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10 July, 2003

A Day in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, Alaska

Landing at the Dutch Harbor Airport can be compared to the last 45 seconds of a good roller coaster ride. You just come screaming down from your highest point and begin to level off then suddenly you come to an absolute and complete stop to end your ride. The landing strip is barely large enough to accommodate jet aircraft and they even have to close part of an island road when planes arrive or depart. So reverse thrust and brakes seem to begin before you touchdown.

Even more interesting is the experience for the passengers seated on the left side of the aircraft, as I was, who are treated to more of the roller coaster thrill. Coming out of the clouds the plane banks sharply left and out of nowhere a rock wall appears just beyond the wing tip. Landing gear down, 1634-foot tall Mt. Ballyhoo to your left, Unalaska Bay a few yards to your right and rear and Dutch Harbor, Iliuliuk Bay directly ahead and you think you could barely land a model plane here much less an airliner. The experience surpasses many of my theme park ride thrills. But this is only one of many of the islands unique and surprising charms.

Referred to as "The Undiscovered Alaska" Unalaska/Dutch Harbor boasts an unimaginable "gold mine" of notable attributes. From historical treasures to natural jewels it is easy to see why the native population is so protective of the area.

Located in the midst of the world's richest commercial fishing grounds seafood is the economic king here. Fishing trawlers, crab pots, nets and seafood companies line the harbor and shoreline areas.

The island also supports a vast amount of historical treasures dating back thousands of years. While visiting the local museum I was invited to parcticipate in an archaeological excavation on the island. The site dates back more than 2000 years and several interesting finds have already been discovered amongst the ancient structures and midden mounds. On the island you will also find the oldest Russian Orthodox parish in North America, Holy Ascension Cathedral and several Russian influenced relics.

The Aleutian Islands also played an important strategic role in the Pacific during World War II. War relics and remnants of what is locally known as "The Forgotten War" are visible throughout the island. On June 4, 1942 the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base was attacked by Japanese bombers and fighter planes killing forty-three and wounding dozens more. A few days later other islands were attacked and the islands of Kiska and Attu were attacked and occupied by Japanese forces. Decaying concrete bunkers and gun pillboxes, old barracks and trenches are common sites here.

Most striking to me is the landscape and wildlife that I have seen on the island. The comfortable climate of 50-60 degrees F has allowed me to explore various sites in this paradise region. Some of the most notable characteristics are the emerald green slopes jutting out of the green waters, misty snow covered mountains, cobble and black sand beaches and the surprising patchwork of colorful wildflowers everywhere. All of these natural wonders have created a variety of ideal habitats for an abundance of wildlife.

One of the most common wildlife sightings has been the bald eagle. There are literally hundreds of them around. I have also been treated to numerous sightings of puffins, various ducks and shorebirds, a variety of sea creatures including starfish, sea urchins, salmon, mollusks, crab, sea anemones and even a five-foot squid that washed ashore.

The breathtaking beauty of the area is awesome and truly brings to heart the importance of the research I will be involved in. This region contains an abundant and diverse, yet complex and fragile, natural community all of which are dependent on the quality of the surrounding water understanding its complexities can aid in its protection.

1. A bald eagle

2. Emerald green slopes and cobble beaches

3. Five-foot squid that washed ashore

4. Trawler and crab pots

5. Russian Orthodox Church

6. WW II Pillbox

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