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.
On the SSB radio we overheard a fisherman, pinned down on Kiska Island as we were at that time, ask the weather reporter in Dutch Harbor when he thought this train of early easterly gales might subside so that he could make his way back to Dutch Harbor.
Without a hint of humor, the weatherman responded, "Next spring."
The constant pounding to windward and roller-coaster rides in the turbulent passes took a toll on both ship and crew. As we approached Adak Island, the thick metal gooseneck shattered, rendering the mainsail useless.
I shouted through the wind to Diana, "Don't worry! We still have the yankee!"
That night, a fierce williwaw tore the yankee's leech apart.
Diana groaned. "What next?"
Her answer soon came when she started the engine and slapped the transmission into gear. Nothing happened. She looked at me in disbelief. We limped into Chapel Cove under the staysail.
For the next two days, Diana sewed furiously on the foredeck while I jury-rigged a temporary gooseneck using a hacksaw and a hand drill. I tried to concentrate on the task at hand, but when two mutant caribou, weighing at least 400 pounds each, scampered up the steep mountainside, I couldn't help myself. I dropped my tools, grabbed a camera, rowed to shore, and set off in hot pursuit.
From a distance, the treeless tundra appears featureless but is, in fact, a lush, albeit stunted, type of forest. I hiked for miles, reveling in the expanse and the exercise. Even though I was never able to sneak up on those wily caribou, I had my best day in the Aleutians-a day far from the madding crowd yet close to nature.
Back on board, I found that by keeping the engine rpm very low, the transmission would stay intermittently engaged. Useless in making miles against wind or current, this might help us maneuver in tight anchorages. Once the other carnage was repaired, we pushed hard for Quail Bay, on Kagalaska Island, in hopes of beating yet another approaching easterly gale.
Our series of misadventures left Diana with a vague sense of foreboding. I assured her that our luck would change. It did not.
As we approached the craggy cliffs of Kagalaska, a dark cloud filled the northeastern skies. At first we thought we'd lost our race with the gale and would have to heave to and forfeit precious miles. Then the air turned a gaseous yellow, and the mountains began to shimmer as if strangely out of focus. The acrid smell of sulfur filled our lungs. Then, although it was only midday, the skies suddenly went completely dark.
Diana yelled, "What's happening? Please tell me what's happening!"
I wished I could. But when black ash began to rain down so thickly that I had to grab ski goggles to see ahead, there could be no doubt: We'd sailed smack into a volcanic eruption.
"What if there's a tsunami?" Diana yelled. "We have to get out of here!"
"At five knots? How far could we go?" I asked. "And a gale is coming. We need to find shelter."
"But we can't see!"
I could hear the panic rising in her voice. I knew I had to commit to a course of action immediately.
"We're going to sail under the mountains and hope that the visibility improves in their lee."
Visibility did improve nearer the land, but as the rocky entrance narrowed, we were forced to start the engine. I winced at the thought of all that abrasive grit being sucked into the air intake.
By the time we dropped anchor in keyhole-shaped Quail Bay, the decks were buried in ash. Our eyes were scratched, our lungs irritated, our sails and equipment clogged with destructive dust.
We braced ourselves for a second blast or the precursor swells of a tsunami, but none came. Eventually, the skies lightened to reveal a once-green landscape cloaked in gray. For the next two days, we hauled buckets of seawater up the mast and sloshed the grit down and off the boat.
We later learned that on the very day of our arrival, after lying dormant since 1899, Mount Kasatochi blew its top. It spewed millions of tons of debris 45,000 feet into the atmosphere, forcing air traffic to Alaska to be suspended for days. An unimaginable nine-minute earthquake shook the Aleutian chain. To the best of our knowledge, the crew of one fishing boat, two scientists, and Diana, Halifax, and I were the only witnesses to the event. Timing is everything.
But even this ash cloud had a silver lining. In a river pool above the anchorage, I caught a huge sockeye salmon. Back at the boat, Halifax and I fought over the last scrap, for it was hands down the most delicious fish I've ever tasted.
By late August, we were running out of energy, time, and fuel. When a westerly gale approached, I told Diana that we had to latch onto it, however rough, and ride it all the way to Dutch Harbor.
Dutch Harbor, part of the town of Unalaska, is America's most productive fishing port and a quintessential Wild West boomtown. It is treeless, stark, isolated, cold, rough as guts, and I like it.
Rugged men seek their fortunes from a rugged sea. Whiskey flows and big fists fly. But like the cowboy of the western plains, the fishermen and fisherwomen here face the end of an era as large corporations buy up fish quotas, standardize the fleet, and consolidate distribution.
But the friendly and outgoing character of Dutch remains. We no sooner rafted up to a trawler than a bearded bear of a man dropped a massive chunk of moose meat on our deck from above.
"Eat that" were his simple instructions.
The next day, it was king crab. The next, silver salmon and black cod.
