Amaknak Island is part of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and for an island you have probably never heard of, this place has an interesting story. First it has a volcano, Makushin, which is part of the ring of fire that lines the Pacific Ocean and it last erupted in 1995. The island was once controlled by Russian fur traders who came here in search of sea otter pelts. But after years of successful trapping, the otters were all but gone and Russia lost interest in holding Alaska as a territory so they sold it to the United States in 1867 for $7,200,000 or about 2 cents an acre.
As an American possession, the town of Unalaska located on Amaknak Island was bombed by the Japanese during WWII. The beach is still littered with pillboxes built by the US Army that are still very much intact. But perhaps the most famous attribute of Amaknak Island is Dutch Habor which holds claim to America’s #1 fishing port. Dutch Habor is also where Discovery’s hit show ‘Deadliest Catch’ is based from as just beyond the protection of the harbor is the prized crabbing grounds of the Bering Sea.
The eastern half of the Bering Sea is a relatively shallow place. The continental shelf of North America extends about half way out to the Aleutian Islands before it dramatically descends into one of the deepest trenches on earth. It is here that the cold arctic waters of the Arctic Ocean are mixed with the warmer waters of the Pacific Ocean into a nutrient rich hotspot that boosts incredible marine biodiversity. This is why Dutch Harbor is so strategically valuable as a fishing port because it has the most direct access the rich fishing grounds of the continental shelf.
My trip to Amaknak Island was also with Discovery but for the show ‘Mighty Ships’. I spent the last 2 weeks on board a factory trawler that was zigzagging the Bering Sea for pollock. The ship was named Northern Eagle and it ended up harvesting 15 thousand tons of pollock, all of which was processed and frozen while at sea. The factory on board the ship could process 900 fish per minute while four deckhands and one person in the wheelhouse, either the Captain or First Mate, would navigate the vessel using a combination of high tech gear and instincts to find bigger and better fish. If you have ever eaten a ‘Filet-O-Fish’ from McDonald’s or imitation crab meat at a sushi restaurant, you were probably eating Alaskan pollock
The sea was as memorable as it was forgettable. For 2 weeks the only attribute of the physical earth that I could see was the endless expanse of salt water. We call this planet ‘Earth’ but with 70% of the planet covered in water, of which less than 3% is fresh, the more appropriate name for our planet would be ‘Water’. When the days were calm and the wind was from the south, I could have mistaken my surroundings for the south Pacific. But when the wind pushed down from the north it brought with it an unmistakable deep freeze that shocked your bones and turned the tranquil waters into a dangerous mix of ice, wind and giant swells. The Northern Eagle brought me to a true water world, an experience I wont too soon forget.
Over a two week period the Northern Eagle crisscrossed the Bering Sea as far north as 480 km of Dutch Habor, in search for giant schools of pollock. Because we were fishing the far reaches of the continental shelf, when the winds and tides came together, the swells were short and choppy rather than the more gradual swells one would find on the Pacific Ocean. A good analogy is the Great Lakes. For example, the worse lake to get trapped on in a wind storm is Lake Erie because it’s extremely shallow. The waves quickly deflect off the bottom and bounce back up in a choppy, unpredictable order when on a deep lake like Lake Superior, the swells are more dramatic and rhythmical. This is why the Bering Sea is such a hard place to fish, the waves literally bounce off the ocean floor and make life on a fishing boat uncomfortable when the weather turns for the worst.
Luckily the weather overall was better than it was worse, but when it did get bad I felt like I was a prisoner of the Bering Sea. With every swell I was knocked around in a different direction, unable to predict what movement was next with nowhere to escape. It wasn’t so much frightening as it left me feeling helpless and trapped. I am glad I took the voyage but I am also very pleased to be home. The Bering Sea is an unforgiven place. At one extreme its a treasure trove of natural riches but at the same time it is a place that leaves no margin for error. I left Amaknak Island, Dutch Harbor and the Bering Sea with a deep respect for the men and women who work there, and an even deeper appreciation to the scale and magnitude for the waters of this planet.
See ya on the water,
p.s. A big special thanks to Chris Scerri from the Canadian Outdoor Equipment Co. for hooking me up with Woolpower Thermal Wear for my trip to the Bering Sea. The socks, long johns, sweater and balaclava came in handy for the windy, cold days out at sea. The picture of myself down below is in my Woolpower Crewneck which is now my go to sweater.