Vacationing on the Extreme   4 comments

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Topic: It’s the time of year for vacations (Holiday for our UK friends). Share your favorite vacation, your dream vacation or anything in between.

Hi, welcome to the blog. If you’re hopping over from Traci Wooden-Carlisle‘s blog, I’m sure she had a great story to tell. While you were there, did you check out her books? Thanks, Traci, for the introduction. If you’re joining midstream as it were, follow the link back to check out what she’s up to.

This week’s blog hop topic is dream vacations. I have all of the same dreams as anyone. I’d like to visit Switzerland, Iceland and Australia sometime, and take a cruise of the Caribbean. I want to drive east to west across the United States, both across the north and south and take time to savor the experience. I want to return to Hawaii, see the Big Island and Molakai, and return to Maui. I’d like to drive and hike the old logging areas of the Olympic Peninsula and visit Yosemite.

But the fact is … everybody has some version of those dream and I’m an Alaskan, so we already live an adventure. Most of the vacations we’ve enjoyed have been less than dreamlike during the actual event, but we remember parts of them with warm affection now, so they are all dream vacations in their own way.

A lifetime goal was finally filled last year when my son and I took the Alaska Marine Highway out the Aleutians. Lest you misunderstand me, AMHS is a ferry system that covers the south coastal area of Alaska, where there are no roads.

It’s a four day journey that carried us nearly 900 miles from Homer, where we embarked, to Unalaska, which is actually the start of the Aleutians.

The ferry Tustamena served as our transportation and campground as we took this journey, which our son (Kyle) says may be the safest camping he’s ever done. Normally we camp in the Alaska wilderness where we keep a gun tucked in the tent bag in case the wildlife attacks. While we saw seabirds, seals, whales and sea lions on our trip, we never once worried about a moose stomping the tent or a bear eating one of us while we were answering nature’s call.

Yes, we tent camped on the ferry. This is considered perfectly normal behavior on the week-long round trip as cabin space is limited and expensive. The Tustamena has showers, a lovely observation lounge where you can get in from the chill and food service … though we actually didn’t use that very often. We brought MRE’s (military-surplus meals-ready-to-eat) which use CO2 warmers. This novelty provided a great deal of entertainment for the tourists.

A part of the fun of the trip for Kyle was that he got to be the expert for the tourists who were also attempting to camp on the ferry. We are old hands at tent camping in high winds where rocky ground prevents staking the tent, so the Tustamena’s deck was not a problem for us. We know how to weight the corners with personal items and we brought along an air mattress (a luxury for us because the weight is not worth it when you’re hiking) to get us off the hard deck. Kyle spent a lot of time showing men twice his age (he was 15) how to “stake” their tents to the deck with duct tape. I’m sure they wondered why we didn’t do the same, but it was because we came prepared.

Although teenagers are great tent warmers, it was freaking cold outside the tent at night and one night the waves were up and we witnessed several of our fellow travelers break tent poles in the wind. For Kyle and I, it was all part of the fun. We brought winter sleeping bags and ours is a three-season wind-resistant tent. It was a luxury for us to roll out of the tent and be able to take hot showers, although the morning I had to take a dash through freezing rain to the shower, I wished we had a cabin. Nothing that a hot shower followed by some fresh coffee in the cantina didn’t cure. The kid even learned to appreciate coffee on this trip. Neither of us is prone to seasickness, though at one point on that stormy night I woke up thinking we were being sucked to the bottom of the deep blue sea.

We spent a day in Kodiak, because the ship stopped there for about eight hours, and we hiked with friends who live there. We then spent four days wandering the ship, taking photos of the passing landscape and talking to strangers about Alaska. We got off in Sand Point, Chignik and King Cove for short periods. I made a couple of new friends who I continue to converse with over Internet, and I learned a great deal about the King Cove to Cold Bay Road and why it essential this vehicle-capable trail be built.. The ocean trip was extremely relaxing, occasionally boring, but broken by periods of unique experience as seals swam alongside the ferry and whales breached no further away than our neighbor’s house in Fairbanks.

Neither of us knew what to expect of Unalaska or Amaknak (the island home to Dutch Harbor proper), but once we got there everywhere we went, we saw tangible reminders of Aleut history, Russian Orthodox culture and the tumultuous years of World War II, which opened door after door for reflection and education. We chose to stay overnight in Unalaska rather than continue with the AMHS for its turn-around, so we had time to explore.

The Unalaska/Port of Dutch Harbor Convention and Visitors Bureau has made a concerted effort in recent years to encourage extended exploration by visitors. Cruise ships have begun making ports of call. Originally settled centuries ago by the Aleut People who led a true subsistence lifestyle, the Aleutians are a harsh, beautiful land.  World War II shaped the future of Unalaska, at least in terms of infrastructure and topography. In 1940, the United States Navy appropriated Unalaska and Amaknak islands as a fortification against potential Japanese attack, which started June 3, 1942. While no actual battles were fought in the Dutch Harbor area, two days of bombing and an eventual presence of Japanese forces in Attu and Kiska at the western end of the chain kept up to 40,000 American soldiers, sailors and airmen stationed in Unalaska until the war ended. One of those sailors was my brother’s father, who was a photographer and so I had seen some black-and-white photos of his time stationed in the Aleutians.