Our new friend, Byron, the captain of Nancy Ellen, said, "I'm goin' fishing. Use my truck."
Richard, an engineer from a processing ship, spent an entire day helping me repair the transmission. He wouldn't hear of any payment. A local family had us up for an elegant dinner. The local fish factory let us shower and do laundry in the staff house.
Dutch Harbor is the end of America's air highway. My brother in Montana sent along my teenage nephew, Ryland Jon, to join us for an adventure-with the message that "If you bring my son home alive, you'll never have to buy a drink in my presence for as long as you shall live."
I had to weigh this windfall opportunity against my desire to expose my nephew to the thrills and spills of Alaskan life. For his initiation, I asked Byron to take Ryland cod fishing.
Upon their return, we discovered that perhaps the seaman's gene skips a generation. But if nothing else, after experiencing backbreaking work executed in appalling conditions, Ryland will appreciate the relatively luxurious lifestyle commonly led in what some Alaskans refer to as the "Lesser 48."
We toured the ornate Russian Orthodox churches and the extensive ruins from World War II. But again we couldn't linger, for we had 800 miles yet to make to our intended winter haven of Seward. We set sail for the Alaska Peninsula through clouds of murres, guillemots, horned puffins, crested auklets, fulmars, and petrels. Stellar sea lions and seals littered the rocks, while smartly dressed bald eagles congregated near streams choked with fat salmon.
I've spent a lifetime searching out the world's best bad place. I may have found it here. The Alaska Peninsula is God-forsaken country, wracked by volcanoes, scoured by glaciers, and ripped by gales. But it gets even better. It's crawling with monster bears, not to mention caribou, moose, fox, wolves, and wolverines.
Deserted anchorage by deserted anchorage, we made our way up the 400-mile-long peninsula. On Jacob Island, I was thrilled to find wolverine tracks on a lonely beach. Then, on neighboring Paul Island, I was ecstatic to find bear prints the size of dinner plates leading into a high stand of grass. Diana and Ryland chose not to investigate further. I did, but alas, my first brown bear was gone.
It wasn't until we backtracked up Ivanof Bay that I got to see Ursus arctos up close and personal. And believe me, when a 1,500-pound carnivore equipped with bone-crushing teeth and claws looks you straight in the eye, it feels nothing less than personal.
It seems I couldn't get enough of these burly brutes and even started ranking our days as per the number of bears encountered-a five-bear day and above being superb.
From a hummock in Agripina Bay, Ryland and I counted nine large bears in the tall grass between us and our dinghy on the beach. Much as we were tempted to wait until they moved off, we were forced to sneak our way through the maze before sundown, for the first adage of Alaskan life is "The bears own the night."
Ryland caught his first fish-a pink salmon, known locally as a humpy. We devoured it that night. We grazed like bears on the succulent salmonberries and tart blueberries that painted the tundra.
Geographic Bay was perhaps our most beautiful anchorage, boasting craggy peaks, salmon-swollen rivers, and bears lumbering as casually as cattle in a field.
It was there that our alternator failed. No problem. I carry a spare. When the spare failed, I almost agreed with Diana that this voyage was somehow jinxed. But in hindsight, I can see that each apparent misfortune led us to a new fortune.
To effect repairs, we reluctantly crossed the Shelikof Strait for the services to be found in relatively populated Kodiak Island. As we made our way through narrow waterways approaching Kodiak, we came upon flotillas of sea otters, hundreds strong, clinging to each other affectionately. To witness such beauty and bounty is a rare and uplifting experience.
Both Kodiak and Afognak Island turned out to be delights. We sailed through pods of spouting whales, hiked through forests bristling with bears, caught fat fish, and lost count of the eagles.
But as winter approached, it was high time to cross to the Alaskan mainland via the Barren Islands, reputed to lie in one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world.
It's said that a sailor with time always has a favorable wind. By waiting for that wind, we crossed smartly and without incident onto the Kenai Peninsula, known for its deeply carved fjords. There, beneath the Harding Icefield, the largest in the world, we watched house-size chunks of ice explode off the Holgate Glacier and tumble to the sea. We yelled in awed delight as the ensuing thunder reverberated through our bones.
As our winter haven of Seward appeared at the head of Resurrection Sound, Diana heaved a sigh of relief. It had been a hard, and at times even harrowing, three months of wilderness travel.
But as we dropped the lines of Roger Henry on that still, safe dock, I wondered where and when again on this Earth we might live our lives as large. I'd shared with my wife and, for part of the journey, my nephew the kind of deep experience that will bind us forever. We'd sailed secret waters, been buffeted by storms, humbled by gargantuan beasts, and shook by the very bowels of our planet. And through it all, we'd been profoundly touched by the might and majesty of Western Alaska, a true wonder of the natural world.
After spending last winter in the Pacific Northwest, the Simons pointed the bow of Roger Henry west again, toward home in New Zealand.