Adak, Alaska: Eagles amongst the ruins

Adak, Alaska

We’ve just returned from Adak, Alaska, a place that is equal parts rotting civilization and pristine wilderness.  You wouldn’t think the two could co-exist, but they do, in Adak, as evidenced by the the 300 or so bald eagles that call the island home.  Not only did we see them soaring high in the air and gliding near the water’s surface, but they also perched on the eaves of  decaying buildings and rusted street signs.  It was both beautiful and jarring.

Adak, Alaska
A collapsed home or barracks, complete with bunkbed frames

Adak is an island in the Aleutian Archipelago and also the northwestern-most municipality in the United States.  A little over 75 years ago, it was uninhabited; then, during World War II, the Japanese invaded the nearby islands of Attu and Kiska, and the U.S. military turned Adak into the base of operations for the Aleutian Campaign, amassing 90,000 troops on the island for the battle to expel foreign invaders from American soil.

After World War II, the U.S. Navy maintained a base in this remote location for another five decades, one of several centers in Alaska that kept an eye on the Russians during the Cold War era.  Then, when the Cold War ended, military bases in places such as Adak were no longer necessary.  Naval Air Facility Adak was slated for closure in 1995, and the Navy withdrew in 1997, vacating the campuses and complexes that had accumulated on the island.  These buildings varied widely in their functions, from homes and administrative offices to a rec center that housed a movie theater and bowling alley.

Much of the property was deeded to the City of Adak and to the Aleut Native Corporation, and a few of the buildings are still in use.  But when the Navy left, the population dropped from thousands to hundreds overnight, and most of the buildings have not been maintained.  They still exist, however, in varying states of decomposition, picked apart by vandals and by the fierce Bering Sea storms that, as a matter of course, hit the Aleutians regularly.  The remnants of this former civilization are everywhere, and we quickly became accustomed to coming upon piles of debris that were once houses or barracks or playgrounds.

Some areas of the island are off-limits, either because of buried materials (landfill or toxic substances such as asbestos) or because live ordinance is still scattered about.  Twenty years after the base closure, in a restricted area known as Parcel 4, the Navy continues ongoing “active munitions remediation work” (i.e., the removal and destruction of things that blow up).

Adak, Alaska
The sign on which this eagle sits proclaims, “Excavation within this area below 2 feet requires Navy approval.”  We saw similar signs everywhere

And yet Adak also has a singular beauty that is characteristic of the Aleutian Islands.  There are no trees except for the ones planted by American troops; instead, Adak consists of vast, grass-covered tundra, snow-topped mountains, volcanoes, and long stretches of coastline.  It’s also a part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and rich in wildlife, especially birds, and we watched dozens of eagles as they flew, hunted, and roosted on their nests.  And they treated the military ruins as just another place to perch.

Adak, Alaska
An eagle drying its wings after a heavy rain

The sight of an eagle posing stoically atop a rusted container highlighted Adak’s incongruity.

Adak, Alaska

More posts on Adak to come!