North American interests in the Aleutian Island of Adak were essentially non-existent until the Japanese invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska to the west in 1942. Adak, which had formerly been home to a small native Aluet population and some Russian fur traders, was used as a strategic launching point for the US military to push the Japanese out of the Aleutians. In the following decades, it became the site of a massive naval base that housed 6,000 people at its peak, before closing down in the mid-1990s.
Perhaps 50 people live there now (The official Census number is bull, I’m sure), along with some transient fishermen and federal employees, a few Alaska Air personnel, and the burliest eagles and ravens I’ve ever seen, plus hordes of invasive rats. Oh, and there are some 2,500 caribou too.
The latter were intentionally brought to the island from mainland AK shortly after WWII to serve as a sporting opportunity for personnel stationed at the base, and as a backup food supply if needed.
After the military left the island, the caribou population exploded from a few hundred to a peak of 3,000.
The habitat on the island is ideal for an ungulate evolved to thrive on barren tundra plains: an ample and rich food supply, mild weather (by caribou standards), and most importantly, no predators.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has debated exterminating the herd (good luck with that) to keep the animals from invading neighboring islands, but the hunting provides one of the biggest tourism draws to the island, and the locals protested. Hunters are limited to two bulls and as many cows as they can take a season.
That being said, this wasn’t going to be a turkey shoot, and we all knew it.
Alaska Air flies to the island twice a week under federal contract, and we were to go in on Sunday the 22nd, and come back out the following Sunday.
Unsurprisingly, a seasonably strong Bering hurricane set up shop in the region the week prior – there is almost always some type of cyclone hanging out in the Bering – and on the day of our flights, the island was getting pounded by 100 mph winds. The plane didn't fly, and it appeared we'd have to wait until Thursday, the next scheduled flight, to get in. Thursday to Sunday was too short a trip, and Thursday to Thursday didn't work with my schedule, so I bowed out at noon on Monday.
Five minutes later, Alaska Air emailed us to say we were booked on an unscheduled flight the next day.
Photo note: Adak scary wet weather kept my camera tucked away the whole trip, but Logan captured the entire trip. All photos in this post are credited to Logan.
Day 1: the flight in was non eventful. Far better organized than we had been on Sunday, we checked in and boarded the 737 freighter/passenger combi for the 3-hour, 1,200 mile flight. We cruised over an endless plain of fog and clouds, occasionally catching glimpses of a green Bering Sea and brown volcanic islands below. Adak airport terminal isn’t much bigger than a single-level family home. If, somehow, there was ever a full 737 of people leaving, it’s hard to imagine they could all fit in the building while awaiting the plane’s arrival. A man wearing camo army fatigues named Mike held a piece of paper with Kyle’s name. He showed us our early 90s Isuzu Trooper rental, which, though smelling of cleaner, still had some caribou blood and tufts of ptarmigan feathers in the back.You have to fly all your own food out to the Island, so along with guns and duffels, we also each had a stacked set of plastic totes full of food. We brought out 16 totes total I think, hoping to come back with them full of caribou.
Adak has a number of housing complexes, almost all of them abandoned and slowly giving in to the hellish weather. Our quaint block was one of the few inhabited streets. The homes are set up to for your average American family and their 2.3 children. Wind-blasted playgrounds and a faded and blown out McDonalds are stark reminders of this place’s history.
The houses, and its neighbors, were a stark juxtaposition to the surrounding landscape. While comfortable – we had hot showers, a washer/dryer, and full kitchen – the disrepair was obvious enough. Rats had chewed through one of the front doors, the gusty winds drafted through and sucked out any heat, windows were opaque from moisture leaked between the panes, and we heated the unit with the electric oven as only a few of the base boards gave off heat.
The house received a short inspection, but with 2 hours of daylight on the table, no winds, and sunny skies, we moved fast and went for a recon hike from the Husky Pass trailhead. We moved slow and hoped to maybe see signs of bou or shoot ptarmigan. We succeeded at neither, but we learned a bit about the minutia of the topography, and the “character” of the trails.
It was gorgeous out too, though I think all of us were a bit surprised by the cold. Temps for the trip ranged from maybe 29 to a 35, but winds and high humidity combined with near constant precipitation make this place a hypothermia factory.
Day 2Overnight the wind began to howl, as forecasted. We shuffled out of the house in the 7:30 dark – Adak is on Hawaii Time, and sits at the same latitude at Vancouver Island, first light was a bit after 8, and last light was around 630.
