The following appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
When my good friend and longtime hunting buddy Scott Haugen asked me if I wanted to go to Adak Island to do some hunting and maybe film a TV show, I didn’t really think much about it.
I was all in, of course, and just the idea of hunting with my good friend was enough for me to say yes. What I didn’t realize was the surreal, almost eerie experience I was about to have while I was down there.
Alaska is a big place – full of potential and opportunity – and if you travel the state as much as I have, you tend to see some pretty extraordinary things. Just about every direction holds something different. If you look hard enough and stay long enough, you’ll usually dig up something weird and unusual – or at least see something totally new.
WHEN I SAY THE Last Frontier holds many oddities, I’m not just talking about the people. Every town in the state is known for something, and for most it’s usually based on when it was founded and/or what it was founded for.
Of course, many started because of gold. If you’ve ever been on the outskirts of Nome, you know what I mean. It’s like going back in time. I remember clearly my first trip there to hunt muskox many years ago and the near-death experience of getting back home on snowmachines.
It was a brutal couple of days, but once we did reach civilization I can remember seeing all those old abandoned gold dredges as we passed along the coast. It was like a history lesson in 3-D.
There have been other places – like the time I helped one of my colleagues build a cabin just north of Glennallen, Alaska.
I was a greenhorn at the time, having arrived in the state only a few months before. I’d never been in that part of the country, but I realized immediately that it was quite different than the Alaska I was used to. It had an abundance of trees, for one thing; it was green; it had mountains – sharp, jagged peaks that stretched to the heavens in what is known as the Wrangell- St. Elias National Park. It was breathtaking.
We built the cabin and took a few days to explore. We visited McCarthy, a backwoods, off-the-grid town located 60 miles into the wilderness. It was very unique in terms of people and culture, and the surroundings were beautiful.
We also visited the famous Kennecott Copper Mine, which was built back in 1903. It was definitely unique; from what I was told it was haunted. I didn’t see any ghosts but did get to walk on my first glacier, which was scary enough.
I saw the capital city of Juneau, where I stopped over on my way to Haines to hunt goats and bears. An iconic town, Juneau has a lot of history, especially downtown, where I spent a little time at the famous Red Dog Saloon. You know it as the place that is in all those songs. It was not until I returned to Juneau after a near-death experience on an airplane in a blinding snowstorm that I really appreciated the place.
Kotzebue, where I live now, has its stories too – from the arrival of Russian traders to the big rendezvouses that were held in the village of Sheshalik, which sits across the sound. People and cultures would meet there and share in the bounty of the land.
Kotzebue was also once the polar bear hunting capital of the world, back in the early days of big game trophy hunting. This place was a legendary stopping point for some of the greatest hunters, guides and pilots of their time.
From 1950 to 1970 they came from all over the world to what many considered the wild, wild, west in those days. I sure would have liked to have been there to see that. Adak was no different, as I would discover.
THE ALEUTIANS ARE A chain of relatively small islands that separate the Bering Sea from the main portion of the Pacific Ocean. They extend from the Alaska Peninsula in a long arc of about 1,100 miles, about the distance by car from Seattle to Los Angeles, or Washington DC to Miami. They are unique in every way possible, especially the island of Adak and, more specifically, the town of Adak, which Scott and I were headed to on that fateful October day.
The plane ride down was like any other on Alaska Airlines. It was a normal flight with full service as we traveled on a 737, a big plane to be going to such a small place.
What I didn’t realize at the time was how long it took to get there. The Seattle- to-Anchorage flight takes approximately three hours; to Adak it takes three and a half from Anchorage. Yes, Adak is a long way from anything, but without the flight there is no way to get there. It reminded me of getting to Kotzebue, where there are no roads in or out. But unlike up here, there are only two flights a week into Adak instead of the two a day that we get. Miss one flight and you’re probably stuck on the island for another week.
We arrived and I was immediately in awe of the place. I hadn’t done any research, so to be honest I had no idea of what to expect. All I knew was we were going hunting and would be filming while we were doing it. It was only after arriving that I got the scoop.
