A journalist, her father, and a quest for family history in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands – The Boston Globe

Back in 2009, when I was working as a travel editor, my boss’s mantra was that the best stories were always quests. What compelled a travel narrative forward was a longing for something — some place — that stirred the soul. I found myself fixated on the Aleutians, and, that year, my father and I set off on a journey to explore them. Incredibly difficult to reach and largely free of the trappings of tourism, I was captivated by their mystique. I haven’t been able to forget the trip since.

The Tustumena’s years are waning — Alaska’s governor announced plans in 2021 to spend $200 million to replace the vessel with a new ferry, which is set to be on the water in 2027. But with adventure travel on the rise, it’s the kind of far-flung trip that many are clamoring for in our pandemic-era times. As my father and I worked our way from Anchorage to Homer, and then onto Kodiak, we learned the Aleutians are the kind of place even Alaskans hope to visit one day.

But we already knew someone who had.

My grandfather had been stationed on the Aleutians during World War II, taking part in a little-known campaign sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten Battle.” It was largely forgotten in my family, too — I didn’t know much about my grandfather’s tour of duty there until I arrived at his wake. I set out with my father, another determined mustachioed fellow, to remember. We’d brought my grandfather’s ashes with us, and hoped the trip would help us better know a man who, with his gruff, distant demeanor, had mystified us throughout his life.

My grandfather was reticent when it came to talking about the Aleutians. He summed up his time in the service with a joke: As a member of the Army Air Forces, he was stationed in Alaska’s southwest islands . . . on a boat. The grainy photos of his time there depicted a remote, mysterious landscape far removed from his hometown of Queens, New York. After my grandfather’s death, my father and I learned that his Army paperwork had been lost in a fire, so we did what we could to piece together his time on the islands.

Linda Cook, who served as the superintendent of the Aleutian World War II historic sites for two decades, immediately recognized our longing when I called her in preparation for the trip.

“Most people came because they didn’t know something, or they were on the path to something,” she said. “There was a desperate desire for information. I think it’s that touchstone effect, the feeling of connection to where people were.”

It’s an intangible sense, she said, “almost like salmon swimming upstream.”

The M/V Tustumena sails into Kodiak.Alamy Stock Photo

The ferry’s passengers were an eclectic mix: locals taking advantage of the cheapest way to get out to the islands, a few sets of birders looking to add to their “life list” of the species they’d observed, a couple who’d driven their motorcycles cross-country, a Vermonter seeking to visit every county in the United States. On my first day on the boat, I met Harry Walsh, a 92-year-old World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of Attu after the Japanese had bombed and occupied two western islands in the Aleutian chain. Much like my own grandfather, he shrugged off questions about his time in the service, and just recalled how beautiful it was there.

It takes the Tustumena about three days to travel the over 800 nautical miles to Unalaska, where Dutch Harbor is located and my grandfather was stationed, before it turns around to retrace its path. But that’s just a glimpse of the Aleutians. The archipelago is made up of nearly 300 islands, thrust from the sea by grinding tectonic plates and volcanic activity. If superimposed on a map of the continental United States, they would stretch from Texas to California.

Historians believe the islands were a critical stepping stone that helped facilitate the earliest expansion of human populations into North America. For wildlife fans, it’s the Serengeti of the sea: between 40 million and 50 million seabirds nest here each summer. The salmon are exceptionally — almost frighteningly — big, and the surrounding waters are among the most bountiful in the world, and the hardest to fish.

A few hours after Kodiak’s coastline slipped away, we gathered for a meet-and-greet with Doug Stuart, an onboard guide from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Tall and barrel-chested, with a short white beard, Stuart explained that though they seem remote to us now, the Aleutians used to be the most densely populated area of Alaska. The native Aleuts, or Unangax, as they are now known, deftly hunted and fished the icy inlets, building kayaks from the sinew of seals and sea lions and navigating as far as 100 miles out into the open seas.

Eventually, the Unangax were overcome by the Russian promyshlenniki in the 1740s. These fur traders conscripted the native Alaskans into forced labor, decimating their population in the pursuit of sea otter pelts. During World War II, the Unangax population was further threatened when 881 native islanders were herded onto ships and sent to internment camps in mainland Alaska, a decision made by US authorities purportedly to shield them from the Japanese. Ten percent of the population died and nine villages were abandoned or destroyed.

