped on deck, offloaded at the plants. People are lifted and dropped too – rocketing to wealth and falling to ill health and misfortune. Everything on these islands has been lifted onto a boat or a plane and dropped off here: years of industrial materials, commercial material, food, building supplies. The beaches in some areas are littered with disused and discarded equipment, nets, machinery and gear.
The land is incredible. Not a tree stands on these islands, so they are covered in thickets of cover bushes and everything is in flower now in the late summer. The glaciers and snowpacks in the mountains are at their dirtiest, but the summer here is short, if not non-existent. The water is never more than 10 or 12 degrees Centigrade and fog, rain and wind besets the place at any time. Flying in here is an adventure, with the runway carved out of a cliff face and running a mere 3900 feet to the apron. You are never sure if you will get in or out or, as happened to me, you will arrive but your bag will not. In this landscape, on this ocean you can only be humble. There is no illusion of control. You roll with flow and get where you’re going whenever you get there.
It’s a shame that I’m only here for a short time. I would love to explore these mountains more, to see the seabirds and the humpback whales that are breaching gleefully just around the corner from the harbour. As it was I was able to watch pink salmon run in the Iluliuk River today swimming in a channel between a processing plant and a senior’s centre, and I managed to get to beach by the airport and stand up a rock or two. But it’s ahrd to believe that I would ever be back here, so I leave with a little regret that I couldn’t stay longer. A warm bed awaits in Anchorage, and from there a medium haul home tomorrow.