Unalaska and Me

 

            Thirty years or so ago, Reeve Aleutian Airways flew me and a few others intoDutch Harbor,Alaska, and landed on an old World War II airstrip.  Getting off the plane, I stood at the edge of an abandoned military complex – grey, weather-worn barracks, doors missing, window panes broken.  The people who deplaned with me faded into the landscape.  A ghostly installation stood quietly before me in the mist.

            A few former passengers walked toward the ocean.  I followed them with my trusty brief case, but they too disappeared, some into small boats. There didn't seem to be a boat for me.

            Dutch Harbor was onAmaknak Island, but Unalaska was on Unalaska Island acrossIliuliuk Bay.  I could see the village, but this channel of water was between us.  I stood quietly for a while gazing at my destination when a small boat with outboard motor appeared and offered to take me across.  I accepted, not knowing the protocol regarding payment or tipping or even expressing gratitude.  When we got to the other side, I climbed out and turned to inquire. Not looking up, the man maneuvered his craft around, and went on his way.

            I walked the short distance to town and asked for the school. 

            It was spring and I was in town to help negotiate a contract between the teachers of the Unalaska Education Association and the city school board. The communities along the Aleutian chain were part of my assignment as a staff person for NEA/Alaska, the state’s teachers’ association.  Back then, there were six separate school districts along this 1,700-mile string of islands. All together they served about 200 school children.            

            I had visited several of the communities, but some of my fondest memories come from my visits to Unalaska.  Yes, there was trouble in Unalaska, but the mists of time have worn away the details.

            It was the mist that I remember. Unalaska reminded me of the Misty Isles.  On clearer days, the memories are of green, rugged hills -- like a far northernHawaii.  These hills were dotted with bunkers, barracks and ancient Quonset huts. The young teachers with sensible walking shoes talked of hiking up behind the town and exploring these World War II archeological curiosities. 

            In town, I was shown the originalJesse Lee Home, a turn of the century structure which served as orphanage for twenty-five years.  A teaching family lived there in 1976.            The "hotel" was a two room affair above the store -- with a shared bathroom between the two rooms.  Some time in the middle of my first night there, my door opened, and someone flashed a light across my bed.  The door shut and it was quiet and dark for the rest of the night.  Apparently, the owner wanted to make sure I didn't have overnight visitors, or at least he wanted to be paid for any extra persons in that bed. 

            Unalaska was purported to be a raucous cannery town.  I didn't partake of any “rauc.”  Would have been unbecoming to my position as visiting union representative and even more unbecoming to the teachers there whose conduct was scrutinized on a daily and nightly basis.

            But I was fascinated with the community.  I peeked through the windows of the Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church.  It was being refurbished at the time.  I would have considered attending services since I was to be there over the weekend, but the teachers told me that was discouraged.  These were private people who did not wish to have others experience their worship as a tourist attraction.

            I remembered that most of the folks in this little church would be Aleut/Russian people, most of whom would have had relatives whisked off the island after the attack by the Japanese in 1942 and interred in southeastAlaska, where conditions were deplorable and the landscape frighteningly unfamiliar.  The families were not returned to their homes until 1945.  Some of the older residents still remembered the indignity and personal loss of the evacuation and internment. 

            Dutch Harbor was the location of the Naval/Coast Guard station which was bombed and burned in 1942.  It was on this trip that I first really learned of its military significance.         

            My visit to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor is now much like a dream. This is a place to which I would have liked to return – on my own, not as a union representative.  I would have brought some sensible, broken-in, walking shoes and roamed the hills and the ghostly remnants of the landscape's past peoples and wars.   I would have sought to meet the members of that little church and maybe, if I were patient and respectful, I might have received an invitation to worship with them in their newly restored cathedral. 

            But too late for that now.

            Today, Unalaska isAlaska’s eleventh largest city and is connected toDutch Harbor by a 500-foot bridge.  The old military barracks are gone, and fifty-nine percent of the community lives not on the Unalaska side of the channel, but rather on theAmaknak Island side.  The population has grown from some 200 or so souls in the 1970s to approximately 4,500 people today.  Once an Aleut village, the city now has only about 7.7 percent Native Alaskan residents.  Even Reeve Aleutian Airways ceased air services December 5, 2000.

            But in my dreams Reeve still flies the misty skies and ever so often lands on that abandoned airfield on the Aleutian chain.  I disembark and wind my way through the ghostly streets, down to the channel, where the boatman appears, like on the River Styx, to ferry me across to the other side.

 

942 words

Published in Alaska Women Speak

Summer 2008