Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: The Most Overcast Town in America, Dumpster Chickens, and Other Ports of Call

I’ve written about the vessel, and the people, and now I’m making a post specifically about the ports of call I visited on the M/V Tustumena.

This is a graphic from the Alaska Marine Highway website showing the routes in Southewest Alaska.

I’m skipping Homer and Kodiak to keep this post from getting too long; if someone really wants to know what I have to say about Homer and Kodiak, they may leave comments.

***

CHIGNIK

We had clear sunny skies in Chignik. We could see all of the volcanic scenery clearly (including the famous Castle Cape; I shared a photo in this post). According to the crew and the locals, Chignik almost never has clear sunny skies. Some of the crew members, who have been on this route many times, were taking photos because they had never seen such weather in Chignik before.

The crew performed their required weekly emergency drill while we were in Chignik bay. This included launching a rescue boat. It seems the crew had a lot of fun touring the bay in the rescue boat. Unfortunately, in a real emergency, the weather is unlikely to be this good (though a few weeks later when I saw a rescue boat being launched from a ferry for a real emergency – I wasn’t involved in the emergency myself – the weather was actually quite good).

At the Chignik dock there was a group of people waiting to get aboard the ferry to eat lunch. There are no restaurants in Chignik, not even a burger joint, EXCEPT when the ferry is in dock. And when the ferry is on schedule, it arrives in Chignik around midday – just in time for lunch. However, I did not watch the local people order their lunches because I got off the boat to walk around a little.

I saw this game being sold in the general store in Chignik.

Some people told me about a donut lady in town. I don’t like donuts, so I had no interest. The people who did pursue donuts were disappointed when they learned that the donut lady was not open for business that day. I did go to the general store, which is owned and operated by the seafood processing plant in Chignik. I was surprised at the variety of goods and foods for sale at the general store, and the prices were not as high as I expected either (though they were still rural Alaska prices). I guess the seafood processor wants the town to be somewhat livable in spite of the lack of road access.

***

SAND POINT

View from the Sand Point dock

The ferry dock in Sand Point is just far enough away from the center of town that passengers could not get into town and do anything in time to return to the ferry (unless Sand Point was their final destination, of course). I walked to a little waterfall which was visible from the ferry. I also saw the sunset in Sand Point … at 11:50 PM !!!!!!! It was almost a midnight sunset (IIRC, sunrise the next day happened at around 4 AM – this is what happens when a state the size of Alaska has just one time zone).

Sunset at Sand Point

***

KING COVE

I said a little bit about King Cove in my previous post. I don’t have much else to say about the town.

***

COLD BAY

An old WWII dock in Cold Bay.

A local woman told me that they need to have a museum in Cold Bay, because there is so much history here, yet there is no way for visitors to learn about it. The visitors just go to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge without learning much else about the town.

The town of Cold Bay

There is a lottery for twenty passengers to get a bus ride to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. I lost the lottery, which is how I ended up being driven there by a local woman (different from the woman mentioned above), and learning a lot more about the town than if I had gone on the official bus. Even though the Izembek Wildlife Refuge is an awesome and important stop for migratory birds, there were very few birds to be seen there that day. I guess they had all migrated. I did see an otter and a fox in the water.

I saw a few foxes in town, including this one.

I was told that Cold Bay has more overcast weather than any other town in the United States. It also has one of the longest airport runways in the United States. This is not a coincidence. The U.S. military built a giant airport here during WWII because there was a lot of flat land, and the constant cloud cover made it difficult-to-impossible for the Japanese to detect what was going on here. They surprised the Japanese military with airstrikes which, given what the Japanese new about airbases in Alaska, were considered impossible. It was also used in the Lend-Lease program with the USSR. In spite of the weather, since there is so much flat land and the runway is so long, it is relatively safe to land even in unfavorable weather. I heard that Boeing tests airplanes here for overcast weather performance. There is also a Coast Guard station in Cold Bay.

A pigeon guillemot at the Cold Bay dock

There was actually more birdwatching to do at the dock than at the wildlife refuge. There are many pigeon guillemots because they nest right inside the dock. I also saw my first horned puffin at the Cold Bay dock.

Some mountains visible from under the cloud cover at Cold Bay

***

FALSE PASS

Volcanoes loom over False Pass.

False Pass was the first port we stopped in which is on one of the Aleutian islands (Unimak Island). What really impressed me was the scenery. I did walk to the general store and buy a beverage. There were some local people near the ferry dock trying to sell salvaged glass balls from Japan (they floated all the way to False Pass across the Pacific Ocean) and ice cream (no dairy-free ice cream, alas).

The town of False Pass

The Alaska Peninsula is just across the water from False Pass, a few miles away. A passenger spotted a brown bear on the peninsula, and then I saw it too. Since brown bears can swim a few miles, they also inhabit Unimak Island (which is where False Pass is), but Unimak Island is the furthest extent of their territory. The rest of the Aleutians are too far away for wild bears to swim; there are no wild bears in the rest of the Aleutian archipelago.

A building in False Pass; the land on the other side of the water is the furthest extent of the Alaska Peninsula

Some passengers later told me that they spotted Dall’s porpoises in False Pass. I wish I had seen them too; though I have been fortunate to see many other marine mammals in Alaska, I have not spotted any Dall’s porpoises.

