Roberta, Shelby, and I flew back to Dutch Harbor yesterday, and we’re ready for the next phase of our journey: the Aleutian Islands.
Nothing bad happened yesterday, at least not to us, but I’d categorize it as a ‘bad day.’ Our flight from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor was delayed a couple of hours. No reason was given, but we had our suspicions. The weather at Dutch Harbor was not good; 35 knot winds and raining. The airline was probably not 100% sure they could land. The Dutch Harbor runway is short, and has nearby mountains at each end. The pilots who regularly fly in and out, in the horrible weather conditions here, have special training, and are real heroes.
After a couple of hours, our flight did take off. However, with no advance warning, until after takeoff, we stopped halfway for fuel at a desolate airport called “King Salmon.” Once again, I had my suspicions as to why we needed a fuel stop. Landing conditions at Dutch Harbor had to be on the grey edge. My guess is that they wanted to be sure that they would have plenty of fuel for proceeding to an alternate destination if the pilots didn’t like what they found at Dutch.
I have landed at Dutch Harbor exactly one time, so I have no idea what the ordinary approach is. I can only say that our approach was extra-ordinary by my standards. The cloud layer was only a few hundred feet off the water. Well before arrival at Dutch the plane dropped to only a couple hundred feet off the water, and drove the last ten miles or so close enough to the water that I was reminded of my days waterskiing. We slalomed for what seemed an eternity, but was probably only a few minutes, through a narrow passage between multiple islands.
I have seen many seas from inside many airplanes, and they always look calmer than they really are. The seas around Dutch Harbor looked frightening, and were I on the water, I knew they’d look far worse. I have no idea how tall the waves were, but I knew that there was no way I wanted anything to do with them.
Our actual landing was anti-climactic, other than being blasted by rain, cold and 35 knot winds as soon as we left the plane. I looked at Bill Harrington, and he just shrugged, smiled, and said “Welcome to the Aleutians.”
Steven Argosy, from Seabird, was waiting to take us to the boat, along with Kirt, from our crew.
I asked Kirt if we had missed anything during our absence. His answer wasn’t pretty. Kirt said: “Do you remember that I mentioned that there was a fishing boat on the dock that dumped soot on us a few days ago?” After saying “Yes,” Kirt continued, “Someone stopped by the boat today and mentioned that they lost a crewmember over the side in 80 knot winds.” This seemed incomprehensible to me. I had been looking at the forecast and hadn’t seen any 80 knot winds close to Dutch Harbor. I asked how this could be. They couldn’t have gotten too far away in just a couple of days. Bill answered for Kirt, “80 knots can happen here at any time. That isn’t that unusual.” This took some time to digest.
After telling Kirt I was sorry I had asked, he said “There’s more. A couple of nights ago, at the local Mexican restaurant, they had a shooting. A guy shot the chef, then shot himself.” Roberta and I had just dined there the day before leaving for Seattle.
I asked if there could possibly be more, and he pointed out the approximately 35 foot long sail boat tied at our stern. He explained that it was headed north to the Northwest Passage (http://www.openpassageexpedition.com ). I was duly impressed. Kirt said that they had a lady, a documentary filmmaker on board, who had struggled with seasickness on their run across the Gulf of Alaska, and then been beaten up here at the dock for a couple days. I looked at the sail boat, and it was being tossed around by the seas and wind, at the dock, as though it were a rag doll in a very large dog’s mouth. The film maker had had enough fun, and was headed to the airport, abandoning the expedition. As if that weren’t enough news, Kirt added that the sail boat had snapped their bow line the previous evening, and was almost torn away from the dock.
Kirt had nothing more to report, but that had been enough.
I almost didn’t write this report, because I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that Dutch Harbor is a bad place. I doubt my day yesterday characterizes Dutch Harbor – other than the weather.
This can be a very harsh environment, and that cannot be overstated.
I also cannot overstate how nice the people have been to us here, and how good the services are. For instance, all of us have relied heavily on Harris Electric and Lunde Electric. Both have gone over the top to help us, in multiple ways. For instance, we’ve been having packages delivered all week to Harris Electric, most of which had nothing to do with anything electric. They’ve been good sports about it, and have even been personally delivering our packages. A manager at the Grand Aleutian Hotel offered to take our group hiking, then helped us find someone to wash the boat. Another manager took Kirk scuba diving. A propane place earlier today stayed open after hours to fill our tanks. A package that came in after the air cargo company closed was delivered anyhow, by personal delivery of a clerk in her own car. I suspect everyone knows we’re not likely to pass this way again, yet we’ve been treated like regulars.
It’s also been interesting on the docks. A few boats behind us is a big wooden fishing boat, probably 90 feet long. Bill mentioned that it was built in 1913, and commandeered during WWII for use dropping depth charges on submarines, and did actually take out a submarine. Last week, there was a sail boat here that was working on a circumnavigation. This week, in roughly the same place, there is the sail boat headed to the Northwest Passage. Both boats invited us aboard for tours. We haven’t seen anyone who is here, “just hanging out.” This is a place you come for a reason, and whether it is commercial fishing, or exploring the world, if you are here, you are probably doing something interesting.
I whine a lot, but the fact is: It’s pretty cool being here.
N6805, Sans Souci
PS Sorry about the lack of pictures. We just got here, and are getting ready for departure tomorrow morning early. Weather permitting.
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