How to survive a week on one of the most remote islands on Earth
Located nearly 1500km east of Anchorage in Alaska, the Aleutian Island of Nikolski is incredibly remote yet it’s also home to the longest continually inhabited community on the planet. The island chain separates the North Pacific from the notoriously rough Bering Sea, – the Deadliest Catch TV show is shot in the area – and weather inland can be equally atrocious. Why would anyone want to venture out to this island of extremes? As surfers Alex Gray and Anthony Walsh discovered, the place is a big hotspot for adventure and culture. Here’s the best way to spend a week on the island.
Nikolski’s landing strip is made of gravel and it ends near the ocean. Combined with the area’s extreme and often unpredictable weather, airplane takeoffs and landings, which are often delayed for hours or even days at a time, are something of an adventure in themselves. The island is only served by charter flights and each passenger and their luggage must be weighed before each departure in order to spread the weight and manage fuel for the small planes. Hold on and say a little prayer.
The best way to get around in Nikolski, which is about 50km long and has no paved roads, is on an all terrain vehicle. There’s a vast trail system connecting beaches and mountains to the town, but it’s often incredibly muddy. Chances are you’re going to get stuck in the mud, so always travel in groups of two or more – keep a tow-rope handy, too.
Nikolski’s most definitive landmark is the conical, snow-capped volcano Mount Cleveland which towers 2,150m above the surrounding sea. Its base is located about 30km from the village. With more than a vertical mile in elevation gain, the glaciated giant presents a worthy challenge for mountaineers. What’s infinitely more fun than slogging up a big steep snowy hill? Skiing down it, that’s what. Plan and pack accordingly.
Nikolski has a population of 17 people, most of whom are native Aleuts. While several of the island’s inhabitants work at the distant Dutch Harbor, spending weeks or even months away at a time, many remain on the island and and split their time between home, the community centre, and hangouts such as The Boat House.
The Aleuts no longer maintain the meat-only diets that were adapted over thousands of years of evolution, but they still uphold time-honoured traditions of hunting and fishing. They rely largely on the land and sea for sustenance, so make friends with them and ask if you can watch one of their hunts.
Or, if you’ve got enough money to burn, you can go hunting yourself. In the early 1900s, several reindeer – also known as caribou in other cultures – were imported to Nikolski to be hunted for sport. Since then, the herd has grown to more than 7,500. People travel to the island from all over the world for the chance to take home a trophy rack – and its lean, all-natural, protein-rich meat. Hunting permits don’t come cheap, but all proceeds are injected straight back into the island’s indigenous community.
A lot of natural beaches around the world lack freshwater sources, so campers must haul in heavy jugs of the stuff for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. Nikolski, thanks to plenty of annual rainfall, is home to countless freshwater lakes – many of them butting right up to the beach, making them the perfect place to camp.
First dibs doesn’t matter much when you’re the only surfers around—for a thousand miles in any direction—and you’ve come to name a wave. The seas surrounding the Aleutian Islands are probably best known for their resource-rich waters, where commercial fishermen exploit an abundance of giant crab—but the same violent storms which plague the world’s most dangerous enterprise create massive breaks just offshore: producing perfect overhead barrels for anyone willing to brave the sub-arctic swell.
The Aleutian Islands are located on a part of the world where cold Arctic fronts clash with warm fronts coming up from the south. As a result, weather on the islands and in the surrounding seas is notoriously volatile. Fierce gales carry away anything that isn’t anchored down. Torrential rains become needle-like, multi-directional projectiles that sting any exposed skin while soaking through even the best waterproof clothing. The island’s chilly elements take no mercy, leaving even the most prepared to suffer through weather-induced misery. Every once in a while though, the rain stops, the winds die, and the clouds break, letting the most magnificent light shine through. Make sure to be outside when they do – don’t miss one of those rare, magnificent sunsets over the sea.