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Unalaska – A Remote but Fascinating Island

One of the most remote places in the United States is the tiny island of Unalaska, which is a part of the Aleutian archipelago.

The Aleutian archipelago lies far to the north where the Bering Sea meets the Pacific Ocean, and the island of Unalaska is neatly bisected by the imaginal zone between North America and Siberia. The remoteness of this tiny island has contributed to the idiosyncratic nature of the people who live there.

The Aleutian Islands stretch westward for some 1,100 km to reach close to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. This string of volcanic islands displays some of the most extreme and harsh environments found on earth, and the coastlines that are regularly battered by gale-force winds are utterly devoid of any kinds of vegetation higher than small bushes.

This archipelago lies within the Ring of Fire, a ring of active volcanoes around the Pacific Ocean, and the islands are regularly besieged by earthquakes. Almost all the 70 volcanoes found on the islands have erupted in the last 250 years.

The location of these islands and the weather systems created in the surrounding seas ensure that the land is affected by gale-force winds, heavy rain and thick fog — all of which go on to become the weather systems that affect mainland Canada and the United States.

Aleutians’ home

The very hardy people who call the Aleutians home are called Aleuts and the people who inhabit Unalaska are the Unangax people. This ancient culture has lived in this part of the world for over 9,000 years and used the resources offered by land and sea for survival.

Sadly, the number of residents has steadily decreased mainly due to disease introduced by colonialism and the destruction of their culture by the influence of colonialism. Today, the entire Unangax population amounts to just under 4,000 people. Of those, only 200 remain on Unalaska.

The first Europeans to arrive on the Aleutians were Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer, and Aleksei Chirikov, his Russian partner. They are credited with reaching the area in 1741, but soon the islands were flooded with Russian hunters searching for sea otters and fur seals that were sought after for their pelts.

By the late 1700s, the islands were a Russian colony, and to this day, many of the residents still have Russian names. The U.S. gained control of the Aleutian Islands when they purchased the islands from Russia in 1867. Soon after the arrival of the fur hunters, the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to the area and many of the indigenous people were converted to the Orthodox faith.

World War II

This remote archipelago did not escape tragedy during World War II. Before war broke out, the U.S. had a minimal military presence on the islands, as they did lie close to Eastern Asia and were thus vulnerable to attack. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor on June 3-4, 1942, Japanese planes attacked Dutch Harbor, situated on the northern coast of Unalaska. During the attack, 50 people were killed. Japanese ground troops then invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska, which lay in the extreme west of the Aleutian archipelago.

This was done to try to divert American focus and troops from the Pacific theatre, where the Battle of Midway was about to commence. This was the first invasion of foreign troops onto American soil since the British invaded in 1812. Shortly after the attack on Dutch Harbor, thousands of American and Canadian soldiers were based in the Aleutians to drive the Japanese out and defend the islands against the Axis forces.

The military built bunkers and fortresses throughout the islands, but the battle to retake the occupied territory was bloody on both sides. The harsh environment accounted for many deaths, but the Japanese were eventually defeated in August 1943. The fight for the Aleutians seems to have been relegated to the footnotes of history.

Unangax people

This time was tough for the Unangax people, as they were displaced from their homes. After being given less than a day’s notice, the 881 people from nine villages were packed up and sent south, where they were housed in abandoned canneries on Alaska’s southeastern coast. This was terrifying to a people that had never left their homes before, never seen trees and were then dumped in unsanitary and challenging conditions.

When the people eventually returned to their homes, they found their villages had been looted and in many cases burned to the ground. In 1988, a resolution of the American Government saw a formal apology issued to the Unangax along with financial compensation for their treatment during this time.

After the war, Dutch Harbor rose to prominence as a fishing port, and it still accounts for most of the seafood eaten in the U.S. today. Not only do trawlers find the seas around Unangax a fertile fishing ground, but marine mammals also abound in the area. Orcas, dolphins, sea otters, Steller sea lions and various species of whale all frequent the area, living close to many thousands of seabirds that nest in the area.

A visit to this area is sure to be a spiritual and deeply satisfying experience.