Adak Letter

Hey. Hi. Hello all.                                                      Dec. 18, 2011, Sunday

Yesterday, I had a bit of time to kill and I started a handwritten letter that went….

Hello all!                                                                    Dec. 17-11

Wow, I guess that it has been some time since I have written a letter. I have, however, been busy writing . . . but only for a second book, Fishes of the Last Frontier. . . not to talk to you about another Alaska experience.

You may recall from about five years ago, I wrote about an Adak Island caribou hunt. Adak is an Aleutian Island that is three hours flying time, by jet, southwest from Anchorage. Adak was formerly a Navy base so it has huge infrastructure and an amazing serpentine road system. Caribou were introduced onto the island in the late 1950s. Our first trip, some 5 yr ago, my partner, Hazzy and I did well and had an easy and fun time. I concluded the letter with the comment that Adak is not so much of a place as an experience. We have been back for most every year since that year but not every year has been so stellar.

The second year was reasonably productive but some of the productivity was fateful. Late day one or two, we found a small band of caribou a short hike off the end of a road and we went after them. We managed to dump a nice bull. It takes the two of us about 1.5 hours to bag an animal so it was pushing darkness as we began to pack down to the truck. At some point, I was in the lead and stepped onto a slanting piece of ice covered with light fresh snow. My left foot shot out and up and all of my weight (plus the load) came down hard on my folded right knee. My right quadriceps tendon immediately snapped and I had little control of my lower leg. I could stand, but if I bent my knee slightly, I fell. Fortunately, I was never in serious pain from the beginning to the end.

If we had been in a remote camp as we have been used to, I would only be able to wait until a plane showed up as scheduled. In Adak, we drove to town and called 911. The safety officer arrived and brought us to the clinic for a checkup, a leg brace, and crutches. At least Hazzy had his priorities right. While I hobbled around our Adak townhouse, he went out and got another caribou. It all ended quite well and I am still able to get out and hunt.

Now, Sunday, Dec 18, 2011, I write. . . Oh! No!! We just learned that Alaska Airlines could not fly out here today! (Hazzy is busy working on something else so I borrowed his computer.) The radar system in Adak has failed. The weather today and yesterday is gorgeous compared to “normal”. Beautiful flying weather and flight canceled because of equipment failure! Damn. We really wanted to get home. We didn’t get much information except that if they could get the radar fixed on time, the airline might try to get a makeup flight in tomorrow; otherwise, not until Thursday.

We had scheduled to come here last Sunday and return today—flights are scheduled for Sundays and Thursdays—and we had hoped to have success and return last Thursday, but we had a mixup in Anchorage and missed that flight by about two minutes. We arrived on Thursday and hoped for the best and a return today for work and Christmas preps.

It has been an interesting three days. We arrived early enough on Thursday to take a quick ride and look around. The terrain sure looks different when it is white instead of green or brown but in a couple hours, we saw evidence of other successful hunts and about 25 caribou. Friday, the weather is fickle as ever and constantly changes from rain to snow to no precip. It even stopped blowing for a while. We saw over a hundred caribou. Some in large herds and some in small bands. Most were far. The terrain is undulating but treeless and sometimes caribou would appear or disappear as we watched. We spotted one band of seven about midday but they were too far. We saw them again on and off during the afternoon and it was late when we saw that they were where we might have a chance. We got one and the others ran in an arc around us and one stopped near the road and we got it too. Then it started to blow again and rain, then snow.  And darkness. We finished bagging the second animal wearing headlamps. Fortunately, it was a carry of only about 50 feet to get it in the truck. That night, we a late supper.

Yesterday, we saw about another 150 or so caribou but then, about 1PM, we spotted a group of six and we made a good move and put another one down. And passed on taking a fourth. An hour and a half later, we had it bagged and it was a 20 minute pack to the truck. We each carried about 50 or more pounds of meat but I was thankful to Hazzy that he took the heavier load.

The eagles seem to be more abundant than ever and the ptarmigan less so. Apparently, the weather has been sour here for about three weeks and recently turned nice. Maybe the eagles and ravens have had trouble feeding in that weather, but they begin to arrive while we are still butchering. They wait and squawk and hop around and chase each other. At one time, yesterday, I counted 29 bald eagles plus ravens around us and lining the nearby ridge. Then I discovered another group of birds also waiting for the lunch line to open. After we loaded our packs we walked 150 feet and looked back. . . the carcass was already invisible, covered by a mass of vibrating black backed birds. The scene resembled those you have seen of vultures in Africa feasting on a carcass. As we work, we are focused on the carcass and periodically take some portions of meat to our game bags that are usually no farther than 10 feet away. On several occasions, one bird advanced to grab a bite before we could return. This guy sat and waited and glared at us from a distance of about five or six feet. Hazzy muttered something about our national symbol reduced to being a mere beggar.

As I have been sitting here typing, the weather has gone from bright blue skies and glistening white mountains to gray and ominous with little visibility to snow and blow, then, calm. Now it is a light breeze and pale blue sky and lit up mountains. We did get a report that the radar technicians were on their way in a charted plane but they might not be able to land because we were socked in. We looked at each other and outside and asked how that could be. 