Thick snow was falling in every direction but down. Logan slowly drove the Trooper to the Finger Bay trailhead. The tired headlights of the rig barely pierced 10 feet into the melee. The road twisted its way up and over a ridge. Unable to see beyond the rotten wood guard rails, we pictured a frothing Bering Sea just beyond, waiting to swallow us and the Trooper if we slipped off one of the icy bends.
Eventually we came to a switchback where the road narrowed and dropped down a steep icy hill to the waters of Finger Bay. We parked and walked into the storm. Walking over a narrow telephone pole placed over a stream and adorned with basically decorative rope railings, we crossed the inlet and wrapped around the bay’s opposite side.
We found shelter from the wind here, and the snow fell in a heavy, wet, apocalyptic curtain. We thought maybe we had picked a good zone: winds were forecasted to build to 50mph by the afternoon but we were sheltered.
The side-hilling hiking trail was, as with other trails of Adak, a suggestion. “Trails” are generally unimproved, barring a rare repurposed chunk of wood or steel pipe placed over particularly nasty obstacles. Footing on trails varies as much as off trails: spongy tussock, slimey mud, and knee-deep muck holes abounded.
Eventually we steered up a wide draw to cross into the neighboring Susie Lake drainage. Our slow gain in elevation brought us head to head with shrieking wind. Forward progress ground down as we waded through knee deep snow drifts that occasionally covered even deeper holes filled with mud, water, or just more snow. At the high point of the plateau the wind hit us head on with 50mph gusts that pushed us backwards and knocked us down. A mere 400 feet above the ocean, we battled an environment one would expect at 10,000 FSL.
We worked as hard to go downhill as we might otherwise to have gone up. Eventually we lowered down enough for the winds to abate some, but were still fierce. Visibility was limited to a 1/2 mile. In an effort to think like caribou, we scoured sheltered draws. Our search yielded nothing though, and it became apparent as we headed into the funnel of another valley, that if we found any caribou, we were just about going to have to head butt them. Drenched, our faces raw from the relentless pelting, we turned around. Walking with the wind brought relief from the face-peeling rain/sleet/snow, but the same wind knocked us forward and threw all of us into holes or tumbling over tussocks we meant to avoid. Warming temperatures turned the footing underfoot to messy slush. We made it back the car 4 hours after having left, all of us feeling destroyed. At the same time, we had to give ourselves some credit: We gave it an honest shot.
We worked the ancient drier at our house hard, and fired up the oven to provide heat as the wind sucked away what minimal amount the few functioning baseboards put out.
In retrospect, we’d later realize, we should have stayed put; but fresh to the island, we were eager to get out. Had we already been on the island a few days, we might have recognized that the storm would have been a fine time for a needed rest day.
Day 3:With the worst of the storm largely passed, we went back to the same TH. This time we were headed to Betty Lake. After climbing the steep, muddy hill to the lake's north shore, we split. Kyle and I would take the east shore, Logan and Abe the west. First though, Kyle and I had to get across the lakes’ outlet stream, which poured through a steep rock canyon. With no obvious way to hop the slick rocks over the fast moving water, we straddled a piece of 12-inch rusty pipe that was lain across the gorge, and humped our way over. On the other side, we sidled along a wall of wet rock on a thin muddy strip of wet grass: below was a 20 foot drop straight into the icy water.
The shenanigans came to an end, and we began to move up and down the low ridges that separated the draws flowing into the lake. From each, we glassed ahead, searching for any sign of life: tracks in the snow, beaten down vegetation, scat, skeletons, better yet, an animal.
If there were caribou here, it was so far mysterious. Eventually we decided we were wasting time, and scurried up valley to the head of the lake, and then upward into the cloudy and blustery Gannet Pass.
Somewhere on the way up we heard at least 2 muffled thuds. We were near a gushing stream though. Was it a gunshot, or just a shifting rock?
Eventually we topped out in Gannet in the rearing wind. It was here we finally saw evidence of bou: an old track in some gravel. It was noon, and before we slipped over the pass, we radio checked with Abe and Logan.
Logan answered immediately.
He could hardly hear us, but we could hear him loud and clear.
"Bou down," he reported.
He didn't need help dressing the animal, and Abe was pursuing the remainder of the group they’d come across, so we let him know we planned to slip over the pass and out of radio contact. (Note: using radios to hunt is illegal. We used the radios solely for safety and keeping tabs on each other.)
