Adventure, Part Three begins
It was time to put away the Yen and get the Dollars out as a temporary currency exchange went on in our room yesterday morning. We’ve come to view our adventure as a three (possibly four) part trip - Japan, crossing the Bering Sea and Alaska, with Vancouver feeling like a small bolt-on bonus. Since we’d not been ashore since Hakodate, our “going out kit” was still stuffed with things Japanese and it was time to refresh.
Any American part of a trip involves the initial encounter with US Immigration and yesterday was no different. We’d been advised that they’d begin work with face to face interviews at 7.30am, so we were up and at ‘em before it was really light, just in case we were amongst the first to be called. By sheer good fortune, we happened to be at the right place at the right time and our wait was minimal, though it was s-l-o-w with just two officers for a ship full of people. No Global Entry priorities, though as most of the ship would possibly benefit from that, there would probably have been no advantage.
(We smiled as we overheard the woman in front of us in the queue explain in great detail about her “Global Passport” to another couple, who appeared to be taking that misnomer literally and were hugely impressed!)
The view from our verandah was stunning, the weather looked pretty nice (though the forecast wasn’t good) and we were eager to get out and make the most of our time here, even though we knew that this was such a small place, there were no tours and not much here for visitors. After all, the Aleutian Islands don’t feature on many itineraries. Most were simply looking forward to being on dry land, to taking a walk in the fresh air and getting a change of scenery.
As our berth in Dutch Harbor was a couple of miles from the town of Unalaska, Regent had organised a shuttle - the only available vehicles in town being a couple of school buses. We’d planned to walk down into town but as we stepped off the ship and found two seats available on the “round trip” route, we climbed on board and were the naughty kids in the back seats for half an hour!
We were really glad we’d hopped on the bus, for local volunteer Jim was on board with maps, brochures and of course, his local “inside info”. We’d read about the Cathedral too and hearing that was to be the first stop we realised we’d done the right thing as soon as we looked at the map.
Although nowhere in Unalaska is very far as the crow….no, eagle!…flies, our ship was berthed on Amaknak Island and the cathedral was over on Unalaska Island and there was just the one bridge. To walk here would have been a bit more of a step than we’d bargained for.
Sadly, the Priest is on holiday right now and the Cathedral was closed to visitors. But standing in the churchyard gave us the first opportunity to observe the feature we’ll probably remember most about Unalaska.
If there’s a gable end, a spire, a fence post or anything vaguely perchable, then a bald eagle will undoubtedly be sitting there. See the two on the fence outside the courtroom? There was one on each of the domes of the cathedral too…and one on on the lampost….
After ten minutes there in the churchyard, we got back on the bus for the ride into town, getting off in what looked like the most central place to walk to the Museum of the Aleutians. When planning our trip, we’d read good things about this small museum and were keen to take a look. We’d already learned a few things from our onboard lectures - firstly, that “Aleutians” is a four syllable word and that it’s pronounced “alley-oot” and not as we had been saying, “Aloot”. We walked along the path by the side of the fishing paraphernalia, taking special note of those pesky eagles, just in case one of them decided to take off (they didn’t - phew!)
The museum proved to be everything we’d read about and more. Of course, it was a busy day for them as suddenly a crowd of visitors descended, but they’d got an army of volunteers at the ready and could not have been more welcoming.
You can imagine how I smiled when I saw the table with the stamp and pad there! As I opened my notebook and added to my collection, one of the volunteers came over and explained how this was a new idea - they’d seen how there were stamps like this in Japan and thought their visitors would like something similar. How lovely!
This small, state of the art museum had a wealth of really great exhibits to see and we could have spent all day there! Perhaps not best visited in the company of a couple of hundred fellow shipmates, but nonetheless, a fantastic resource for the town and a definite highlight of our day. In addition to the general historical exhibits, there were collections related to various aspects of Aleut life and it’s those which piqued my interest more than anything else.
A couple of things will remain in my memory. Living in a remote place breeds resourcefulness and creative people will find an outlet for their creativity for sure. So these small - tiny, thimble sized - baskets woven from grass immediately caught my eye. I wanted to know more about them, so asked Melia, the staff member to tell me what she knew.
These Aleut baskets are a long standing traditional craft in the islands. They’re woven over wooden formers, to keep them circular and created using local grasses, which can lead to variations in colour. The grasses themselves take much preparation - selection and careful trimming before drying and treating is all part of the skill, though some of the more modern baskets were made from raffia. Some have embroidery thread woven into them to create patterns (the coloured thread would have been obtained by trading), others have the motif “stitched” in afterwards. Most have well fitting lids with elaborately shaped knobs, some reflecting the Russian heritage/trading relationship.
This particular basket was singled out by Melia as the star exhibit. It could have taken over a year to make, she told me, and such examples are highly prized and are sold for five-figure sums to collectors. the museum has a large collection of these Aleut baskets and the thirty or so on show during our visit were sufficient to send me on a googlehunt to learn more. Here’s a little to be going on with.
The other theme I found fascinating here was that of the clothing tradition. The people of these islands were hunter-gatherers, mostly hunting sea-mammals from the kayaks they built (picture above) which were covered in the waterproof gutskins they used for their clothing as well. They sewed them together using needles made from bird bones, using fine threads twisted from to create waterproof seams.
The museum had some fine examples of decorative sewing as well.
What an amazing place!
As we left, I spotted a collection of painted stones at the foot of the museum sign. I wonder what future archaeologists will make of them?
We thought we’d take a short look around the town before heading back, finding the Alaska Ship Supply to be a pretty well-stocked place and a cross between B&Q and Sainsburys with all your food, fishing and home needs in one place!
We stopped by the Grand Aleutian Hotel for hot drinks and a chat with the ladies from the visitor centre before noting that the sun was still shining, the rain and held off and that we would enjoy the fresh air of a walk back to the ship.
There was a good pavement alongside the bay and though the traffic was noisy, it travelled slowly and the drivers were observant of pedestrians, so much that one lady stopped her car to say Hello!
On the way, we looked out for sea otters and spotted a couple, but neither were close enough to get a good picture. Hopefully we will have other opportunites in the coming days.
On the way back to the ship, we passed the other museum here, that of the military history of the Aleutian Islands. Interesting and important though that story is, we decided to pass this one by. Our heads were still filled with the experiences from the previous couple of hours and we were reluctant to overwrite any of those precious times.
Though the ship didn’t look so far away, we knew it wasn’t quite so straighforward. Those level crossing gates are not for any railway line, but for the airport runway and we had to walk around it to reach the other side.
Yes, of course I had to stop and take a photograph!
As we reached the harbour, the tug was just getting into place to assist this large container ship out into the bay. We stopped a while to watch as it made a gentle 360 degree turn and sail off with its cargo of fish.
We were home. Back in time for a quick catch up, an hour or so on our verandah in the glorious sunshine and the joys of Trivia and a snecklifter* in the bar before getting ready for dinner.
*the expression my Dad would used to describe the first drink of the evening, sneck being the word for a door latch.
As we sat watching a couple of small planes take off from the airport, I’ll leave you to imagine who the stars of the flying show were! (Aaargh!)
What a great day!
On to Kodiak Island next.