Alaskan Cruise

Sara and I took our first Alaskan cruise last week. We flew out to Unalaska and took the ferry to Kodiak. We flew down a few days early to see Dutch Harbor and Unalaska. I’d never been there before, and it exceeded my expectations.  The nice weather didn’t hurt. Our flight was scheduled for 3.75 hours, but we got there in under 3 hours because the weather was so nice they did not need to refuel on the way.

We stayed at the Grand Aleutian Hotel, and rented a car and traveled most of the fairly extensive road system around the town.

Dutch Harbor is not a small boat town. Most of the boats were trawlers and crabbers.

Net menders worked right out our window on a trawl net. The net and rigging was flaked out over a 300 yard strip between the hotel and the road, and that gave us some sense of how big those nets are.

One surprise was the number of 40′ containers in town. Thousands of them. Many were refrigerated units, and were plugged in an running. It obviously takes a lot of cold storage to house the largest seafood port in the country.

One thing not so surprising was the thousands of king crab and tanner pots stacked around town.

The Aleutian landscape is stunning, with grassy mountains rising right up out of the sea. Lots of ground squirrels, and I saw the first snow bunting since I worked on the north slope. Lots of wild flowers were in bloom, and the salmon berries were still green. We saw rafts of ribbon kelp along the road, with a little bull kelp mixed in. There was a sea otter or two in the bay, but just a few. The ADFG biologist there now came from our shop in Juneau 7 years ago, and I could tell she really loved the place and I was glad to see that.

The town is a melting pot of colors and  races and cultures with all the fish processors and fishing boats and support businesses.

The schools and library looked well maintained, as well as the two museums we visited. The library has free wifi and computers and is open long hours.  Gasoline was $4.09/gallon at the pump.

We boarded the ferry Tustemena a couple days later for our trip north. I’d guess about half the passengers were Alaskans doing the same thing we were and local residents riding the ferry to another destination.

The ferry stops at several towns on it’s way to Kodiak and then to Homer. The stops are an hour at each stop, but if we arrived early, we stayed until the scheduled leave time.

Our first stop north was in Akutan, and this town was one of my favorite stops. The tiny community has a fish processor on one side of town and the community on the other. Like almost every community in the area, there was an old Russian Orthodox Church and cemetery. We were able to walk to the end of the town boardwalk in about 15 minutes, and the little Akutan School looked well maintained. There was also a brand new Catholic Church between the town and the fish processing plant, and apparently built at the behest of the cannery workers if we got the story straight.

The next stop was Cold Bay. Although we had fair weather our whole trip, one downside to this was we had hours of fog a day. Cold Bay was socked in and so I didn’t see anything of the town as it’s somewhat distant from the ferry terminal.

The next stop was King Cove. King Cove seemed like a prosperous community with well kept houses and processing plant. There’s also apparently a popular Chinese restaurant in King Cove, and people from Chignik (I think) ordered food from the restaurant and had it delivered to the ferry for delivery to Chignik.
The fog broke out of King Cove, and I was able to sit on the bench on the side deck of the ferry and just watch the beautiful Aleutian scenery of emerald green. Real wilderness here with no sign of civilization. We passed Pavlof Volcano, which is one of the many active volcanoes in the area, and we could see a vent whole in the top and ash on the snow below it.

At Sand Point, the state fish and game biologist met us and gave us a quick tour around town. With the beautiful weather, we arrived early so got a little extra time. Sand Point was my second biologist job with ADFG 30 years ago. I would later find out that the biologist was the cousin of an old friend from Fairbanks. She grew up in Kodiak, and this position winters in Kodiak and she was glad to back home after several years working in  Anchorage. I also met an elder seiner on whose boat I’d worked as a biologist test fishing 3 decades ago. He didn’t remember me, of course, but I remembered him and his boat. The town hadn’t changed all that much in 30 years. The roads were now paved, and ADFG was in a new office. Sadly, a new memorial was erected at the harbor dedicated to the crew of a boat that included the son of a co worker who was about 4 when I worked there 30 years ago. He and  4 other crew members were lost at sea when their crab boat sunk inexplicably a couple years ago near the Pribilof Islands. The town looked like it was doing well, with well maintained houses and fishing boats.

The last stop before Kodiak was at Chignik, another place I worked right after graduate school. The bugs were so bad I didn’t get off with Sara. I had heard there was a donut maker in town, and noticed several donut boxes showing up. I got to sample a donut with the Captain of the ferry on our way to Kodiak, and it was excellent.

Kodiak was our last stop. I lived in Kodiak for a couple years when I worked summers in Sand Point  and Chignik, and it’s always a pleasure returning. The only problem now is so many of the people I worked with and hunted with as a young biologist there have passed away. Many before their time due to cancer or heart attack or disease. We were lucky to have an old friend and his wife invite us over for breakfast and it was fun catching up with them. They are in their mid  70’s now, and in good shape. Another old friend took me to the airport for my flight home, and it was great catching up with him and scheduling my stay with him in October when I’ll return to elk hunt. Sara stayed in town for a few days to visit with her fellow legislator and friend Louise.

What a great way to see the state with nothing more to do than watch the world go by. It might be boring for some people, but not for us. By the end of the trip, we of course met several of our fellow passengers, found common acquaintances with some of the Alaskan passengers from Fairbanks, and enjoyed eating in the ferry dining area and meeting the staff that served us.