We’ve just returned from Adak, Alaska. It is perhaps the most fascinating and haunting place we’ve ever visited, a combination of decaying civilization and pristine wilderness. You wouldn’t think the two could co-exist, but they do, in Adak.
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. Adak’s base was slated for closure in 1995, and the Navy withdrew in 1997, vacating the campuses and complexes that had accumulated on the island over dozens of years. 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 practically 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.
Areas of the island are also 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).
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-covered mountains, active volcanoes, and long stretches of coastline. Adak is also a part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and rich in wildlife, especially birds. It’s home to approximately 300 bald eagles, and I think we may have seen every single one of them during our time there. We were constantly watching eagles as they flew, hunted, and roosted on their nests. We also saw them perched on abandoned structures, and the sight of an eagle sitting stoically on a ruined house was something to behold.
We have so much to tell you about Adak, but this opening post should highlight the contrast between the island’s two sides, one ruined, the other beautiful, because it’s this contrast that makes it such a fascinating and unique place.