Aleutians, Kamchatka, Kuriles, Japan
Few Americans have been taken by helicopter to a picnic in Siberia. Here is how it happened
to Shaw and me.
Shaw and Manly,
Shaw and I reached Anchorage, Alaska, about 4:00 P.M. local time (7:00 Chicago time) on
Tuesday, August 25, 1992. Our cab driver had a breathing mask dangling from his rear view
for times when the wind raised the volcanic ash that still lined the streets after the eruption of
Spur a week before. The air was not clear over any great distance because of the blowing ash
though it had rained that morning. The ash was a very fine powder, gray when dry and nearly
Wednesday morning we flew to Dutch Harbor. The airport is on an island in the bay named
Dutch Harbor on the Island of Unalaska -- one of the easternmost of the Aleutians. After
how to get to the Aurora I (which we saw from the airplane windows as we few in) I was
introduced to David, the ship's Cruise Director, who was apparently waiting at the airport for new
arrivals but not looking for them. He persuaded a local cab driver to take us to a restaurant where
the other participants in the Grand North Pacific Expedition of the Harvard Alumni Association
the American Museum of Natural History were having lunch. Then the driver took our bags to
ship, where we found them in our cabin later.
After lunch the entire group (about 80) were taken in a series of six vans on a tour of
Unalaska. As Shaw remarked, the island is much like Scotland; it was about the same latitude but
warmed and dampened by the Japanese Current rather than the Gulf Stream. Unalaska has a busy
dockyard and a fish processing plant. Although the sun shone a little when we arrived, most of
afternoon was occupied by a misty drizzle. We saw an old Russian church that is still in use by
of the local Aleuts, having been rebuilt a couple of times since its founding.
When the Tour Director (a young woman from New Hampshire named Margo Maller)
ascertained that we had been kept out of the way of the ship's crew long enough for them to clean
up after the departure of those who took only the first half of the entire cruise -- from Prince
to Dutch Harbor -- we were driven to the dock at which the Aurora I was tied up. This is
probably the most luxurious ship I've been on: she holds about 80 passengers; most of the
including ours, are about 15' X 13' X 7' and the bathrooms 13' X 7' X 7' (with Crabtree & Evelyn
soap and terrycloth robes); there is a television monitor in each stateroom on which one can play
videotapes (available from the ship's library) or watch lectures if one chooses not to go to the
auditorium or sometimes read the news that is sent to the ship via satellite; and there is room in
dining salon for all the passengers to eat at a single seating. She left Dutch Harbor a little after
P.M., about an hour after Shaw and I went to bed.
We awoke Thursday morning at Unmak Island in calm water after passing through some
choppy water during the night. The sky was black at 7:30 because the Anchorage time zone
too far west. After a good breakfast we attended a briefing, in skit form, on how to make a wet
landing in a Zodiac inflated boat. The 80 +/- passengers were divided into four groups -- Auklets,
Bald Eagles, Cormorants and Dolphins. Shaw and I were Bald Eagles. Each passenger also has a
numbered landing tag: Shaw was 45 and I was 44. When one's group is called the members go to
the reception area and each turns a disk on a bulletin board full of numbered disks so that his or
number faces the wall. On returning one re-turns the disk so that his number becomes visible.
and I were paged once after we returned because, instead of turning my own disk right side
I turned Shaw's (which she had correctly turned) to the wall.
At 9:30 we were taken by Zodiac to a black sand beach in Inanaduk Bay. The sea seemed
absolutely calm, but nevertheless there was enough surf so that when I got out a wave promptly
my boots. The temperature was about 50 F. and misty, so walking was pleasant and kept our feet
warm enough. The beach was about half a mile long, all black, as were the dunes behind. Coarse
grass covered the dunes; a small-leaved beach vine covered most of the sand between the high
mark and the grass. Many dead round jellyfish ranged in size from six inches to one foot in
Although there were no trees on the island, there was a lot of driftwood, including enough tree
to create a logjam a few rods from the outlet of a small stream. A lot of dead kelp was also on
beach, and in one heap of it Shaw found and retrieved one of those pretty glass globes, slightly
than a tennis ball, that Japanese fishermen use or used as floats for their nets. The mist that
the morning was gradually turning into rain.
