The rain blew sideways as we beat to windward.
A welter of whitewater appeared fine to starboard. Were our charts for the Aleutian Islands off? In the past few years, we’ve become accustomed to the fine charting in Alaska—could there be an uncharted reef off the Kilokak Rocks? The waves, however, didn’t break again.
Another burst of white water and—this time I saw it—a black shape in the fading light, coming three-quarters out of the water. Stubby pectoral fins. No dorsal. “Whale! Get up! Get up!”
Everyone else was curled up in their warm beds. We’d seen a lot of whales this summer—40 orcas circling, a dozen humpbacks feeding, the surge of a handful of orcas and humpbacks in the tidal swirl of the Aleutian passes. But this was different. This one shouldn’t have been here. A bowhead? A right whale?
Hamish has heard me shout “whale” plenty of times over the last 20 years. But he hadn’t heard this tone of voice, so he swung his feet out of the bunk, grabbed his camera, put on the sun shield against the rain and set it to motor drive, all while running to the cockpit. Fast asleep to first photo in less than 10 seconds.
The whale breached again, and again. The photos confirmed it was a northern right whale—one of about 30 remaining, spread over the vastness of the Northeast Pacific. NOAA scientists have no other records of the animal in this area.
The right whale was our most unusual sighting of the summer, but certainly not the only extraordinary species we found here in the lonely Aleutians, a string of islands reaching out into the Bering Sea from mainland Alaska. Laysan and black-footed albatross soared past the boat: we lost count of the fulmars, and we were surrounded by ancient murreletes; whiskered, crested and parakeet auklets; and horned and crested puffins. In one harbor, a golden and bald eagle sat on opposite sides like sentries.
As we sat in a 60-knot blow, riding 150 yards upwind of aground, we were glad we’d replaced our anchor chain only a year before. There was so much water lifting off the sea that the shore looked miles away, even though the anchorage was only 350 yards across—a round hole that we’d chosen for its lack of fetch.
We saw no real storms last summer in the Aleutians; the gradient wind offshore was never more than gale-force, but the sheer-sided volcanoes and their V-shaped valleys made a perfect venturi for supercharging what wind there was. We had a bit more luck on the windward side of the islands, but even so, the mountain winds usually found something to accelerate around as they reached into our anchorages.
For the first time since reaching Alaska in 2013, we found ourselves back in the world where the finest detail chart was a 1:300,000. We found our anchorages either by feel or running ahead in the dinghy with a depth sounder (made portable with a DeWalt 12-volt drill battery and a Tupperware box) or with a teenager standing on the spreaders, looking for rocks. We nudged the ground once; our lifting keel and rudder let us back up and try again.
On calm days, our 16-year-old rowed across the anchorages with a plankton net, trawling for microplastics. She and her sister spent long hours doing plastics surveys across a number of accessible beaches (and even some that I personally wouldn’t have called “accessible,” but then again, I think they’re part mountain goat). Their findings were sobering: even in this remote wilderness, where we often wouldn’t see another boat for weeks on end, she found plastics and debris everywhere. On the south side, the labels were often in Japanese; on the north side, in English. We even salvaged a few plastic fish baskets and a lot of fenders.
For me, one of the great pleasures of the Aleutians was ambling along the shoulders of the mountains, caribou on distant hills, foxes watching and sometimes following along behind while Lapland longspurs chirped at their mates. The mountain goat part of the family also loved scrambling up the sides of volcanoes and craggy hills.
We covered 1,300 miles to reach our farthest point west from our winter home in Cordova, Alaska. For comparison’s sake, imagine we lived in Boston. This in-state hop to Adak would put us in Jacksonville, Florida. If it were a bit straighter, the south coast of Alaska would stretch from Newfoundland to Panama.
It was an odd thing to be in full offshore mode, inflatable dinghy below and the rowing dinghy strapped down, yet only 20 or 30 miles from land. Watch after watch, we could see the snow-covered 9,372ft perfect cone of Shishaldin, smoking gently, the twin peaks of nearby Isanotski topping out at an equally impressive 8,025ft.
Farther west, Tanaga (5,925ft) and Moffett (3,924ft) towered over us as we sailed past whales in Adak Strait. Naturalist Corey Ford described sailing across the north Pacific in the early 1900s. He could see mountains in the mist and asked a fellow passenger what they were. Ford heard the word as “Illusions” rather than “Aleutians.” There were many days when nothing could be more apt.
We saw few other boats once we left the mega-ship highway behind at Dutch Harbor; the AIS sparkled with 320-meter container ships, and the VHF broadcast their discord as they jostled through the narrow Unimak Pass on the shortcut from San Francisco to Asia. One time we saw a fishing boat on the AIS, the same boat that had given us a cod back in the Shumagins. We crossed paths with only three other sailboats in over a thousand miles, two of them old friends from our Antarctic days.
We worked the boat hard in weather she was built for, feeling utterly alone but for the history that shrugged around the islands like the low clouds. World War II refuse still dots the harbors. Stories leaped off the pages of our books. Most of the Aleutian islanders spent the war in miserable American internment camps. Those from Attu fared even worse as Japanese prisoners.
We visited the wreck of a B-24 bomber that looked like it had crashed only a few weeks before, apart from the Bakelite trim control blocks. There was moss in the cockpit, but the 1940s graffiti in the back was still perfectly clear. In Adak, the war left uncorroded aluminum and rusted steel, vast spools of cable and thousands of empty fuel drums. Members of the bomb disposal team out for a Sunday drive gave us a lift into town that turned into a grand tour. They were still finding explosives there last summer.
Of the world before that, however, there was little sign. The Aleut people have lived in these islands for about 8,000 years. The tides run fast through the passes, and we were grateful for our 115hp Cummins—the Aleut would paddle in 30ft igilax from island to island with their families. Tough hunters used even smaller and lighter iqyax (say it aloud and hear hints of “kayak”) to hunt sea lions, whales and otters. The temperature swings here are milder than most of Alaska, but the thermometer doesn’t take into account wind chill and the rains of winter.
In their iqyax, hunters wore waterproof jackets made from sea lion intestine. Squinting at them in museums, I cannot see the individual stitches that bring together the 4in stripes of translucent fabric. On their heads, they wore wooden hats with long visors—like a reversed sou’wester.
At the Adak fuel dock, I chatted to the agent. Was he from Adak, I asked. No, the Pribilofs, even remoter islands 200 miles to the north. I had met one person from the Pribilofs. Did he know her? “She’s my daughter!” he said, and snapped a picture with his phone to text to her. Alaska is a big place, it can be a small one, too.
Hamish and Kate Laird run expedition-style charters in Alaska on Seal, their 55ft aluminum cutter. Contact them at expeditionsail.com
Photos by Hamish Laird