Wildlife and loss of life in the Aleutian Islands

Sun 1 Aug 2004 11:30
1st August 2004. From the isolated islands of the Aleutians

Dear All,

As I write we are gently sailing along, in dampish conditions, having left
Kiska and the Rat Islands behind us and are heading for Adak Island.

Kiska was a very interesting island with the 1200m Kiska Volcano at its
north end and the steep green slopes around the anchorage in the south at
Kiska Harbour. The Japanese had taken Kiska during the war and the signs of
it were everywhere. Unlike Attu, the Americans came in and defeated the
Japanese and then seem to have all but abandoned the island. Therefore, the
debris is not of a large American deserted naval base, but of the remains of
a defeated army strewn everywhere. On the hill tops anti-aircraft machine
guns are left exactly where they were when the Japanese gunner either fled
or was shot and killed. The buildings, trenches, generators, guns, ship
wrecks etc are just left rusting and twisted, but not over taken by nature
in any significant way, making the place have a really sense of rotting,
messy waste. Peter and I somewhat disagree on our image of the place. I
find it terrible depressing that so many people came to this basically
insignificant, very remote island to needlessly loose their lives, and
evidence that that is precisely what happened here is all to obvious. It is
so unimportant a place in the whole scheme of things that once it was
regained by the Americans it was all but left to rot! Peter on the other
hand finds the very obvious clear remains of war and 1940s Japanese
technology like a living museum, which it really is. Much of the machinery
is in surprisingly good condition giving really good opportunity to examine
and photograph it. The most startling and best preserved wreckage was an
almost intact two man Japanese submarine which had been blow up in the
middle by the Americans, just enough that you can climb inside and see all
the workings from the rows and rows of batteries, to the engines, to the
prop shafts and the periscope. It was, I must admit, absolutely fascinating
and in such excellent condition. Not much fun to have been at sea in I
guess as the spaces for sitting and working seemed impossibly small. But
even here you could see the evidence of a battle at very close combat. Men
from one side or the other were clearly sheltering behind it, but by the
looks of the bullet holes on one side of the sub, many of which go straight
through the craft and out the other side, I would not say that many of them
survived the encounter.

But despite all this death and destruction you could not really get away
from the fact that Kiska is another absolutely beautiful island where the
really inhabitants are the wildlife. The first thing we saw when we stepped
ashore was an enormous bald eagle standing on the top of one of the old
telegraph poles. He was standing at least two feet tall and was extremely
close. I have certainly never seen an eagle as close and he was so unafraid
of us that we could almost reach the pole before he took off. We also saw
our first sea otters, two of them, sharing/fighting over a large fish,
paddling along on their back and rolling around in the waves. There was
also some kind of ground fowl with her chicks (ptarmigan, we believe),
gathering them up as we approached and lots of eider ducks with numerous
ducklings. We were there with a Norwegian boat called "Sumithra" who was
one of the two other boats that left Japan at a similar time to us. We have
been in radio contact with them for the last three weeks but had only met
them on one brief evening in Japan. We had a very jolly, exceedingly
drunken (some of us at least) cosy evening on Kokiri with the new stove and
Tilley lamp putting out as much heat a possible and the Filipino rum taking
a sever hammering!

The Bay of Islands of the west side of Adak is one of the most magical
places we have ever been. As we arrived in the shallow protected Trapper's
Cove we could see bald eagles watching the bay and caribou wandering on the
hillside. The sun was shining and the place was perfect. Rolling easy hills
and shortish regularly grazed tundra made for lovely walking ashore, but not
so many grazing animals that the flowers suffered and so there were still
the carpets of purple, green and yellow as far as the eye could see. From
the hilltop behind the boat we could see, on the other side of the bay just
below the mist line, a tumbling waterfall evidently coming from a lake. It
seemed like the perfect target for a walk. On the way up we found the very
well sorted summer camp for the US Fisheries and Wildlife Department, mostly
killing rats and foxes and counting birds we guessed from the equipment
lying around. There was no-one there but the level of their supplies was
very extensive and all things we are running out of too. We were very
tempted to nick a roll or two of kitchen paper and a box or so of biscuits.
There were so many I don't suppose they would be missed, but no, too good!
We just took a picture of ourselves with their camera instead, by way of
signing our names.

The lake was so like a Scottish loch that we were thrown back to many
previous holidays for a moment. The only thing it lacked was "a Brock, on a
Rock in the Loch!" All the walking is just like Scottish island walking, and
it is really like being in home waters again, except that there are no
people at all, we have not even seen a village, and the distances between
places are further. But other than that we often find we are anchored in
what could be places we have seen before.

Before leaving the Bay of Islands we needed water. It is great that the
stream water is drinkable, so we anchored off a little waterfall, tied our
stern in very close to the rocks and funnelled fresh running water straight
onto the boat. Hot shower water coming out of the tanks at one end and
fresh cold Adak spring water pouring in at the other. We were very chuffed
about this and took millions of photographs of just how close to the shore
we had got the boat!

Our trip to Atka Island was windless and boring, until at about ten o'clock
in the morning, the fog cleared just in time for us to see the volcano of
Koniuji Island which is one of the chief bird breeding colonies in the
Aleutian chain. Birds (Crested Auklets) like thick black clouds swarmed
over the crater peaks and we were practically knocking Parakeet Auklets,
Tufted and Horned Puffins and Black and Common Guillemots out of our way as
we approached. The cliff faces were a screeching mass of Blacked-legged
Kittiwakes and the Glaucous-winged Gulls hovered nervously around us. It
was so exciting, and the first time we have see anything like this number of
breeding birds since the start of the trip. It was flat calm and a once in
a life time chance to land on this island. We dropped the hook in 15m kelp
bottom and got the dinghy into the water. Our first attempt to land was
totally foiled by the cinders and stones that make up most of the island.
It crumbled away the moment you stood on it and we had to completely give up
climbing the low cliff at the head of the boulder beach. Later we watched
numerous landslides of huge boulders bounding down the scree. We did
however manage to land on the rocks at the north end of the island and climb
up to a shoulder below the crater. It was a massive Tufted Puffin breeding
colony with burrows everywhere. Unlike their Atlantic cousins they do not
sit at the entrance to their nests inspecting the scene, but they do circle
round and round in swarms waiting to identify their nest and find the
courage to land. Some took off and landed very close to us and others were
swirling just above and below us. Occasionally we caught sight of a large
black crow or eagle hovering above. The pickings must be pretty easy.

We motored off around the windward side of the islands where the caves were
very impressive and menacing, and the birds still swarmed, before setting
sail for the sheltered Deep Bay on Atka Island where we are now sitting to
wait for the rising easterly wind to turn southerly. Today we had another
lovely walk around an apparently salmon filled lake. The caribou were all
over the hillside and looked extremely impressive with their tall majestic

So from this staggeringly beautiful and remote part of the world we wish you
good night.

Love to you all