Back on the ship for lunch, we were later offered the opportunity to go ashore at Nikolsky
Bay to see an ancient archaeological site and a modern native village, but Shaw and I took naps
instead. I learned to dry my boots with a hair dryer.
On Friday, at Atka Island, Shaw and others went ashore and walked through the tundra and
saw a native settlement, bald eagles and puffins. Tea aboard ship at 4:00 included a dozen or so
Aleuts, two of whom told us something about their lives. The skies cleared as the ship left the
On Saturday, the first landing, at Tanaga Island, on rocks and gravel, did not please Shaw
even though she saw some bald eagles and sea otters. Just before lunch we saw a few sperm
at a distance of about a mile. After lunch we both went ashore on Kanaga Island to a black sand
beach where there had been hot springs and to which all were invited to being bathing suits to
in the Bering sea at the point where the hot fresh water mixed with the cold salt water. But the
springs had dried up; the air was 50 F. and the water 40 F. The beach was about a mile long and
stream at the south end contained a great many salmon; those near the sea were a little over a foot
long and those 100 yards upstream were 3 to 4 feet long. Plants included Alaska cotton, angelica,
a sort of sunflower and lupine. Some of the party encountered an arctic fox, guarding its den with
a noise we could all hear that sounded like a cross between a gull cry and a seal bark. On the
when I returned from exploring the stream, the staff had set up a table with hot mulled wine
in foam cups. That made the afternoon much better.
The sea was rough enough on Sunday morning so that we finessed the scheduled stop at
Segula Island because the captain did not care for the high sea, lack of visibility and uncertain
anchorage. After lunch we landed on Kiska Island at the right hand end of a 1/2 mile long black
beach. Above us towered rocky cliffs, on top of one of which posed a bald eagle, waiting for
someone to engrave its image on a coin. The remains of various wartime structures and
were weathering into oblivion, including a wooden pier on pilings that extended 100 yards into
bay, a short plank road running parallel to the beach, a concrete pill box, and several
items of rusty iron, one of which might have been a boiler. A number of trenches are now serving
as canals, draining the tundra of excess water. As they a partly covered by plants, it is wise to
one's step, especially where they are 10 feet deep. Near the cliffs that border the beach are the
remains of cargo ships, one at either end. On the way back to Aurora I the Zodiacs
slowly by one of them. We could see what appeared to be artillery holes in the superstructure.
pits, as from machine gun bullets, in the cliff behind. On a hillside is a Shinto shrine.
The ship arrived at Attu, the westernmost of the Aleutians on Monday at breakfast time.
Shaw and others went ashore and visited the Coast Guard station. She reported that when a man
served a year's duty here he automatically gets the right to name his next station. Some of the
passengers were taken around by truck, and in getting out of the truck the one doctor on the ship
broke his ankle. At first he thought it sprained, but at Petropavlovsk it was Xrayed and found to
broken and was put in a walking cast.
Tuesday, September 1, was spent entirely at sea which was very rough -- number 6 on the
Beaufort Scale -- with a strong breeze (21-26 knots). Every evening there was given to the
passengers a schedule of the next day's events. This evening we were given a remarkable
for Wednesday, September 2. It included physical examinations in the gym at 4:30 A.M. followed
by vodka shots and then interrogation by the KGB followed by more vodka shots and so on. We
were also given the schedule of events for Thursday, September 3, which included making landfall
at or near Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia.
Having crossed the International Date Line, we arrived in Russian Bay near Petropavlovsk
during Thursday breakfast. The purser gave us back our passports with Russian visas on separate
sheets of paper so that we could present them to the Russian soldiers to examine as we started
the latter to the Zodiacs. On shore we met our Russian guides and walked along the beach
for helicopters. One guide showed us some bear tracks; I think she said that the small garrison
buried fish (or perhaps fish remains) in the sand and the bears dig them up.