The author’s grandfather, Nick Nanos, poses on the bow of a ship while stationed in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.From Janelle Nanos

Today, in Dutch Harbor, the last big town in the string of islands, the influence of the Russians can be seen in the green-domed Orthodox cathedral and the last names of its residents. Dutch, as it’s often called, is the largest fishing port by volume in the United States, and likely familiar to many through the reality show Deadliest Catch, which documents its fishermen as they wrestle crab from the frigid sea. It’s safe to say that at no point in history were the Aleutian Islands ever well suited for the weak.

Stuart segued into the islands’ World War II history, and my dad’s ears perked up. Many soldiers had no idea their Pacific tour would take them north, Stuart said, into freezing conditions for which they’d not trained. And despite the fact that tens of thousands of troops were stationed in the Aleutians from December 1941 to August 1943, the folks at home were told little about the campaign, a bid to ward off worry over the true proximity of the United States to potential attack. As Stuart spoke, I thought of my grandfather heading north to an unknown land. My father turned to me. Perhaps it was being told not to share his location, he reasoned, that my grandfather revealed so few of those details later in life.

The loudspeaker crackled and popped, and Stuart’s presentation was interrupted by an announcement from our captain: Whales had been spotted off the starboard deck. We walked outside just in time to see the tips of their fins slice through the deep gray water. The sun sets late in Alaska, but it lingers for hours. The pinks and yellows mingled on the horizon, creating a watercolor painting in real time.

Travelers aboard the Tustumena pause for a glimpse of the passing landscapes, whales, and sea birds.Janelle Nanos

“Attention passengers. Breakfast is now being served in the dining room.” The loudspeaker woke us on our first morning onboard, but I’d already decided to skip the meal. I’d heard that the best doughnuts in Alaska awaited us in Chignik, the first stop on the ferry route. The night before, the locals onboard mentioned the delicious fried dough was reason enough to make the trip.

We glided along the Shelikof Strait and passed Kak Island, then steered into Chignik Harbor, a small fishing town of about 80 people whose one claim to fame is it’s the birthplace of Benny Benson, who, as a 13-year-old orphan, won a contest to design the Alaska state flag. Many of Chignik’s residents rely on subsistence farming when the ferry’s not running: picking berries, digging clams, hunting caribou and moose, and, of course, fishing salmon. On this day, the entire town seemed to be waiting for us at the dock when we arrived. But it wasn’t to catch sight of the tourists — it was for what they called McTusty’s.

There are seven sparsely-populated stops along the ferry route, and few of them have restaurants. So when the Tustumena comes to town, it becomes a diner on water. Mark Listberger, the chief steward, planned accordingly, stocking a whole mess of burgers. He served them in takeaway boxes, and some locals walked away with a half-dozen. “A new record! One hundred and two burgers in 67 minutes!” he said after the day’s service.

Dad and I hiked along a bleached wood boardwalk on a mission for breakfast, and we didn’t see a soul. Finally, a mail carrier bounded up the road on an all-terrain vehicle (with boxes bungee-corded to the back of his ride labeled “fragile”). He eyed me warily as I asked him about the doughnuts, then explained that the woman who owns the shop wasn’t in town.

Our stomachs empty, Dad and I strolled in silence. I wondered if Listberger would save us a burger. Then we stumbled on a small flea market in a community center, and struck up a conversation with a woman selling traditional alajuks — Alaskan native fry bread — out of a shallow box.

The golden rounds of dough, still hot from the oven, were far more appealing than any doughnut, and the price was only 50 cents.

“This is where the bowling alley used to be.”

Our 16-passenger bus bounced through the tundra on Cold Bay — an island of 50 people where nearly everything is a remnant of when the Army stationed nearly 30,000 men on a base there during the war. Many of the barracks and buildings have since been torn down, save for a few Quonset huts that looked like ghosts on the landscape. Our guide, Val Urban, with the state Fish and Wildlife Department, pointed out a section of tundra that once housed a captain’s quarters and bowling lanes. “Do you think grandpa bowled here?” I asked Dad, and we laughed. Today, the landscape is stripped of human presence and has been subsumed into the 310,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which stretches out to the Bering Sea.

