Why, in the whole of
North America, did the Russians
choose to colonise Unalaska? Jeremy Atiyah (possibly the first tourist here
since Captain Cook) discovers the remote islands where hard men enjoy wild
surf, snow-topped hills and a very warm welcome from Brenda
The last time I set out over the north Pacific, my flight was cancelled
owing to "extreme conditions beyond King Salmon". But now here I am
again, en route to the
10 November 2002
The plane is practically empty, of course. Few tourists have made it to Unalaska since a June day in 1778, when Captain Cook, aboard the Discovery, heard the approaching roar of breakers through the fog. No one but a fisherman would bother about these wind- and rain-blasted islands. In fact, the oddest thing about them is that they have their own indigenous people, the Aleuts. Why, 9,000 years ago, when the whole of the north American continent was available for colonisation, did people choose to settle here?
Anyway, settle they did, safe and splendidly isolated. No trees grow on islands like Unalaska, but the Aleuts found driftwood aplenty and other building materials, including whalebone, grass and sand. And by the time the white man arrived, 9,000 years later, the Aleuts were paddling about in nimble, unsinkable little boats called baidakas, built from driftwood frames and stretched sea lion skins. Not only had these ingenious people designed the parka (the original version of this waterproof garment, made from finely sewn strips of seal gut), but they had also devised a means for sealing themselves into the hatches of their baidakas with spray skirts, so that these could not fill with water. In peaked caps that kept the rain out of their eyes, men spent their days hunting birds, seals, sea lions, walruses and whales, while women maintained semi-subterranean sod-covered homes.
There were 20,000 of these rain-proof Aleuts living on the islands when gangs of wild Russian Cossacks finally began floating in from
"The Tsar is far away and God is high above," Cossacks declared to one another. Restraint was thrown aside. With guns and ammunition, they promptly made war on the Aleuts, enslaving many, harnessing their hunting skills and agility at sea, for the purpose of procuring the furs of as many sea otters as possible.
We drop into the clouds. By the time we emerge into visibility, we seem to be almost at sea level. In fact, goddamnit, we are almost in the sea. Only at the last moment do cliffs and brown hills wobble into view. We dodge them. Then, before I can say "might is right" we have landed, and are braking uncommonly hard. So, this is
I will not regret this. Brenda is a lovely bosomy lady from
The clients in Brenda's bunkhouse are not only thousands of miles from home, but also involved in dangerous professions such as fishing or the cleaning of oil spills. "I like it here with them 'cause it's safer than
I'm rubbing my eyes as I go. Is there something wrong? All colours other than grey and brown have vanished from the world. (Perhaps it happened when the Russians arrived.) Unalaska rises from grey surf on one side, and sinks into grey surf on the other. Snow-covered hillocks gleam white through black clouds. Monochrome, bald-headed eagles sit about on the sides of trucks and on the tops of lamp poles, while seals frolic in the shallows. I can't help feeling that I may be the first Englishman to walk this island since Captain Cook.
Which brings me to that travelling superman. In him, of course, the ice and storms of the north Pacific inspired no fear. He first made it to Unalaska one day near the end of June in 1778; he had recently discovered
Cook was not used to arriving on remote islands already tainted by European vices: the Russians, it seemed, had got here first. But he was soon enamoured of the native Aleuts of Unalaska. He declared that they were "the most peaceable inoffensive people I ever met with, and as to honesty, they might serve as a pattern to the most civilised nation on earth". (I find it regrettable that he later attributed these positive qualities to their "connection with, or rather, subjection to, the Russians".)
Cook's ships then spent some days at anchor in foggy weather, surrounded by cheerful traders in canoes. As I now learn, glancing through the journal of David Samwell (the surgeon of the Discovery), this proved an enjoyable time for the men. Soon after their arrival, Samwell noted, it was discovered that the local women were "handsome in their persons" and could easily be purchased by a few leaves of tobacco. Some of the crew even took time to visit the underground homes of the Aleuts on Unalaska, in the manner of a royal visit. "The houses," wrote Samwell, "were not to be seen, until we came close upon them. Then we were much surprised at finding small hillocks of earth and dirt scattered here and there with a hole in the top of them, through which we descended down a ladder ... into a dark and dirty cave seemingly underground, where our noses were instantly saluted with a potent stink of putrid fish."
Of abominable stenches or filth (of any kind) there is little evidence in 21st-century Unalaska. I look in vain for such houses as those described by Samwell. Instead, in the darkness, I see clapboard homes, city offices, a bank, a supermarket, a library, a high school, even a Greek restaurant run by an exile from
"We're tough bastards," one of the fishermen says in my ear, apologetically. He has a jutting beard that seems to have blown up on to his nose and stuck there. "We got more friends dead than alive."
"Settle down!" shouts one of the bartenders. "Settle down! One more false move from you and you are Out!"
Not until the next morning do I finally come across a real, living Aleut. She is an 18-year-old girl who works in the Unalaska tourist office. She speaks like an American but her features are distinctly east Asian.
"You are genuine?" I gasp.
"Oh well, yeah ..." she smiles, as if recalling a fond family memory, "... but you know those early Russians, they like, made it, with the Aleut women? So today we're all mixed up."
The Aleuts turn out to have a surprisingly soft spot for mother
We have a vivid description of that pleasant July afternoon in 1778, when Webber originally made this sketch, all because the hard-bitten travelling surgeon David Samwell seemed to fall in love on the spot. The woman whom Webber was drawing, he declared, was not only "very beautiful" and "altogether very prettily dressed", but "we were all charmed with the good nature and affability with which she complied with our wishes in staying to have her picture drawn, and with what readiness she stood up or sat down according as she was desired, seeming very much pleased in having an opportunity to oblige us. She was withal very communicative and intelligent ...".
And here she is now, in front of me, smiling and intelligent, her hair curled deftly forward, her lips and chin ornamented with walrus-teeth piercings. I consider the wanderings of this sketch, from the
Alaska Airlines flies daily from
Jeremy thus flew
Otherwise, from April to October only, there is the monthly AMHS ferry that sails from
Jeremy travelled fromthe
On Unalaska, comfortable accommodation, with shared bathrooms, is available at Brenda's Bunkhouse, more formally known as Amaknak Camp, for $60 (£38) per person per night; homely and inexpensive meals are also served, in the company of hard oil workers and fishermen. Alternatively, try the far more expensive Grand Aleutian Hotel (001 907 5813844) which offers rooms from $175 (£112) per night.
Unalaska/Port of Dutch Harbor Convention and Visitors Bureau,