Dutch Harbor

March 16, 2015
Sikuliaq Ice Trials

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Unalaska on approach

Picked a good day to fly into Dutch Harbor — in that I made it, in that I made it before the ship. No flights cancelled! Staying at the Grand Aleutian tonight, in case anyone’s in the area and wants to play cribbage. The ship should arrive tomorrow, delayed by weather. Word from one scientist already aboard for the trip down from Seward says I’m lucky to be flying, and not cruising down the old-fashioned way. “The seas are a little lumpy.”

It’s the Gulf of Alaska. Been there — and the seas do tend to get a little lumpy between one port and another, one bay and another.

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View of Dutch Harbor mouth from a WWII gun emplacement.

Dutch Harbor, Unalaska. I’ve been here just once before, six year ago. I know this because they’re still selling that conference’s tote bags at the local museum. The landscape is vaguely prehistoric. Parts remind me of interior Alaska tundra and other parts remind me of the Isle of Skye. Due north, but still far out of sight, are the Pribilof Islands. They are comparatively pastoral. Wouldn’t mind seeing those again if our 5-year, I mean 3-week, shakedown-exploration takes us that way. There’s a cruise plan but I’ve yet to read it. Plans change quickly, anyway, once you’re underway, and if I’ve learned one other thing aboard ship, it’s there’s always waiting somewhere, sometime. Then it’s all madness and up-all-hours and you learn again how to do everything with one hand because the other one is always hanging on to something, a handrail, a shower rail, a —whoops, that wasn’t tied down — flail. The expression: “One hand for yourself, one for the ship.”

We’ll cover going up and down stairs on a lumpy ocean later. For now, I know we’ve got some speed tests ahead of us, and were going to run nets and CTD, and I know we’re going to hit some sea ice (at speed?) and cut our way through it, because that’s what this boat is designed for. We’re going to head north and find us some seasonal pack ice. We’re going to look for mammals and we’re going to pull stuff off the bottom, look for fish, collect and look at plankton, and pull in slushy seawater through the sea-chests like we’re a dozen science missions running at once. Eat while we can. Sleep while we can. Take pictures and hang on to the boat.

At the moment, I find it amusing that I’m carrying four cameras into Dutch Harbor and the heaviest of them is probably my phone. Love traveling light, if a little empty-handed for a almost-sunny day in Unalaska. In case you’re wondering, the other three cameras happen to be a GoPro, a Powershot, and a microscope. The big glass and the 35mm video backs are already aboard the ship — and making really good use of fresh pluck-foam as they comfortably (hopefully) ride the lumpy seas.

So, the chance beautiful afternoon’s flight, landing, and coastal wander on Unalaska is brought to you from this far corner of the earth — by a mobile phone. Days like this are a treat in this part of the world, days when it’s only pretending to rain and you can go a whole 30 seconds before getting water on the lens! The first time I sailed out into the grey waters of coastal Alaska I was shooting Ektachrome and Tmax in the Gulf. Good excuse to be on deck in the open air. But the black and white probably had as much going for it as the color film. The camera (just one) survived some pretty good rock and roll seas. The second time out in coastal AK I shot video to tape while hanging onto the gunwales of a 14-foot open boat hunting seals in the Beaufort. It was raining then too, but the water was calm as a puddle in the pack ice. This time round I’m (so far) shooting “dozens of megapixels” panoramic images with a camera the size of a few nickels. Take that prehistoric Aleutian Island landscape. Respect! And the ship? I’m glad something got a little bigger in the last 20 years. Though I’m hearing she likes to roll about a bit in the water too, just like her predecessor. Looking forward to seeing her again once she gets into port tomorrow.

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Roger Topp in Unalaska

Written by Roger Topp

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