The tundra looks green from a distance. Sloping hills give way to a multitude of lakes — there are so many in the refuge that at least half don’t have names. But as you walk through, the tundra reveals its colors — the magentas of the fireweed, the brilliant violet of the lupin. It’s like peering up close at a pointillist work of art. Janet and Deb Klein, a mother-daughter duo of naturalists who worked at a wilderness lodge in Kachemak Bay, Alaska, started pointing out the different plants: goldenrod, yellow paintbrush, wild rhubarb, wormwood, and deep purple monkswood, which they told me contains a poison used by the Unangax to hunt for whales.

We climbed back on the bus and Urban gave us a tour of the town, which has a few relics from the military installations, including a small chapel, and the Bearfoot Inn. Within minutes of passing the inn, we happened upon its namesake, a 2-year-old brown bear cub fishing in a nearby creek. Cautiously, we climbed off the bus to get a closer look. We kept our distance; Urban was fairly certain the bear’s mother was nearby. The young bear loped up the hill, bobbled along the creek bed, then headed in the direction of the road. Lumbering across it, black paws flopping, the bear galloped ahead of our bus. Cameras clicked as though we were paparazzi. Finally, the bear disappeared over a hillside.

Nights on the Tustumena were still, despite the constant motion beneath us. On the second night, my father had already turned in, but I wasn’t sleepy and decided to explore. Since there were only so many cabins onboard, the shades were drawn in the viewing room, and sleeping bags wormed their way across the floor. Up on the roof deck, the hearty folks who brought tents huddled under the protected glass-enclosed solarium. The wind cut a sharp angle around the hull, and the hum of the ferry’s engine blew a steady tuba note into the distance.

Looking out onto the horizon, the inky black sky barely discernible from the sea, I thought of my grandfather out on the water.

Feeling rather alone, I found a seat at the Pitch and Roll, the Tustumena’s onboard taproom, once named one of Esquire’s best bars in the world, but now closed. Two weathered Alaskan natives sauntered in; one a pilot out of Dutch, the other a cattle rancher; between them there was a strong smell of cigarettes and musk. But their seemingly tough demeanor dissipated as they sat down and excitedly began describing the animals they had spotted. “Just saw a few whales and some porpoises,” they told Listberger, who was tending bar. No matter how familiar they were with this far-flung place, their sense of wonder still seemed new.

Listberger poured me a beer and we talked about how Alaska is different from the “concrete world,” as he called it. Life aboard the ship could be lonely, but offered a freedom that he couldn’t find anywhere else. I wondered what my grandfather felt when he was so far from home — isolation or freedom? “A fraction of people see this part of the world,” Listberger said, pointedly. “They don’t even know how to dream about Alaska.”

The next morning as we approached Unalaska, the Aleutian weather kicked up. It was raining, and a thick scarf of fog obscured the view off the bow of the ship. The williwaws — strong winds — whipped through our jackets, and the boat was rocking more than it had at any point along the trip.

As we pulled into the harbor, the small village came into view. The pastel-colored homes, painted shades of purple and yellow, looked like Easter eggs in the grass. Behind them stood the moss green peaks and frosted volcanic tip of Mount Ballyhoo, which was said to have been named by Jack London while he visited the island during the Klondike gold rush. I imagined my grandfather pulling into the harbor, looking around and wondering how long this frozen island would be his home. Dad and I looked at each other. We’d made it.

Bobbie Lekanoff, our local guide, met us at the dock, and we eagerly hopped into her van to escape the damp. As we drove past the mountain, I noticed it still bore scars from the war. Concrete pillboxes lined the roads, and I spotted ditches dug by soldiers stationed at Fort Mears, the main base on Unalaska, which was bombed by the Japanese on June 3 and 4, 1942. At the time of the bombing, nearly 10,000 troops were here; afterward, they ramped up their force to ward off further attack. Today, the Grand Aleutian hotel stands where the fort was located (866-581-3844, grandaleutian.com). We would be sleeping where my grandfather slept.

I looked around, trying to get my bearings, and imagined my grandfather hiking up these hills in his leather boots, wearing the thick, heavy coat with the fur collar, from his time in the war, that my father still has. I felt, in a way, as if I was hunting for ghosts, looking for footprints left behind, footprints my feet would somehow fit into.