The group was divided into two sections, one of which was first taken to the City of
Petropavlovsk. Our section waited until the helicopters returned and took us to a lovely spot near
a field of grass on the bank of a beautiful river. Landing in a patch of wild roses (the flowers were
gone but the hips were profuse) we walked fifty yards to where a long table was set up beneath
trees that were not quite birch and not quite aspen (as we know them). The food included good
beer in 1/2 litre bottles, a stew of salmon (including bones, skin and fins), with potatoes and
bread with salmon caviar, bread with cream cheese and fresh dill, smoked salmon, large hearty
cookies, fresh strawberries, apples, tomatoes and cucumbers and good local candy. Fishing rods
available at the river and I caught a good sized tree. I did see a fish that was not interested in my
The initial plan to swim in a thermally heated lake was abandoned because of fog and weather
Back in the helicopters, we were taken to a couple of volcanoes north of Petropavlovsk. One
was a nearly perfect cone with many patches of snow; we flew around it quite closely so that at
point the entire view from the windows (some of which could be and were opened by the
was of nothing but the volcano. Looking down I saw a patch of snow with a hole about the size
shape of a helicopter; I kept this information to myself until after we got back to the Aurora
Next we flew over a volcano that had erupted last December. It was still hot, giving off many
of steam and sulfurous fumes.
Thence we were flown to Petropavlovsk where we were taken by bus, first to the Museum
of Ethnography, and then to the Museum of Volcanology. Shaw and I skipped a program about
volcanoes in the latter and went for a brief walk in a nearby park. The only other users of the
were small children just learning to walk with their parents. Shaw struck up a brief friendship
one little boy and his mother.
Again we were taken by bus to a local souvenir shop where the one clerk would never have
gotten around to us even if there were anything we wanted to buy. So Shaw and I walked across
street to the jewelry store which was well staffed and not crowded. There we spent 750 of the
rubles we got on the ship for seven dollars on a green stone necklace for Luigi. Maybe it's jadeite
maybe it's not. Neither we nor the clerks could understand each other except by the use of
numbers and pleasant smiles.
Because of the soldiers at Russian Bay, we were able to spend the day in dry shoes without
wearing boots for landing via Zodiac. They helped pull the boats far enough up onto the beach so
that we could get out onto the dry sand rather than walking through water a few inches deep.
they helped on the return trip by providing the power to push the boats off the beach when
high enough to keep our feet dry as we boarded.
Friday morning the sea was rough during breakfast as we passed through the strait between
the south end of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the northernmost of the Kuril Islands. Shaw sat
to George Hitchings, a nobel prize winner from Chapel Hill, who tried to interest her in the
Research Park area of North Carolina, but failed. A full gale was blowing at lunchtime. The ship
anchored for a few hours in the lee of Araito Ta, a volcanic island shaped like a large Hershey's
but we did not go ashore because of the wind. A couple of parties went out in Zodiacs to look
not touch. We were underway again before dinner. Saturday also involved a rough sea and a
to go ashore, this time at Ushishir Island. The lee side of the island would have been smoother,
because of a Russian military installation we were not allowed there.
We reached Iturup Island in the southern Kurils late in the morning of Sunday, September 6.
Several cargo ships were in Kurilsk harbor -- the first we'd seen since Petropavlovsk. Several oil
storage tanks are on shore. We were told that 30,000 - 40,000 Russian troops are stationed here.
After an early lunch the passengers went ashore for a landing on mostly dry sand via Zodiac.
salmon were jumping in the area near the mouth of a stream and as much as 100 yards seaward.
passengers were divided into two groups of about 40 each, and our group was taken by bus to a
large (for this area) concrete building that proved to be the local art school. We were treated to a
couple of welcoming speeches and a performance by four 14-year-old girls and a 12-year-old boy
singing Russian folk songs to an accordion. The art school also teaches music and other artistic
Next, we were driven over a very bumpy dirt road to a combined fish hatchery and fish
processing plant built on the stream mentioned above. We walked through a long shed with tanks
about 15' square in two rows on each side of the walkway. Here the salmon roe, stripped from
female fish, will be mixed with the milt from the male fish when fish processing starts September
The roe will then hatch into fry that will be raised to fingerlings and then put into the stream next
June. Crossing the stream is a set of gates that keep the salmon from swimming farther upstream
matter how hard they bang their heads against the iron bars. On September 20 people will open
gates and let the salmon swim all the way upstream into the processing plant.