Over the pass, we ducked down into the lee of a large rock with a perfect view of the Gannet Bowl. A veritable slaughter alley lead in just below us, and we had a great vantage over it. The on and off assault of sleet and rain seemed to abate, so we waited for a half hour.
Again, glassing, there wasn't a sign of life in the entire bowl: no obvious trails in the brush or tracks in the snow. Eventually, we had to move.
At this point, I had a real problem. My right knee was killing me. It had ached the day prior, but by the time we reached Gannet, it was getting toward serious. Side hilling and steep climbing were the worst, and I was fearful a bad step or deep plunge would be catastrophic.
Getting injured was no joke out here. There's no rescue, no evac, and the terrain is nasty enough that getting out on one leg seemed close to impossible. We had gear to emergency bivvy, but the odds of surviving a night alone seemed close to 0.
I loaded the gun on my pack, as it was throwing me off terribly, and Kyle gave me his collapsible trekking poles. Though mostly mental, the added stability at least allowed me to move from ½ Kyle’s pace to closer to 3/4.
I felt pretty bad though. I was useless. If we shot an animal, there was no way I'd be able to help take it out.
We covered the ridge between Gannet and Hikers pass, where we found the tracks of the group of animals Logan and Abe had likely found. We were excited our friends had taken a bou, maybe more, and happy our Thanksgiving dinner would consist of fresh meat and not deli turkey. Seeing the animal tracks too was a confirmation that in fact, there were animals to be found.
That night we ate an awesome Thanksgiving dinner: mashed potatoes and brussels sprouts from Logan's family’s farm, stuffing, and caribou backstrap and liver. Logan wanted to make the liver in particular, and it was the standout in my opinion. Prepared with leeks, it's consistency was like that of a sautéed mushroom, but thick with a rich flavor. I really liked it.
With my knee aching, I took a needed rest day while the boys went on a really long hike that took them through Hiker Pass to the far side of Gannet Bowl and back over Gannet Pass. They spotted a few bou mid-day, well out of range, and had the best weather of the trip to that point, with ample breaks of sun, but the odds of bringing home more than one animal seemed to be slipping away.
Day 5:Logan had joined the knee pain train with me, and Kyle and Abe set off for what they expected to be an epic hike, but not much else, encircling Mount Reed. Logan hobbled behind Kyle and Abe until about 2/3 the way down the backside of Husky Pass in a sopping wet white out, before heading back. Coming down the front side of Husky, he found 8 caribou nearly within sight of the car! He attempted to get into position, but the gusting wind easily gave away his cover, and the herd put miles into him in no time. A little dejected, he got back to the house mid-afternoon, and an hour later, we both headed back to the TH to see if the bou came back, and to try and plink ptarmigan while waiting for Kyle and Abe to return from their trek.
The hard rain and wet snow that had fallen all day yielded to a beautiful evening, but the bou didn't come back, and an hour after full dark, there was still no sign of Kyle or Abe’s bobbing head lamps on the distant horizon. Around 7:45, after flashing the Lake DeMarie Bowl with a bright lamp for a bit and seeing no sign, we drove down the road to Heart Lake trailhead, thinking they may have gone for the nearer TH.
Stupidly, we had left the second radio at the house when Logan came home, but confident our friends were at least a 1/2 hour out, we bombed down to town and grabbed the talkie, food, and extra clothes. I secretly hoped they had come out the other TH and caught a ride back to town with the other group hunting the island, but no such luck.
Back at the Husky Pass TH, we kept shining the bright head lamps and shot the .410, radioing to no one.
It was starting to get late.
While we joked, and hoped, that they had massacred some bou, and were huffing them out, the very real reality of a situation began to set it.
After waiting at the Husky Pass TH for some time, we again headed to Heart Lake TH. With 930 drawing close, we began the very serious discussion of what to do about our competent but likely lost friends.
We fully trusted their decision making. Abe had an InReach. We knew if there was a serious problem, he’d likely activate it, though we weren’t sure if we’d receive any notification. Of course, we knew that professional rescue, if needed, was hours away anyhow, and would be of little value until the next day.
If they were lost – which seemed unlikely – or injured but not seriously, they might have to biv. Biving seemed like the worst situation.
We didn’t want to initiate our own search, as they could come out from either direction from their circular route, and we could easily miss them, and the last thing we needed was two parties groping around a storm-battered island in November at night.
We planned to wait until 10:30, at which point, we’d notify Mike, and prepare for a search in the morning.