December 19, 2011. Another damn. Last evening, we received word that the radar technicians had arrived in Adak and the problem had been solved. Alaska Airlines was planning to schedule a makeup flight on Monday; i.e., today. They just didn’t know what time. An hour ago, after several tries, we finally contacted the airlines and we learned that they could not make the arrangements and we are rescheduled to depart Adak on Thursday. Today, the weather is fabulous. Brilliant blue sky. Bright sun. dripping water from eaves. Achingly bright white snow. And no wind. But we have no plane. So far, it seems that this weather should hold into Thursday. We are hopeful.

All of this is happening around us and we have had no communications. This housing unit has no radio, no TV, no cable, and no phone. A worker finally came by late yesterday with the news and did bring us a loaner cell phone (ours do not work here) so we could notify people about our situation. We watched two video movies last evening.

I do not intend to make Adak sound so depressing or mysterious. It really is an interesting place. Here is some information about Adak provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who, along with Aleut Corporation, administer these lands. The earliest inhabitants were the Ugandans or Aleuts who may have numbered as many as 25,000 people. The Russians arrived around 1745 and dominated and mistreated the natives. By 1830, the Russians occupied Adak Island and had displaced the Aleuts. One hundred years later, fewer than 1,000 Aleuts were alive and sea otter and fur seal populations had been depleted.

Early in WWII, the Japanese took over and occupied Attu and Kiska Islands to the west of Adak Island. This island became the base for air, naval, and resupply operations against the Japanese. After the war, Adak was used mainly as a Navy base but it was closed in 1997 and transferred to the Aleut Native Corporation who owns and operates the facilities that have been left behind by the U.S. Government. At its zenith, there were over 6,000 military personnel and family members housed here. Presently, there are just over 320 people who live in Adak. Some 884 housing units with 725 vacant.

Another damn. We finally found out that, although Alaska Airlines had scheduled a flight for today, the ground crew said that the timeframe for prepping the plane was  too short and the flight had to be canceled. We are rebooked for the scheduled flight that will leave on Thursday Dec 22. Hazy and I decided that we will begin processing some caribou meat tomorrow.

Adak, by the way, has developed into a first class destination for serious North American birdwatchers who enjoy keeping a record of bird species they have observed. It is part of the United States but it also located near the western end of the chain of Aleutian Islands so it is close to Asia and accessible by commercial jet service. This is important for these birders because Adak Island is a haven for many native seabirds and also because the island is a landing zone for any Asian and Eurasian birds that may stray or become lost for some reason and not seen anywhere else on the continent.

Hazy and I have just reminded ourselves and concluded that as long as we are “weathered in”, we would much rather be snug here than in a tent on the tundra.

Wednesday, Dec 21, 2011, 9:00AM              We slept in again today. So far, the weather looks unchanged. Three consecutive days of bright, clear, calm conditions. I wonder if this has ever happened before at Adak in midwinter. I heard that it was 20deg F last night at 10PM…  the coldest the person had experienced at Adak in six years.   I must take a break. The coffee is ready.

Hazy and I cut meat yesterday for nearly 5 hours. We trimmed the muscles from the big leg bones and tossed some waste. We will do more of that today. The legs are finished, but we need to clean up the meat that will become hamburger products - - eliminate all fat, bone fragments, and tendons and any hair, grass, or dirt. Maybe 2.5 to 3 hours. When we get to Anchorage, the hamburger meat will be frozen and ready to grind. The leg meat will become steaks and roasts and stew meat. We pride ourselves with our care of the meat. We enjoy the meat and we want to have a good product. Hmm. I cannot recall that Karel has commented about poor quality meat. We had some yesterday for breakfast. Yummy.

We have had near-daily visits by technician to restart our furnace. Fortunately, he has been very responsive and a fast worker. Last eve, we called shortly after 10PM. Apparently, the reset button has been popping out. He said, “Call any time”, and then, “It would be even worse if a pipe would freeze and break.” Smart man.

We just want to get out of here. We are ready to be home. The good news is that we are in Adak and not on the tundra. We have communications – though limited. But, we have a heated, hard structure as an abode. A place to care for our meat and an opportunity to take care of a job that we would need to do anyway.

December 30, 2011. We made it out from Adak nicely on Thursday, Dec 22. And what a day that day was. We had already had a dress rehearsal for packing and loading so that went easily. After we slept in, loaded the truck, and went to the airport to weigh our bags and check in. Then we gathered up the bones and trim and drove out a few miles onto the tundra to dispose of the pieces. What a reception we had.

We were under immediate surveillance. The first bones and trimmings barely hit the ground before the gleaners began to gather. It was the largest gathering of those white headed vultures I can recall. I counted 40. A bit later, Hazzy counted 60. Most were within  a radius of about 50 feet; some as close as about 8 feet. Twice, as Hazzy and I stood on the roadbed about 15 feet apart, an eagle flew between us… at about eyeball level. Wingmarks in the snow spanned an estimated 5.5 feet wide. It was a truly amazing experience. So many eagles so close all at once.

We had been warned that Santa would arrive on the incoming flight. The flight usually has about a dozen passengers. This one was packed. As it happens, Alaska Airlines allows employees and their families to travel free if they will help Santa and the people of Adak. They really came through! Santa and Mrs Santa. 15 or more elves. Lots of presents, gifts, candy, free food, it was wonderful organized chaos. And the party continued all the way back to Anchorage. Lots of laughter, constant motion, free food, beverages, candy. It was a gas. Another wonderful experience. These two events more than made up for the time we had not wanted to spend in Adak.

Gotta quit. Good talking to you again.

Oh, and let me know if you would like to see a copy of the first Adak letter.