During World War II Adak became a military base and continued to be one until the end of the Cold War. It eventually was closed down in 1997. However, during the 1950s the Alaska Department of Fish and Game introduced caribou on the island as a means of providing hunting opportunities for soldiers, plus access to emergency food rations.
It was a winning move and the herd flourished as Adak was prime habitat for the prolific game animal. That remains the case to this day and was the reason Haugen and I were there. It presents a unique opportunity for the traveling sportsman; for me it was another chance to chase what northern Alaska natives call tutu, in a different place.
The hunting was hard, to say the least. With minimal roads and access, we rented an Argo, an amphibious ATV, and cruised the countryside looking
for the herds that call this place home. There are no trees on the island, which reminded me somewhat of the Arctic, and the tundra wasn’t really tundra – more like moss-covered gravel with stands of high grass.
The rolling hills were steep too and a lot of the hunting was done on foot, which at times took us up high into the rocks. Each day was unique and, at least for me, a little weird.
We searched high and low each day, but with little luck. It was only after a few days and many hours of glassing that we found small bands of caribou here and there, but nothing compared to the large herds I was used to in the Arctic.
The animals were in difficult places, more so than expected – high up in the mountains, which from down low looked accessible. But once you got closer it became quite difficult. It was hard climbing with unsure footing, which created problems. Once we did get to them, the shots were long – sometimes over 400 yards.
Luckily, we were able to catch our breath and make the most of it. The pack-
out was treacherous as well. Our heavy packs loaded down with meat were backbreakers and trying to maintain our footing wasn’t easy, but we were able to pull three caribou off the island.
Besides caribou, Adak has an abundance of bird life, specifically ptarmigan. They were everywhere, even more than I’m accustomed to here in the Arctic. We spent three days chasing them and took as many as we wanted. It was a great time and we got some great footage.
HUNTING WAS FUN, BUT what really intrigued me during this hunt was the town itself. The abandoned area was like something you would see in The Walking Dead. The best way I can describe it was a town that time forgot.
An old McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut still stand in town. They’re empty, of course, and surrounded by weeds, but it looked to me that with a little cleaning and a few implements, they could be up and going in a matter of hours. Churches, dormitories, stores and even the school looked operational, other than the rain- soaked ceilings, moss-covered floors and
the occasional bird that flew overhead. It was surreal and looked haunted.
The housing in town was the weirdest, though. Perfectly built condos lined the streets in a variety of colors. Bright red, blue, green and tan houses – something you would see in most towns down south – sat next to beautifully paved driveways. There were rusted-out cars and trucks with flat tires sitting on those same streets too. They looked as if they had been left as is when the last plane out showed up. Empty playgrounds with the latest equipment filled backyards as well, lending an eerie, apocalyptic feeling. It was a pretty cool scene to take in.
Adak has a historical story to tell, one linked back to World War II. The old rusted-out Quonset huts and bomb shelters we passed each day on our way to the hunting grounds reminded us of that. Soldiers lived here, stored gear here and prepared for an invasion by Japanese forces, which in mid-1942 had taken over Attu and Kiska Islands to the west.
We were also warned about unknown ordnance military supplies that were buried around the island and that we needed to make sure we watched our step. Believe me, this added a whole new level to the hunting experience. Some areas were no-man zones, depicted by signs and flyers that stated so.
OVERALL IT WAS QUITE a time, one that I can mark off my list as another unique experience in Alaska. I saw things that boggled my mind, plus we participated in some really great but hard hunting. I saw active volcanoes and even got to shop at the local store, which, by the way, was the only one and more expensive than you can imagine.
The final footnote was that the week we were to fly out a storm moved in and canceled our flight. Oh well; we got to spend another week on Adak. I wasn’t complaining about being in such a weird and unusual Alaska place. ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He’s had hundreds of articles published on big game hunting throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a regular contributor toAlaska Sporting Journal.