The concrete and steel remnants of a world at war do not easily yield to time. Most of the gun turrets have been removed, but we saw evidence of them everywhere. Unlike sites of major battles or well-known commemorative memorials, little has been done to mitigate the eventual overgrowth of crowberry bushes, grasses and a variety of animal and bird life, which I found more affecting than what you see on the Mall in Washington DC.

The arrival of World War II meant the construction of roads, both in town and beyond, totaling 38 miles. Today, those same dirt roads lead to generally unmarked trails that, once explored, open a chapter of history that cannot be replicated in any classroom. It’s a fisherman’s paradise, but we had no way to preserve any fish we caught, so we didn’t fish.

Knowing we were going to want to hike, we had already secured a recreational land-use permit from the Ounalashka Corporation, land owners of nearly all of the Dutch Harbor area. It’s $6/individual or $10/family for day use. Corporation headquarters on Salmon Way also provides detailed hiking maps, berry-picking guidance and an excellent display of Aleut baskets, sculptures and art.

Trail options are plentiful even within the boundary of town, but we had limited time, so we hiked Bunker Hill on Amaknak, which was a wonderful place capture our first sense of the U.S. military’s attempt to establish itself as a protectorate. Accessed near the Small Boat Harbor, this old military road is closed to motorized vehicles, leaving a wide switchback trail that winds up and around the hill, past abandoned tunnels, bunkers and a concrete turret that overlooks town. Making our way back to town, we discovered a series of carefully dug trenches in geometric patterns, designed to prevent Japanese troops from advancing overland.

Mount Ballyhoo overlooked our journey each step of the way. Ballyhoo is the site of Fort Schwatka. Almost unseen by the casual observer, Fort Schwatka provided housing, medical care, offices, communications bunkers and a series of tunnels running back and forth through the hillsides. Like many military-themed hikes, Fort Schwatka feeds the imagination. Although this remote military installation provides proof of worldwide conflict in a different era, it’s also a reminder of the people stationed here — young, naive soldiers who may never have traveled before being dropped on this chilly northern equivalent of a desert island, watching and waiting for an enemy known for stealth and surprise. When the wind blows hard enough, whistling across the summit of Mount Ballyhoo, or clouds blow a misty breath across the open front of half-buried turrets, it’s easy to visualize and difficult to comprehend just what it must have been like when this was truly the end of the world.

Unalaska’s lush treeless hillsides begged us to hike the island’s steep, windy slopes. Most trails are old military access points. Others, like the Ugadaga Trail, are historical thoroughfares of the Aleut people. Camping is allowed in designated areas, provided a land-use permit has been obtained. A map of the area, provided by the Ounalashka Corporation, is a must, as many trailheads are only vaguely marked.

We only had the one day and night, so we didn’t bother to sleep since it was mostly daylight and we knew we could sleep on the ferry when we got back on), so our last hike in Unalaska was the Ugadaga Trail. Plunging 800 feet toward the opposite shoreline, this is a 1.5-mile hike tackled by families. It only took about two hours and the sun was nice enough to come out and make us hot as we hiked.

We saw fox, ground squirrels, nesting eagles, rock ptarmigan and so many types of wildflowers that I lost track. We also encountered a lot of wet, slippery conditions and other hikers who were alarmed that they couldn’t get cell phone or Internet in many parts of Unalaska. We had locked our electronics in the trunk of the car in Homer so were not really concerned with the loss of connectivity. We brought MREs, water and layers of warm, weatherproof clothing. We also stopped for breakfast at Amelia’s.

The best part of this trip was that Kyle and I spent an entire week together, enjoying each other’s company. We played a lot of cribbage and took some great photos, met some interesting people and got to see a part of Alaska that even most Alaskans never see. Brad (husband) and Brianne (daughter) were unable to join us for this journey, so we will probably go back, at least to Kodiak, but I’m also curious to explore King Cove and Cold Bay. This is not a trip for everyone. It pays to have experience in shoulder season camping and stomachs not easily upset by rolling waves, but it is definitely something that’s been on my life list since I was in college and the State first opened the route there.

So now that you’ve been way off the beaten track with me, you should go on and see Stephany Tullis‘s vacation stories and perhaps take some time to check out her inspirational books.

4 responses to “Vacationing on the Extreme

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  1. Great post. I’ve done the Caribbean cruise, but not all the others!


  2. Beautiful pictures. Spending time together is important and I’m glad you got that with each other.


    • It is a cool teenager who will give up his electronics for a week to spend time with Mom freezing to death in a tent on a bucking ferry in the Gulf of Alaska. I owe him big time for it. He actually says it ranks up there with nearly dying with Dad in the Alaska Range. The kid is an Alaskan, after all, and we’re all a little crazy.


  3. Fabulous! You’ve made me want to visit Alaska even more now.


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