The van bounded over the hills to the Church of the Holy Ascension (W. Broadway Avenue, Unalaska, 907-581-6404), a remnant of the Russian presence on Unalaska whose green, onion-shaped dome has become the icon of the island. There, Sharon Svarny-Livingston, a member of the local tribe working to preserve the island’s history, walked us through the building, which contains more than 700 icons and reliefs from 16th- to 18th-century Russia, including a gift from Catherine the Great. She explained that the Rev. Ioann Veniaminov, the canonized pastor who first began holding sermons in the local language in the 1820s and ‘30s, encouraged parishioners to learn to paint icons. “You can tell which ones were painted by Native artists,” she said. “Look for the saints depicted among the treeless landscapes, with volcanoes in the background.”

We hopped back in the van to visit the island’s two museums, stopping first at the Museum of the Aleutians (907-581-5150, aleutians.org), where we learned that explorers Vitrus Bering and Captain Cook had both set foot on Unalaska, the latter passing through on his quest for the Northwest Passage. Then we moved on to the Aleutian Islands World War II National Historic Area (nps.gov/aleu), built in 1943 to preserve the history of the campaign. (The museum is currently undergoing repairs.) I was giggling at clippings from the Army newspaper The Aleutian that reported the winner of the Harbor Honey beauty pageant (no swimsuit contest here, I think), when my father called me over. He had found a poem written in 1943 by Warrant Officer Boswell Booker, and read it to me.

A soldier stood by the pearly gate

His face was wan and old

He gently asked the man of fate

Admission to the fold

“What have you done?” Saint Peter asked

“To gain admission here?”

“I’ve been to the Aleutians, for nigh

unto a year.”

Then the gates swung open sharply

As Saint Peter tolled the bell

“Come in,” he said, “and take a harp,

you’ve had your share of hell.”

As my father finished, his voice wavered. “We’re getting closer,” I said, wrapping my arm around him.

The author’s father, Jim Nanos, poses in front of a pillbox bunker in Dutch Harbor, where his father was stationed during WWII.Janelle Nanos

That afternoon, after we checked into the Grand Aleutian, Lekanoff, the guide, stopped by with a box of books about the history of the war and offered to take us on a hike the following morning. Dad began pouring over the pages. In the months leading up to the trip, we’d pieced together more about my grandfather’s service, and learned that as a member of the 11th Air Force, his boat duties were more significant than he’d let on.

His role was to rescue downed pilots engaged in an offensive against the Japanese to reclaim two far-flung islands, Attu and Kiska, which were invaded and occupied — the only North American soil to be captured by the enemy in the entire war — in 1942. In the first six months of the campaign, the Air Force lost 72 planes. My grandfather had only 15 minutes to get to the fallen aircraft before the soldiers would freeze to death in the Bering Sea.

My dad looked at a map and realized that the PT boats my grandfather served on had been docked just outside our hotel. “I’ve learned more about my father’s tour of duty in the past three days than I knew throughout his life,” he said.

The next morning we set out on our hike with Lekanoff. She led us along an old footpath used by soldiers to set up communications stations on the mountain’s peaks. Small rivulets from the snowmelt, lined with brilliant green moss, had carved their way into the mountainside. Rhododendrons cascaded along the rock face toward the sea.

There are over 160 varieties of plant life specific to Unalaska, Lekanoff explained, but she was looking for just one: the Chukchi primrose, a tiny purple bloom that appears at the foot of melting snow patches. We walked along the path until she got bored, and began to wander up the hillside. “My family says, ‘Don’t follow Bobbie, she always takes the hard way,’” she joked. She pointed out the different flora. “It’s like a completely different ecosystem off the trail,” she said.

Finally, when we reached two shrinking snow patches on the side of the mountain, Lekanoff spotted her flower, or what was left of it. “It’s gone to seed,” she said, with slight disappointment. It was somehow fitting, as the thing we’d come to find on Unalaska was gone as well.

In truth, my father and I had more in mind for our trip than just retracing my grandfather’s military history. We knew that we may not find much actual evidence of his time here, but somehow, just walking along the roads he walked and sleeping where he slept felt like it was enough. And plus, we’d brought him with us.

And so when we decided it was time, my father, in true dad fashion, pulled out a Tupperware container with “Dad’s Ashes” written on it. We looked out at the water, and the landscape beyond us: the cold, bitter weather, the volcanic peaks, the dark seas whose whitecaps reminded me of the waves of white hair on my grandfather’s head. He could be rough at times, and he kept to himself, and he didn’t talk about the war. But in these conditions, it was somewhat easier to see why.

My dad opened the plastic container, and, in accordance with my grandfather’s wishes, we watched as the wind carried his ashes into the sea.

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.

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