Far west in the Aleutians, a chain of 69 islands spanning 1,200 miles, lies Amchitka. Though this rock lacks erupting volcanoes, it is nevertheless renowned in Alaska’s history. For me and hundreds of others still alive today, it is a personal story, bonding people who lived and worked in an unforgettable place.
Millions of years ago, these islands were blanketed by giant meta-sequoia trees in a warmer, temperate environment. More recently, Steller’s sea cows (similar to manatees, but larger) were common in the area’s waters until hunted to extinction by Russian fur traders in the 1700s. Now, the islands are treeless tundra, with vegetation rarely exceeding a foot in height. Sea otters form the keystone for a bountiful marine environment, supporting resident Steller’s sea lions and harbor seals. This bounty of ocean-provided foods supported hundreds of Aleut people who resided there for thousands of years. A century of Russian occupation in the Aleutians had a devastating effect on both Aleut and sea otter numbers. All that remains of a once self-sustaining Aleut population on the island are the remnants of villages evident by semi-underground house pits, and a Russian Orthodox cemetery.
In 1913, Amchitka became part of the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Reservation, currently managed under the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge based in Homer. From that point on, the Aleutians and their wildlife had some legal protection, but that didn’t prevent more waves of human occupation. With the onset of World War II, portions of Amchitka, as well as several other islands, were set aside as military reservations. During the Battle of the Aleutians, the U.S. Army had up to 15,000 troops on Amchitka to operate a forward fighter/bomber base, striking the Japanese occupying Attu and Kiska. After the war, Amchitka was mostly abandoned, leaving some usable infrastructure—an air traffic control tower, hangers, runways, and an extensive road system, but also cities of wooden Quonset huts, Norway rats, and a lingering danger of unexploded ordnance.
Amchitka remained sparsely occupied until the 1960s, when the Atomic Energy Commission came to conduct three heavily protested underground nuclear tests. The largest, “Cannikin,” equal to five megatons of TNT, was detonated in 1971, now infamous as the largest underground nuclear test ever conducted in the United States. Left on the island were bronze plates marking “ground zero” of the detonations, and one left by Greenpeace paying tribute to the sea otters and other wildlife killed by the testing. Also left were more buildings, bunkers, and low levels of radionuclides that will persist for centuries.
The most recent occupation came in the late 1980s, when the U.S. Navy arrived to supervise construction of a relocatable over-the-horizon radar (ROTHR) system. This prototype scanned a 64-degree arc out to 1,600 nautical miles to monitor Soviet bomber and surface ship activities. I arrived on the island in June 1987 and stayed for almost two years as the resident assistant manager for the national wildlife refuge. My job was to minimize long-term environmental impacts during ROTHR construction, and to update an inventory of wildlife populations on Amchitka.
My memories as a biologist there are of a lush marine landscape teeming with fish and wildlife that thrived on the refuge these islands provided, forming the boundary between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. I got to live on a piece of land that was home to over 30 pairs of bald eagles, a dozen pairs of peregrine falcons, several breeding colonies of Steller sea lions, and thousands of sea otters and nesting seabirds. In the summer, the vegetation was lush with wildflowers, singing Lapland longspurs, and the less common but iconic snowy owls. As a bird watcher, I was in heaven, with most of the visiting birds coming from China and Russia. It was amazing to watch some wildlife adapt to the man-made buildings, such as gray-crowned rosy finches making nests in them.
My other memories are of all the people I got to know while there. More than 30 years later, I’m still in touch with over a dozen I lived with during radar construction. The ties that bind us are not only in friendship; we are also part of a government-funded medical screening and support program due to our potential exposure to low levels of radiation and other contaminants while working on the island. Membership is very exclusive, but it’s one club most people would prefer not to join. Yet the friendship bonds created were strong, living in a place so remote that Reeve Aleutian Airways only came every Wednesday, summer fog and winter storms permitting.
The radar system and facilities took two years to build and were decommissioned in 1993. Technology advanced, making this type of radar unnecessary, and the navy left the island. They did demolish the buildings, but the foundations and earthwork remain.
Few people visit Amchitka today, though researchers, contractors, and refuge biologists still venture to this historic place by boat or aircraft under permission of the refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to coordinate clean-up and monitoring of 75 contaminant sites on the island. These days, Amchitka is just another haven in a chain of remote sanctuaries for birds and marine mammals, but it will live forever in the memories of those who lived and worked there.