The Ethnographic Museum of Kurilsk resembled the like museum in Petropavlovsk, but
smaller. Soon Shaw and I wandered outside where we encountered an English speaking woman
named Nadya who teaches English at the local school and comes from the same village on
Island as did Chekhov. In time Shaw encountered a drunk Russian man who wanted to buy her
a bottle of vodka, but the bottle was not full.
Back on the beach I saw a pair of nets stretched across the stream and a boat between the
nets. It turned out that the net were joined at the bottom and salmon swam up around the far end
the lower net, were blocked by the upper net, and were herded into the near end by the men in the
boat, who raised the bottom of the combined net as they approached a small tower. When the
were herded into a small enough area a large net bucket was lowered into the mass of fish,
filled, and then hoisted by a rope (the other end of which was tied to a tractor) to the top of the
tower. From there they were dumped into a chute that led to a waiting dump truck.
At cocktail time the four girls who had performed for us plus a few local officials came aboard
and stayed for dinner. Shaw persuaded one of the girls to play the piano in the ship's lounge. She
played a wonderful jazz piece with a magnificent beat. Then the four of them sang more expected
material while she played.
On Monday the Aurora I anchored off the island of Shitokan to be cleared to leave
Russian waters and where the travel agency had obtained permission for us to land. The local
commander, however, said "nyet" to the landing because of alleged military exercises being held
This ended our island hopping through the Aleutians and Kurils. Being volcanic, both sets
of islands look much like each other to the casual observer, with the exceptions that the former
patches of snow on the hill tops but no trees and the latter have trees but no snow in early
Both groups differ from Polynesian volcanic islands by having black sand; the corals that produce
white sand don't grow that far north.
The ship tied up to a wharf in Kushiro on the Japanese island of Hokkaido just before
breakfast on Tuesday, and we were taken by bus to the Ainu country. The Ainu were the
inhabitants of Japan, and were driven north when the ancestors of the Japanese moved to the
and started growing crops. The Hairy Ainu are racially distinct from the Japanese and
lived by hunting (especially bear hunting), fishing and gathering. There are only 100 or 200 pure
blooded Ainu left, but their legends linger on and inspire tourism, especially among the Japanese.
After a very good lunch at the New Akan Hotel on the edge of the beautiful Lake Akan in a
we went to a performance of Ainu dancing and singing in a theater built to resemble a
Ainu lodge -- undressed wood construction with thatched roof. After another beautiful lake in
another beautiful crater we were taken to an active volcano with sulfurous steam emerging from
several vents. The area nearest the vents was stained yellow and the ground farther away was
At the entrance to several vents were stacked metal crates full of eggs. At a tent nearby you
buy sulphur-steamed eggs to eat and thereby improve your longevity.
The members of the group were lined up into three lines for group pictures; all who chose
were permitted to put their cameras in a heap and then Margo, the Tour Director, or David, the
Cruise Director, took a picture of the entire group with each camera. After we re-boarded the
there were two or three announcements requesting those who had put their cameras in the pile to
check that the cameras they'd retrieved were their own.
We disembarked about 9:30 Wednesday morning, flew to Tokyo, were taken to see the
Imperial Palace Gardens and a temple and then to the ANA Hotel at Narita, near the airport.
Thursday morning Shaw and I took the hotel's shuttle bus to the Narita railroad station and
about for a couple of hours and then returned to the hotel in time for a good Japanese lunch and
shuttle bus to the airport. I told Shaw to spend the rest of our Yen on chocolate, then found that
needed to change $40 to pay a departure tax.
Our plane left at 5:30 P.M. on Thursday, September 10, and after nine or ten hours in the air,
including a few hours of darkness, we reached Chicago at 2:30 P.M. the same day. After we
the man in the seat in front of Shaw introduced himself to us and others as Jim Clinton. Shaw
considered him just another gregarious southerner, not noticing his strong resemblance to Bill
Clinton, the Democratic candidate for President.