We kept radioing, hoping they would respond.
Then the radio crackled a bit.
A few seconds went by.
“We got caribou bitches!”Abe huffed into the radio.
Three-quarters the way around Mount Reed, mid-afternoon, after seeing virtually nothing all day but a rat swimming in the sea, Kyle and Abe located, stalked, and cornered a herd of 4 caribou onto a small peninsula.
Cue Boondock Saints: “THERE WAS A FIRE FIGHT!”
They positioned themselves on a perfect knoll and took blasted the whole group.
It wasn’t until 8 that they had finished quartering the kills and began the pack out in the murky dark.
Their route was obviously inefficient since they couldn’t see where they were going, but at last, to our relief, their distant bobbing lights came into view beyond Heart Lake basin, and we headed out to meet them for the final stretch.
There were still 6 more loads left in the field, protected from the hungry ravens and eagles that would soon descend on the scene.
The next morning we were back at the TH, and with the first tinges of daylight spreading across the gray sky. We trucked to the kill site in only 45 minutes with empty frames. We took out the heaviest loads, and with the Trooper loaded, Logan and I headed back to town to begin a frantic carving and packing session while Kyle and Abe retrieved the final two quarters.
Somehow, who even knows how, we had 12 totes packed to the 50 pound airline limit with bou, plus all the guns and gear bags, piled in the airport by 4. Mike saved our tails, and helped truck out the bones and spines while cleaning up our disheveled mess at the house. It wasn’t our plan to be so hasty and leave such a mess.
I was impressed though: he’d noticed we were missing the night prior, and was really concerned when the Trooper was gone again early in the morning. When he found out why though, he was thrilled with our success.
At last, we plopped into our seats on the nearly empty 737, blood smeared on our pants and jackets, beat down to hell, but all smiles and stoke.
Thoughts:This was a really unique trip.
I don’t hunt and have never claimed to. My interest was based purely in the adventure and the prospect of bringing home some caribou. Whether I killed a caribou myself was irrelevant.
That being said, I can only think of one other reason I’d go to the Aleutians: some kind of misbegotten mission to ski every island’s volcano (rad in theory, probably hell in reality). Every synonym for harsh and wild you could use on this place will fail to deliver how raw it can get.
Every park from Glen Alps to the Everglades has some stupid warning about wearing warm, waterproof clothing, and being ready for inclement weather, “because the weather can change fast here!”
All those places can quite literally go take a hike. There was no singular weather on Adak, it was just constant. We had same some pretty heavy weather at the beginning of our trip as the remnants of a tropical storm In-Fa “breezed through,” but it wasn’t by any stretch abnormal, and didn’t even hold a candle to the cyclone that had deflected out initial flight. In fact, it was totally normal. What is normal weather on Adak is a crisis situation and a state of emergency in most places. More, what is happening now, or 15 minutes ago, likely has no relevance to what will happen in the next 15.
If the weather isn’t bad enough, the terrain is worse. It’s just a tussock minefield perched on volcanic ash goo. Solid ground is rare, dry ground non-existent. The winds can defy gravity here. We literally watched the wind blow a waterfall right back up a hill in Gannet Pass. Wetness and a chill are constant. Route finding is easy if you can see, but it’s slow-going and tough on joints. I don’t hike much, and it showed.
You can rent 4-wheelers, but only a small part of the island is legally accessible. If you’re skilled in driving them, they could be a great asset; otherwise, they seem like more trouble than they’re worth. The terrain is easily shredded by their passage, and the ATV “trails” were just ugly, gnarly, wide, torn out mud ruts.
In retrospect, I think a good tactic with four people would have been to alternate days in the field: 1 day, a pair goes out, while the other pair rests and stays close to the roads, maybe looks for ptarmigan if it’s nice, or processes if there’s a kill. If the in-the-field group make kills – it’s a good idea to drop multiple animals is possible – they could use an InReach or sat phone to communicate with the resting pair and give a GPS location so they can get some help packing out. Abe might have used the InReach to text Logan and I of the situation if he could have, but the device was inadvertently turned on and its battery had dies. AT&T users have basic cell service near town and can text and call. Verizon has no service at all. The idea though, is that the hiking and weather are tough enough. Alternating rest days would save up energy.
Would I go back?
If you asked me mid-trip when my knee was so stiff I couldn’t go up or down stairs, and was scared about the future of my ski season, the answer was a resolute: hell no.
I think now though, I would.
Would I recommend it though? Maybe to like 5 people.