Where Might & Majesty Meet
A cruising couple sailing the North Pacific arrives in Alaska to discover that where there's smoke, there's desire. A feature from our November 2010 issue
My wife, Diana, and I are no strangers to the solitude of the sea. How many times have we looked out over thousands of miles of aching emptiness, turned back to each other with a nod, and quietly set our course into that blue abyss? But I must admit to a tinge of trepidation when we cast our lines from the docks of Hokkaido, in northern Japan, and set sail yet farther north into the dark and unforgiving waters of the North Pacific Ocean.
Intense low-pressure systems roll off the Siberian mainland with alarming regularity. When they meet the water roiling up from the precipitous Aleutian Trench onto the shallow Bering Shelf, all hell breaks loose. Nature writer Corey Ford titled his fine book on this area Where the Sea Breaks Its Back. We could only hope not ours, too.
We slid sadly past the Kuril Islands and the Kamchatka peninsula, the latter with its volcanic plumes. I say "sadly" because this area had been our original destination. I'd hoped, but failed, to obtain permits to explore the Kamchatka coast north toward the Arctic Ocean.
However, our consolation prize was more time in the primordially wild Aleutian Islands. This 1,200-mile-long island chain, studded with 57 volcanoes, is a land at once frozen and on fire. Steep, deep, and foreboding, the Aleutian islands and waters remain one of the last true wildernesses on our Earth.
The few vessels that attempt the voyage from Japan to mainland Alaska usually make landfall in the middle of the Aleutian chain, saving hundreds of grueling miles of confused winds and currents. But we didn't want to miss an inch of the Aleutians. We made straight for Attu, the outermost island and westernmost point of the United States. Ironically, this portion of the Aleutians is also the easternmost, for it lies across the 180th meridian, in eastern longitude.
The farther we ventured into the North Pacific, the more scant and unreliable the weather information became, but a plummeting barometer forewarned us of an approaching low. The increased feeding activity of the Laysan albatross, fulmars, and storm petrels confirmed our fears of rough days ahead.
I hanked on the storm jib beneath the staysail, ready for a quick deployment. I relashed the storm warp to the inverted dinghy and pulled out the sea anchor and stern drogue. Diana laid down a three-day pot of stew, for there'd be no cooking possible in storm-tossed seas. She fit a safety harness on our beloved ship's cat, Halifax of the North. Although Halifax has more sea miles than the average admiral, she was denied her usual foredeck privileges, for there'd be little hope of finding the man, woman, or cat foolish enough to have fallen overboard in these waters.
The skies darkened, and the seas grew. Diana and I stood our usual four-hour watches in exhausting succession as combing waves roared by. Time must stop, for every storm lasts forever. We acted busy, but truthfully, all we had to do was to do nothing-that is, let the seaworthy design and robust construction of our 36-foot cutter, Roger Henry, take this tempest in stride, as it has so many others.
After two days, the piercing shriek of high winds lowered to a dull hum. The endemic fog that had been ripped away returned to shroud our way. Sailing in dense fog muddles the mind. Miasmic shapes of ships and shoals loomed large before us, only to swirl away as figments of our fatigued imaginations. So when first light of our 14th dawn showed a smudge on the horizon, I initially paid no attention. But this apparition refused to dissipate, and as we neared, the craggy shape of Attu Island emerged.
There's something reassuring, after a long passage at sea, about the first verdant smells of life on land. Attu rose up from the ocean in emerald green capped in snow. We tried to tack up Abraham Bay, but the katabatic winds tore down the steep mountains, churning the water's surface into froth. We fell off toward Nevidiskov Bay, to the east. It wasn't a very good anchorage, but by slipping between a large kelp patch and the breaking beach, we found relatively calm waters. We dropped our anchor and our guard, and immediately fell into a coma-like slumber.
I woke to the sound of sea otters splashing near the boat. Where gold lured the Americans north, it was the endearing sea otter that had the Russians singing "East to Alaska. East, the rush is on!" A sea-otter pelt boasts an amazing 1 million hairs per square inch, which once made it the finest and most sought-after fur on Earth.
During his expedition of 1741 and 1742, Vitus Bering, a Dane sailing under the Russian flag, "discovered" the Aleutian Islands and mainland Alaska. On his return voyage to Russia, he was shipwrecked and perished on the island of Komandorskiye, near Attu. However, his surviving crew returned to Kamchatka with wild stories of land and loot for the taking. Russian adventurers and entrepreneurs, called promyshlenniki flooded east in a wave of brutal exploitation. They quickly subdued the sparse population of indigenous Aleuts. By kidnapping the native women and children and holding them as collateral, the Russians forced the skilled Aleut hunters to scour the seas in an endless search for more and yet more otter pelts.
Where once sea otters were plentiful in these waters, their numbers now quickly waned. The Russians pursued the otter populations south into the panhandle of Alaska, then into present-day British Columbia, then almost all the way to San Francisco before their cultural energy and supply lines were stretched too thin. Then began an ignominious retreat.
In 1867, William Seward orchestrated a deal whereupon the United States bought from the czar of Russia the nearly 600,000 square miles of Alaska for about what was then 2 cents per acre. Incredibly, this was thought an extravagance at the time and was hitherto known as Seward's Folly.
We launched our hard dinghy, and Diana, Halifax, and I rode the large swells up onto a rough pebble beach.
Although treeless, Attu is lush with wildflowers, grasses, sedges, and mosses. And it's terra firma. After 14 days on a pitching boat, the emphasis was on the firma. Diana and Halifax lay on their backs, luxuriating in the bright but brief sunshine. On average, the Aleutians record only 25 days with sunshine per year.
I hiked for miles up a braided river valley in search of relics from the battles fought here between the Japanese and Allied forces during World War II. The bitter struggle waged here on fog-, ice-, and storm-tossed seas went so unheralded in the U.S. press that the campaign became known as The Forgotten War.
In my absence the seas had gotten up, breaking dangerously on the steep shore. We carried an emergency box in the dinghy, but we didn't relish the idea of a cold night ashore gnawing on jerky.
We decided to take our chances. After 10 minutes of studying the pattern of the breakers, we shoved off on the back of a big wave. We were almost back-flipped by the next wave, but we managed to punch through and reach Roger Henry.
Our anchorage became untenable, forcing us to weigh anchor and move east in search of better protection. We might've found that on Agattu Island, to the east-southeast of Attu, but when the winds turned favorable, we chose to push on. As we made our way up the chain, we had to constantly balance our desire to linger in the lovely loneliness or make miles whenever and however we could.