***

AKUTAN

A view of Akutan island

Akutan was the first port where they did not extend a foot passenger gangway. That meant that foot passengers had to go out the same way the cars did – on the car elevator. It was fun.

Approaching the town of Akutan

I did not go to the ‘cannery’ in Akutan, but I did walk around the ‘village’. There are no roads in the village. Instead, there are boardwalks, though the locals have small motorcars which can drive on the boardwalks. I guess there is no need for roads navigable by car in such a small village, and it’s probably much easier to prevent the raised boardwalks from turning into a muddy mess during storms.

On the left is one of the boardwalks in Akutan, and on the right is the Russian Orthodox church.

I like Akutan; it’s a beautiful island, and the village looks very cozy.

This is a cat on one of the boardwalks in Akutan.

***

DUTCH HARBOR / UNALASKA

It’s the terminus of the ferry line! The largest town on the entire Bering Sea! (Okay, that’s not saying much.) It’s Really in the Aleutians (okay, well so is Akutan).

The historic Russian Orthodox Church in Unalaska. Notice the dumpster chicken sitting at the top of the onion dome.

I joined other passengers on a taxi tour, and the first place we stopped at was the Russian Orthodox Church in Unalaska (technically, Dutch Harbor and Unalaska are two separate places, and even have different postal codes, but since they are right next to each other it’s easy to conflate the two).

There is the taxi van which took us around town, and there is a dumpster chicken flying up there (yes, dumpster chickens can fly).

We ran into a local guy who is the son of a woman who survived the ‘Aleut Evacutation’ which he called the ‘Aleut Incarceration’ (which I mentioned in the previous post). He also talked to us about how things used to be in Unalaska when he was a boy. He also warned us to never stand under a lamp post in Dutch Harbor / Unalaska lest a dumpster chicken poop on our heads. He’s very proud of the fact that he escaped being pooped on by a dumpster chicken … until he was 60 years old.

A group of juvenile dumpster chickens, at a dumpster in Dutch Harbor

You see, there are tons of these birds, there are even more of them at dumpsters (as shown in the photo above), and though I did not visit the Dutch Harbor Trash Dump, I am told that there are even more of these birds over there. Thus the people in Dutch Harbor call them ‘dumpster chickens’. I’ve seen these birds in California, I’ve seen lots of them in Alaska, but I saw more of them in Dutch Harbor/Unalaska than anywhere else. There are just So Many Dumpster Chickens in Dutch Harbor / Unalaska. Of course, ‘dumpster chicken’ is not the official name for this species of bird, they’re officially known as ‘bald eagles’. Since there are very few trees on Unalaska Island, and there are no native trees (live trees only exist if they are planted and cared for by humans), the dumpster chickens have their nests on the ground.

A view of Unalaska (the town is on the right)

The taxi driver also took us to the seafarers’ memorial, a view point on a hill, and the Museum of the Aleutians. I also visited Safeway and the WWII museum in Dutch Harbor. Dutch Harbor was bombed by the Japanese military in WWII. The bombing of Dutch Harbor was closely connected to the battle of Midway and someone shot and disabled a Japanese plane, which allowed the U.S. military to recover the plane and learn some of the secrets of Japanese military technology. You can read more about that here.

Though Dutch Harbor is the end of the ferry line, there’s one last port of call, a place we only visited on the return voyage…

***

OLD HARBOR

A view of snow-capped mountains near Old Harbor

Every port we stopped at up to this point had some sort of seafood cannery / processing plant except Cold Bay, and Cold Bay has the big airport and Air Force and Coast Guard stations. Old Harbor, a village on Kodiak Island, has neither seafood processing nor Air Force nor Coast Guard presence. Kodiak Island does have seafood processing and the biggest Coast Guard station in the U.S.A. but the island is the size of Connecticut, and Old Harbor is not connected to any other community, not even the other Kodiak communities, by road. It is simply a village where people live. It is mostly inhabited by Sugpiaq people (also known as Alutiiq people). You can learn more about the community here.

The ferry gets closer to Old Harbor.

A magazine aboard the boat claims that Old Harbor is the most picturesque village on Kodiak Island. I have not seen any of the other villages (I don’t consider the city of Kodiak to be a ‘village’) but I must say that Old Habor is very picturesque.

The village of Old Harbor

The Russian Orthodox Church is near the ferry terminal, so most of the passengers who got off for sightseeing went there first.

In this photo you can see the meadow ecosystem – this part of Kodiak Island has very few trees.

Like many ferry passengers, I walked as far as the school, and then turned around. I did not want to take pictures of specific houses to respect the privacy of the residents. I did appreciate getting what little glimpse of their lives was apparent from outside appearances.

Looking down at the village from a road which goes up the hillside

And those were the ports of call I visited on the M/V Tustumena (except Kodiak City and Homer). I came to Alaska to see things I could not see in California, and it is true, there in nowhere in California like this. California does not have this combination of volcanic snow-covered mountains rising from an often-stormy ocean, or this type of coastal meadow, nor does it have this kind of network of remote communities, hundreds of miles apart, which are connected only by sea and air.

1 thought on “Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: The Most Overcast Town in America, Dumpster Chickens, and Other Ports of Call

  1. Pingback: Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: People I Met | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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