Adak: Whales en route to a modern ghost town

Saturday, September 07, 2013
Adak, Alaska, United States
Amazingly we awoke from our fun night at the Bearfoot Bar (/Hotel/Liquor Store/Restaurant/Grocery) feeling great. We knew we didn't have too long to fly today and the weather was pretty decent for the area (read: broken clounds at a few thousand feet) so we weren’t in too big a hurry to leave.  Plus, we had to wait until 11am for the Bearfoot Grocery to open.  

In the meantime, finding someone at Frosty Fuels to bother to pick up their phone and show up to refuel us made the time go quickly .  Not an easy task in this sleepy a town.  If we’d only know who we’d be dealing with, we probably met them the previous night at the bar anyway.The Bearfoot Grocery continued to surprise us.  It was just so odd to such a large collection of food and supplies in a town that has no roads connecting it to the rest of Alaska.  Everything has to be shipped or flown in.  It’s no wonder it wasn’t the cheapest grocery store, but that they had selection at all was surprising.  We also paid the liquor store a visit wanting a 6-pack of Alaskan beer for our night on Attu.  This camping trip idea was getting better and better.  

In one of the many conversations we had last night, we spoke with a pilot from the small airline serving Cold Bay (Penn Air).  This guy, although young, was a true "typical" Alaskan pilot.  He was telling us stories about how low they fly and the risks they take, even with passengers aboard.  Just that day they ended up fogged in on an approach in a bay and had to make a steep turn to get out of there .  A lay of the land is essential.  Still, he wet our appetite that flying low and VFR was the way to go.  Many other people the night before had told us about the beauty and history of the volcanic archipelago so we were pretty captivated by the idea of checking it out.  We decided if the weather would permit, we’d see what they were talking about.  Fortunately, from all we could research, this was going to be one of those exceptionally rare days that allowed for VFR flying all the way to our destination: the modern day ghost town of Adak.

We hadn’t flown VFR or without a flight plan since the coast of California, and to do so along the Aleutians over the cold water of the Pacific and Bering Sea wasn’t exactly typical for me.  But then again, neither was the weather.  And when would I find myself again with the opportunity to fly these islands.  So off we went.

It was amazing.  The volcanoes jut out so abruptly from the shore .  (Later, we heard from other pilots in our group in Adak, that some active ones we saw would occasionally blow out puffs from the crater).  It’s a pretty barren countryside.  Towns were hard to come by.  We did though see some of the airports and approaches the pilot from the night before was talking about, and our respect for his skills rose.  He had also told us about 30 or so whales he’d seen that day, so we were keeping an eye out for them too.  Low and behold, we saw them after about an hour!  We made a couple passes to get a closer look.  It was so great to see so many, and see them spout water as they came to the surface.  Even still, at the 1000’ – 1500’ above the water in which were flying, the pictures just don’t do it justice.

The cloud bottoms were getting progressively lower as we neared Adak.  Still, we were confident that we’d have no problem staying comfortably VFR.  We’d been studying the approach into the airport and watching and re-watching videos about how to fly it .  We were on the lookout for various points along the way that we thought we’d have difficultly finding.  Surprisingly, given the great weather we didn’t have much problem at all.  Of particular interest, aside of course from the runways themselves which so far on the trip had sometimes proven a bit harder to find than anticipated, was a giant rock jutting out on the approach course.  We had that one comfortably spotted from miles away.

The winds were strong and the surrounding area hilly, but we decided to make the necessary pass in the pattern and land into the wind.  This put us over the desolate town of Adak and we saw first hand how expansive it was.  To think almost all the buildings were vacant and only 300 or so people lived in this sprawling complex was quite bizarre.  Johannes put Maggie down perfectly and we taxied in the strong winds passed the abandoned control tower to where we saw a couple other planes of the group parked.  It was ridiculously windy as tied Maggie down and unpacked

Next thing we knew up rolled a Suburban driven by the Swiss guys in the Pilatus to pick us up.  We were also only about 15 minutes ahead of our friends, the Brüning family, in the King Air.  We went from being isolated to needing two trips to get everyone to the “hotel”.  The “hotel” in Adak is run by the “real estate company” and they serve up entire old homes instead of hotel rooms.  We were set up in town homes, which was quite a bizarre concept.  We were staying in what the home of a military family.  It was a bit odd.  All around us were vacant homes.  The real estate company said the town homes were selling for all of $15,000 - $20,000, and that for the entire two to four units.  Crazy.

There was one general store and a restaurant near us that served as “reception” for the “hotel”.  It was so weird to see an old Navy basketball court converted into a general store, the abandoned telephone booths, the playground toys littered about .  And that was only in the one building.  As soon as you walked around – which we did after dinner in order to go to a bar about a half-mile away – you just walked along deserted streets.  It was like out of a Stephen King novel.  Occasionally you’d see what looked like a functioning car so could assume someone was inside a particular building or home, but for the most part it was all just left behind. 

It was fun to see others in the group and exchange a few more ideas.  We ran by our thoughts on how we were going to tackle the upcoming days and they were met with reluctant approval.  Contrary to what these turboprops had to fly, we wanted to fly low.  This would keep us away from the dreaded typical strong jet streams and keep us below icing levels.  The last thing we needed was to pick up ice climbing to a high altitude and not able to lose it in the sub-zero temperatures.  That’d slow us down and make a tricky situation even hairier.  Everyone thought we were crazy by even taking this on, but in considering the winds and the freezing levels with concerns for icing, folks agreed that flying low was the best way to go .

It’s difficult to accurately describe my mix of emotions.  On the one hand the next day and the day after were going to be the culmination of months of thought, lots of preparation, and to see if my distress was warranted.  We would be flying in unforgiving territory and pushing the endurance limits of the plane if we battled too strong headwinds or ice.  On the other hand, it was important to concentrate on the present.  It was so interesting to be in such a unique place.  I mean, who goes to Adak, Alaska?!  We were on the last civilian populated island in the US.  We’d come all the way up from the southern tip of Alaska and were near the end of the archipelago.  In doing so we’d again traversed the same width of the continental 48 States.  It was cold, windy, desolate, and extremely intriguing. 

There were so many questions and uncertainties.  I was very anxious, to say the least.  But the weather was great.  Dietmar and Veronika, the South African couple flying the Silver Eagle, took a head start and were already camping that night on Attu before flying onward to Vladivostok to refuel .  The group-leading Cheyenne was going to make the flight to Japan the following day – a day earlier than planned – because the weather and winds were forecast as favorable.  The Cheyenne group had flown to Attu already today to do the ferry flight, so we had fuel waiting for us on that deserted island.  All signs pointed to this being the perfect time for us to be here, and that tomorrow would be the perfect day to continue westward.

What a crazy day.  Leaving the Bearfoot Inn.  Seeing Whales.  Flying low and with good visibility in what is almost always a foggy & misty devil’s kitchen.  Enjoying dinner with some of the others to trade stories.  And Adak!  Such a unique place.  We decided that if possible we’d go exploring tomorrow before leaving for Attu.  Although Attu was tops on our mind, Adak was too interesting to pass up without digging a little deeper.
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