Unalaska Is As Far West As You Can Go Using U.S. Public Transportation — Here’s What's There
The ever-expanding tapestry of commercial airline routes, train lines, and highways criss-crossing so much of our planet makes it profoundly difficult to ever feel like you’re on the “edge” of anything. Many of us now think about distances in terms of airborne hours, like how from New York, it takes basically the same time to reach either Los Angeles or Dublin. And these days, you can even drive the Canadian highway system all the way north to the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories — and then theoretically turn right back around and drive all the way south to Patagonia. As it turns out, a real sense of having made it to the edge of civilization can be challenging to find.
On a recent trip to Alaska, as someone who has an affinity for such places (I once drove four hours south of Perth, Western Australia just to stand on “the furthest land on earth from New York City,” where I lived at the time), I set out to find what could only be described as “the end of the line.” When reviewing an online map for the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, my finger traced across my laptop screen all the way west to the port of Dutch Harbor. Nestled on the mysteriously named island of Unalaska, Dutch Harbor is the final terminus, as far west as any public transportation in the Americas can bring you. Of course, knowing almost nothing about this remote island other than how remote it was — and that it was the setting for the hit television show Deadliest Catch, where fearless fisherman brave turbulent seas — I thought, “That’s it. That’s where I want to go.”
Saying you want to go somewhere and sorting out the logistics of that decision, however, are two very different things. The ferries take about sixty-five hours to reach Unalaska from Homer, and that’s assuming there aren’t any delays as you cruise over the churning, unpredictable North Pacific. I had time to explore, but definitely not that much time — suddenly, the $490, two-hour Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage seemed to be worth every penny.
The way my plans worked out, I would have just twenty-four hours on the island. Little did I know, I would depart with a thirst for even more time to spend there, even more time to explore this mysterious place at the edge of the world.
As my plane drew close to land on Unalaska, the first thing I noticed was the desolation. The volcanic landscape rises abruptly and dramatically, dividing the Bering Sea to the north from the North Pacific to the south. Thanks to millennia of storms, harsh winds, and a couple of ice ages, the island is almost entirely devoid of trees. The island is surprisingly green, the sort of rich emerald and seaweed hues that bloom in tundra-like climates. It appeared at once barren and lush in a way I had never seen — despite the treelessness, had this island popped out of the sea a couple thousand miles south, it would almost feel Hawaiian. I thought back to just two hours prior, waiting for my flight in Anchorage, when a salty-looking older man waiting for the same flight told me, “There’s a pretty woman behind every tree on Unalaska.”
When you step off the plane or ferry here, you’re closer to Siberia than you are to Vancouver. At first blush, it’s easy to wonder with uneasiness about “how” and “why” people would live in such a desolate place (today, the island’s population hovers about 4,500). But the truth is that the Aleuts thrived on Unalaska for over nine thousand years. Understanding this fact is at odds with everything we thought we knew about the word “remote,” especially its European and colonial assumptions. “Remote” is ultimately a relative term.
First things first — transportation. There are two car rental companies on Unalaska: B.C. Vehicle Rental, and North Port Rentals. If one is sold out, they will probably send you to the competitor no questions asked, and both are likely to remind you to park into the wind — parking sideways against the wind might result in a rollover situation, the kind of embarrassing tourist faux-pas that will make you the talk of the island within minutes. Nobody wants that.
Once the rental is sorted, begin with an aimless drive around town to get your bearings. It’s pretty much impossible to get lost here, and there is much to see: a scattering of decrepit World War II bunkers; two, two! United States Post Offices; and an austere Russian Orthodox Church dating back to 1894. Take an hour to visit the Museum of the Aleutians, where fantastic collections of indigenous artifacts illuminate this otherwise bleak landscape with human history. There are also a number of hikes on the island ranging from an hour to full-day in length. A quick walk up Mount Ballyhoo provides exceptional views of the harbor, of town, and of the surrounding views. For a more challenging hike, consider the Agamgik Trail, which ends at English Bay, where Captain Cook landed in 1778 — you’re unlikely to encounter another soul the entire way.
If you drive just north from town, you’ll get to the heart of what keeps this island running: commercial fishing. Dutch Harbor is the largest fishing port by volume in the United States, and the docks here are often lined with enormous “factory trawlers,” vessels which go out for days or even weeks at a time, dragging football field-sized nets through open ocean to catch fish. Just oogling at these enormous vessels is an activity unto itself. Halibut, sablefish, and crab are all up for grabs, but the real story in Dutch Harbor is Wild Alaska Pollock, a subset of the cod family. Pollock is considered one of the most sustainable fish populations in the world, and it’s also an enormous moneymaker for the island — the species is used in everything from McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, to imitation crab meat exported to Asian markets, to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Marine Collagen Powder. It’s remarkable to see these ships loaded with tons and tons and tons of wriggling silver pollock, and almost strange to think about the generations of fishermen who have worked these nets in this secluded corner of the globe, sending their catch around the world to be turned into everything from fast food in Kentucky to collagen powder in Beverly Hills. Perhaps Unalaska isn’t so isolated after all.
After a full day of exploration, all roads lead back to the center of town for happy hour at the Norwegian Rat Saloon, where off-duty fishermen can be found shooting pool or huddling around outdoor fire pits on the less inclement days. After a couple of pints, it’s a quick stumble across the street to the Grand Aleutian, the island’s only hotel, where you can fall asleep dreaming of fishermen and pirates and all of the far-flung adventures you’ve discovered here at world’s end.