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Aleutian run: Island-hopping on an Alaskan ferry

Aleutian run: Island-hopping on an Alaskan ferry
Credit: Mike Coppock for USA TODAY
Tustumena docked in downtown Kodiak.

The first time I sailed Alaska’s ocean-going ferry Tustumena on its Aleutian run, I met a prospector. He said his name was Tommy. In his 60s, he had driven his pickup from Mississippi to Homer. There he paid $1,000 to have him and his vehicle brought to this remote spot on Popof Island 300 miles west of Kodiak.

He was oblivious to the horizontal rain pelting his cragged face as he described in his musical Southern drawl the equipment he had lowered down a cliff to the beach. He was setting up a sluice box. These islands are known for their gold, he said. After all, one of Alaska’s richest gold mines was the Apollo on neighboring Unga Island. He was confident by the end of summer he would be a wealthy man.

My fellow travelers on the ferry were equally fascinating. Onboard were wealthy birdwatchers, two men with diving suits planning to mine gold underwater, cannery workers, an Orthodox priest and his children and fellow Alaska explorers like myself. After all, this was a voyage to the very edge of the continent.

From the port of Homer, the Aleutians stretch out over a thousand miles toward Asia like a strand of emeralds set in a steely gray sea with their snow-capped volcanoes and the blue and green domes of quaint Russian Orthodox churches.

One of the first ports of call is the hundred-mile-long Kodiak Island. Far more diverse that people realize, it is not just home to the continent’s largest bear, but cattle ranches, one of America’s largest fishing fleets, and scientists involved in the Alaska aerospace program. Those getting off the ferry will find that here in Alaska's oldest European settlement English, Alutiiq, Russian, Tagalog, Spanish and Aleut can be heard in its stores.

The white and green-trimmed Russian Orthodox Resurrection Cathedral dominates downtown. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church operates Monk’s Rock Coffeehouse and Bookstore with its eclectic array of gifts and snacks. Native Alutiiq dancers perform downtown in the summer.

This diversity is enhanced the more you explore. If you voyage here in autumn and dine at Henry’s Great Alaskan downtown, you rub elbows with fly fishermen, goat hunters, duck hunters, caribou hunters and deer hunters (hunting seasons here overlap). Or go into the tasting room of the Kodiak Island Brewery where surfers, rock climbers, kayakers and hikers gather around picnic tables downing beers while discussing their adventures.

Kodiak’s diversity is also underscored by the fact it is the pilgrimage site for members of the Eastern Orthodox faith who come here to visit the grave of St. Herman.

The graceful Alutiiq Museum displays Native harpoons, masks, dolls and stone tools and the nearby Baranov Museum, dating from 1806 when it was a fur warehouse, has artifacts documenting Kodiak’s Russian era.

Kodiak has a number of excellent coffeehouses. For the best view try Harborside Fly-By on Mill Bay Road to watch float planes take off and land on Lilly Lake.

Two events not to be missed are the Kodiak Crab Festival held in late May with parades, rides, crab legs and the blessing of the 800-vessel fishing fleet. The Kodiak Rodeo and State Fair is held on Labor Day with competing cowboys from ranches across the island.

From Kodiak, the Tusty, as locals affectionately call the Tustumena, sails west along a migratory whale route. Onboard is a mix of crabbers, fishermen, cannery workers, locals and adventurers. Many birders come to see rare life-list species only spotted in these waters.  

The next day the ferry picks its way through a maze of emerald islands called the Shumagins. The main settlement is Sand Point on Popof Island, where I found Tommy. The island is home to 120 bison. After several days at sea, steaks and salads are a welcome change at the Harbor Café along the waterfront. The Cut R Loose coffeehouse has sweets. The small port has a motel, a general store and a bed-and-breakfast for those staying and catching a ride when the Tusty sails back.

Unga Island is across a narrow strait from Sand Point. Unga is home to two ghost towns, the remains of one of Alaska’s largest gold mines, the Apollo, several other small gold and silver mines, a petrified forest, and wild cattle. The mummies of Aleut whalers have been found in its caves.

After Sand Point, the Tusty docks at several small isolated ports blessed with dramatic backdrops seemingly painted by nature.

A real gem is Akutan, at the base of an active volcano. There’s a very good museum on Akutan’s whaling days, a grocery store, two churches (Orthodox and Catholic), a gym, a bar and a restaurant, as well as a small hotel.

The voyage ends at Dutch Harbor, port for the small city of Unalaska. Made famous by the reality show Deadliest Catch, there are pillbox fortifications everywhere from when the military was going to make a stand against the Japanese invasion of North America. An arch bridge connects “Dutch” with Unalaska. This is America’s No. 1 fishing port and you’ll spot busy crews preparing their vessels. The magnificent Grand Aleutian Hotel is legendary for its mammoth Wednesday seafood buffet. The Museum of the Aleutians houses exhibits of prehistoric creatures found in the area, Aleut life, Russian fur trappers, when it was a gold rush port and from World War II. Near the museum is the 1825 Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Ascension.

You can fly back from Unalaska, or take the Tusty as it returns to Homer. With binoculars in hand, I stood on the Tusty’s deck as it passed Priest Rock, a pinnacle thrusting up from the sea at the mouth of the harbor, ready to view what I may have missed during this voyage to the edge of the map.