Sunday, November 10, 2002

Northern Soul

Northern Soul

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

Published: 10 November 2002

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 island of Unalaska. Any land down there? Luckily, there is. I espy the perfect volcanic cones of Unimak Island emerging through the cloud base. Thus do the Aleutians begin: stepping stones that will span this wild ocean from Alaska to Russian Kamchatka.

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 Kamchatka in the mid-18th century. And even now, the thought of the Russian-Aleut encounter makes me depressed. What (I ask myself) did those fur-grubbing, land-lubbing Russians think they were doing, setting out across the stormy Pacific, when they could have stayed at home, hunting sable in the forests of Siberia?

"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 America's number one commercial fishing port? It is raining, of course. The airport is the size of a bus stop. It is a half-mile walk into town and through the grey, watery wind, I spy a large red-roofed building resembling a block of flats on the tundra. "That's it, the Grand Delusion Hotel," says the only taxi driver, stretching to shake my hand. "Welcome, my friend, to Unalaska!" He pronounces Un-alaska like "Un-thinkable" or "Un-bearable". He then mentions that rooms at the Grand Aleutian Hotel cost $180 a night and that I might consider Brenda's bunkhouse instead.
I will not regret this. Brenda is a lovely bosomy lady from Michigan whose aim in life is to make the hardest men on the globe feel warm and comfortable inside. She does this by sitting them down in her roomy kitchen and frying sausages and baking cookies for them. "A tourist?" roars one man, from his plate, when she introduces me to the group. "Hell! What did you do? Stick a pin in the map, and miss?"
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 Seattle," Brenda tells me, firmly, later on. She was frying eggs for 10 at the time. After some brief chat, which ranges through bear attacks, gunfights, plane crashes and drownings, I take a walk across the island, though the gloom, into the city of Unalaska (population 4,000).

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 Hawaii, and was now searching for the north-west passage to Europe. But having weighed anchor at this unknown island to replenish his water stocks, Cook and his men were surprised to be approached by an "Indian" wearing an undergarment of sewn, feathered bird-skins, trying to cadge a quid of tobacco and a pinch of snuff.

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 Crete. Only later, in the incessant rain, when I drop in at the town bar, do I find anything faintly subterranean. Inside the Elbow Room, 10 crab fishermen are being kept in line by two blonde female bartenders resembling lion tamers.

"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 Russia. Partly this is because Washington's record as a colonial master has been no better than that of the Tsars. (In 1942 the Aleuts were evacuated en masse to mainland north America; only with great difficulty did any of them ever make it back.) But the main reason is this: that long before being sold to the US in 1867, the Aleuts converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. Today, the dominant sight in the tiny harbour is the green onion dome of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Ascension, usually bedecked with eagles. Another grey day is fizzling out. I drop in on the local museum, to the shock of the curators who come running to unlock the door, panting, "Well, it's usually kinda quiet at this time of year ..." But there's one thing I have got to see: the sketch by Cook's official artist, John Webber, entitled Woman of Ounalashka.

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 Aleutian islands, via Hawaii, Kamchatka, south China, Java, the Cape of Good Hope and back to London, where it was shown to King George III. Neither Samwell nor Webber could have dreamt that the Woman of Unalaska would one day be returned to her point of creation: a treeless island deep in the north Pacific, sodden with constant wind and rain.

The Facts

Getting there
Alaska Airlines flies daily from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, weather permitting. Standard tickets are extremely expensive, but Jeremy Atiyah used an Alaska Airlines Best of the West air-pass. To qualify for the pass, you must be resident outside the US, and need to purchase only between two and 10 flight coupons. You do not need to purchase the international leg of your journey at the same time. Coupons for internal Alaska flights cost $109 (£70) each, and flights between Alaska and mainland US cost $169 (£108).

Jeremy thus flew Los Angeles to Anchorage to Dutch Harbor for $556 (£356) return, which is by far the most economical way of reaching the island, or any other remote part of Alaska. The airline's agent in the UK, which sells these tickets, is Offline Marketing (01992 441517).

Otherwise, from April to October only, there is the monthly AMHS ferry that sails from Kodiak Island to Unalaska. The trip takes two and a half days, costing about $200 (£128) one way without a cabin(001 907 4653941;

Jeremy travelled fromthe UK to Los Angeles as a guest of British Airways (0845 7733377). Prices drop below £300 return off-season.

Being there
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.

Further information
Unalaska/Port of Dutch Harbor Convention and Visitors Bureau, PO Box 545, Unalaska, Alaska 99685 (001 907 581 2612; updhcvb@