I rather feel as if our family has accomplished a true Alaska rite of passage by sailing the Aleutian Islands chain to Unalaska-Dutch Harbor. We’ve put in our miles around the state, to be sure, but it’s trips like the one we completed last week that truly cement my assertion that we are, truly, Alaska’s family travel juggernauts. Whether or not that statement is true, the fact remains that we purposefuly took our 10-year-old son to this rugged and remote area of the state – for vacation.
Two destinations, really, within reach of each other, and often mistaken for one swinging loop of the same land, Unalaska and the Port of Dutch Harbor are located nearly 1,000 miles from Anchorage, along the sweeping Aleutian Islands, a land known for wild weather and the Deadliest Catch, and honestly, to many people, not much beyond that. Could it sustain a family for a few days of interesting and kid-friendly activities, or would we find ourselves trolling the airport waiting for the next flight home?
Thankfully, the former was true, mostly due to exemplary planning efforts by a dedicated team at the Unalaska Port of Dutch Harbor Convention and Visitors Bureau. Often at a loss for everything from restaurants to attractions, visitors will find this is the place to begin any adventure in the Aleutians, no matter how you get there and who comes with you.
We arrived via the Alaska Marine Highway, a journey-destination combination that was the cornerstone of our trip, thanks to an impending manuscript deadline for Alaska on the Go: Exploring the Marine Highway System with children. The last among the four main Alaska Marine Highway routes, this Southwest excursion was full of unusual sights and sounds, and made our arrival after four days at sea more comfortable at once for the warm reception we received as we introduced ourselves to other passengers as “on vacation.”
Not a lot of families visit this area unless in the area for work or school-themed functions, and even then, it’s the rare occasion for free time to explore the diverse opportunities found on both Unalaska and Amaknak islands, the latter home to famous Port of Dutch Harbor, although boats in all shapes are sizes are simply everywhere. But when one digs around the area’s cultural and historical roots, it becomes clear that to skip the chance to visit this community would be a mistake: It’s absolutely fascinating, with a piece of Alaska’s soul right in the center.
WHERE TO BEGIN
Regardless of whether a ferry or aircraft drops you off in the Port of Dutch Harbor, you’ll need wheels to best explore the 38 miles of gravel and pavement between the two islands. We chose BC Rentals, located at the airport, and found their service and 4-wheel drive vehicles to be exactly what we needed for our two days of temporary residence.
Lodging is available in once place; the Grand Aleutian is an enormous hotel boasting two restaurants that serve kids, and one bar that does not. The hotel’s rooms are nicely configured, but it’s the dining that caught our attention. Excellent service and child-friendly selections in the Margaret Bay coffee shop, and a to-die-for Sunday brunch in the Chart Room fine dining room, still with plenty of options for appeasing a picky kid like ours. King crab, anyone? Bowls and bowls of king crab?
While many families don’t often consider guided tours, in Unalaska Dutch Harbor it’s almost a necessity for understanding more about the community, its people, and access to activities. Take a tour with Bobbie Lekanoff, owner of Extra Mile Tours, which perfectly sums up her ability to do it all. Lekanoff and her comfortable van transport visitors from one end of town to the other, and even over, if you have time. Narrating a nine thousand year history that includes kayaking Aleut People, WWII bombing raids, and traditional Russian Orthodox religion, Kenakoff provides an excellent framework for the rest of your visit. Build your itinerary based upon what piques your kids’ interest, and believe me, there will be much.
Aleut history is explained at the Museum of the Aleutians, located at 314 Salmon Way, just around the corner from the Grand Aleutian hotel. Here, a comprehensive and very interesting history of the first people to settle these grassy mountains and beachfronts. The chain of islands, by the way, is made up of 100 islands in a 1,250-mile range of windy, wet, and often volcanic area, so it’s no surprise that anyone living there had to know how to co-exist with land and sea. The Unangan People (Aleut) created thriving village sites and lasted well into the 1700’s, when otter hunts began to turn tides of tradition. When a World War II relocation of these same people occurred in the 1940’s it was but a blip on the news reel, but consequences were far-reaching. Spend some time at this museum, and encourage kids to investigate traditions and activities by youngsters their own age.
World War II is everywhere in Unalaska Dutch Harbor; in the hillsides as partially-buried bunkers, along city streets as discarded turrets, and above and below the surface of this grassy land. The impact of World War II is visible upon arrival, too, as the Aleutian World War II Visitor Center building shares nearly the same parking lot. A stop at this National Historic Area is helpful before visiting the near-ruins of the hillside bunkers and enormous Fort Schwatka, located on Ballyhoo Mountain above the port.
Hiking is hilly but generally accessible, and those with an interest in war history will want to explore the Fort Schwatka, Bunker Hill, and Memorial Park areas, all of which are suitable for most hikers above age 7. Do remind kids about safety rules for fort exploration: No running; don’t touch old pieces of metal, junk, and other flotsam and jetsom scattered throughout the area; and stay away from bunkers without an adult. Most of these concrete hide-holes, while fun, are perched pecariously on the edge of cliffs and require careful entrance. An interesting and quite wonderful side note: There are NO bears on Unalaska or Amaknak islands. Lots of birds, fox, ground squirrels, and eagles, but no bears.
After your outdoor excursions, stop by the community Aquatic Center, located across the street from the Community Center and Library, both great places to unwind a bit with kids who’ve been sightseeing a little too long.
WHAT TO BRING
You won’t be off base if you imagine rain and wind as common weather patterns along the Aleutian Islands chain. While temperatures are fairly moderate, at least by Alaska standards, rain and wind can make everyone miserable if not prepared. So, pack rain pants, rain coats, gloves, hats, and layers of fleece and non-cotton clothing to mitigate any weather-related misery. Add rubber boots for beach time, too. That completes your packing list. As is true with most of Alaska, no one cares what you’ll be wearing to dinner, but they will care if they see you in the emergency room with hypothermia. Dress appropriately.
Also bring binoculars, a camera, and map of the state. Try AAA Alaska for a great map that includes a section for the Aleutians.
Internet is spotty and expensive in this area of the world; the only free location for internet is at the public library.
Our two-day visit to Unalaska Dutch Harbor was full, indeed, and there’s more to tell. Stay tuned for part two of our “un-common experience,” including a feature article in the Alaska Dispatch News.