Clam Lagoon, with its abundance of bird life, is also a haven for harbor seals, here resting on a sand bar. Photo by Irene Owsley.
Stretched out atop the sand dunes and warmed by the August sunlight breaking through clouds, my friend Irene and I surveyed Clam Lagoon. Dozens of harbor seals were hauled out on a narrow curve of sandbar, flat on their bellies or in classic boat-shape, with heads and tails lifted in alertness. Through my binoculars, I studied one and then another, and then one making a slow wake through the water. I had never seen such variety in a group of seals—large and small, as round as boulders or as sleek as beans, and every color from near-white to black, solid and spotted and streaked. Their grunts and groans carried to us on the wind.
Of all the places we hiked and visited in our week on Adak Island—green hills waving cottongrass and bog orchids, cliffsides with views down at remote bays and up at volcanoes, creeks pulsing with pink salmon, waterfalls, sand beaches, musty military barracks—nothing captured us as much as the lagoon on the north end of the island, with its narrow outlet under a broken-down bridge on one end and a low, narrow isthmus across the way, separating it from the Bering Sea. Sea otters sought shelter in the lagoon, salmon schooled, eagles shrieked, a mother eider shepherded a tight flotilla of ducklings. When the tide was out, the mudflats coated with algae shone lime-green. A roadside interpretive sign informed us that the lagoon, which does not freeze over, is home in winter to thousands of geese and ducks.
Such a remote and wild place, and, yes, a visitor can drive right to and around it. On this Aleutian island slightly larger than the Hawaiian island of Molokai, a network of roads remains from military days.
About Adak Island
Adak, 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage, has had various occupancies over the years. Originally, Unangan (Aleut) people called the island home, but by 1830 Russian occupation ended their communities there. The island was declared a wildlife preserve in 1913 and later included in the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. At the start of World War II, its northern half was removed from refuge status to be used as a military base. A navy base continued to operate during the Cold War, with all the facilities of a small town—schools, swimming pool, theater, chapel, McDonald’s restaurant. The base closed in 1997, and most of its lands were transferred to the Aleut Native Corporation.
Today, only about 80 people live full-time on Adak, in the dense center of town. (This compares to 90,000 stationed during the peak in World War II and 6,000 during the Cold War.) Most community functions—city offices, community center, gym, post office, the school with a handful of students—are housed in the old high school building. Few of the thousand housing units are lived in, and the rest of what remains looks like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. The notorious Aleutian weather of wind and rain has torn the siding from buildings, ripped at roofs, and entered through broken windows to grow mold like green carpeting. Rusting vehicles with flattened tires rest in weed-strewn driveways. The lettering has been scoured from street signs.
The southern part of the island, meanwhile, transitioned to the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in 1980, with most of it placed in wilderness status. The lands are managed for the protection of fish and wildlife and their habitats, although recreational activities like hiking, camping, fishing, beachcombing, and bird and wildlife watching are encouraged. Hunting is also allowed, primarily aimed at the 3,000 or so introduced caribou. Many of the people we ran into on the island, however, were contractors still working to clean up military hazards. There are no roads on refuge land and ATVs are not allowed, so access can be challenging. As hikers, we only managed to reach into the refuge’s margins (and only saw a few caribou, at a distance.)
Wildlife on Adak
From the seven-mile-long road that circles Clam Lagoon, we watched salmon fighting their way into a tiny creek and sea otters lounging close to shore. Flocks of Lapland longspurs swept past us. We climbed over a berm to the open ocean, where the steep beach was piled with boulders and fishing debris washed in from the Bering Sea.
We walked one day from the lagoon’s outlet along the beach facing Kuluk Bay. The sand beach was strewn with Nature’s treasures—many-colored round stones, rock oyster shells, chunks of coral, and a perfect sand dollar. Beach rye, beach greens, and the sturdy plants with yellow “daisy” flowers, known locally as seashore sunflowers, grew against and over the dunes. Farther along, thick piles of kelp, with their fresh yeasty smell, tangled along tidelines. We watched three young gulls noisily pestering their parent, and then a group of tufted puffins floating amongst a larger, squalling flock of gulls.
Another time, we walked the outer beach in the other, rockier direction, to a cliff where young eagles were testing their wings. Four black oystercatchers—parents and their similar-sized but shorter-billed young—flew ahead of us, calling. Semipalmated plovers, with their black necklaces, ran along the shore. For a change, there was no wind, and the ocean lapped in with a lulling rhythm.
Adak’s future is undecided—challenged by the realities of weather, distance, economics, and politics. The leaders of the Aleut Corporation and the city of Adak long have imagined that the island’s location would prove to be a great asset for global shipping as well as a hub port for commercial fishing and processing. Although a small amount of fish processing is currently taking place, grander plans have yet to materialize.
Clam Lagoon, meanwhile, is recognized as a special place. Under the transfer agreement that placed its ownership with the Aleut Corporation, it is specifically designated as a marine mammal sanctuary. Birders consider it the island’s “hot spot.”
Take a trip to Adak
Alaska Airlines makes two flights a week to Adak, and most visitors—perhaps 400 a year—come for caribou hunting or birding. The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge has a small office, and the refuge research ship uses the port for switching out crews and the biologists who work at field camps in the Aleutians. If you visit, know that entering the private Aleut Corporation lands (off the road and trail system) requires a permit. The corporation and some individuals also rent housing and vehicles.