How to survive a week on one of the most remote islands on earth
Located 900 miles east of Anchorage - almost halfway to Russia - 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 Bering Sea - some of the world’s roughest waters (Discovery’s Deadliest Catch takes place 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 mecca for adventure and culture - and waves were only the start. Here’s the best way to spend a week on the island.
Nikolski’s landing strip is made of gravel and it ends nearly in 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; each passenger and their luggage must be carefully weighed before each departure in order to safely manage fuel - and airstrip encounters - for the small planes. Hold on and say a little prayer - it’s always coming in hot.
The best way to get around in Nikolski, which is more than 30 miles long and has no paved roads, is on an ATV, which can be rented from the local outfitter Aleutian Adventures. Though there is a vast trail system connecting beaches and mountains to the town, the trail is often incredibly muddy: up to a foot and a half deep in places. Chances are you’re gonna get stuck in the mud, so always travel in groups of two or more; keep a tow-rope handy as well.
Nikolski’s most definitive landmark is Mount Cleveland, a conical, snow-capped volcano, which towers 5,675 ft above the surrounding sea. Its base is located about 20 miles 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. Plan and pack accordingly.
Nikolski boasts a population of 17 people, most of whom are native Aleuts. While several of the island’s inhabitants work out of the distant Dutch Harbor (of Deadliest Catch fame), spending weeks or even months away at a time, many remain on the island - working locally, and splitting time between home, the community center and hangouts such as “The Boat House.”
While the Aleuts no longer maintain meat-only diets (which were adapted over thousands of years of evolution,) they still uphold time-honored traditions of hunting and fishing - relying largely on the land and sea for sustenance. Make good enough friends; and maybe you can go watch a hunt.
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 strong. 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. At $12,000 a tag, hunting permits don’t come cheap, but all of those 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 vital liquid for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. Nikolski, thanks to plenty of annual rainfall, is home to countless permanent freshwater lakes - many of them butting right up to the beach, making them the perfect place to camp. What’s the best part of camping on the beach if you’re a surfer? First dibs on dawn patrol.
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 Earth where cold arctic fronts clash with warm fronts coming up from the south; as such, weather on the islands and in the surrounding seas is notoriously volatile. Fierce gales have a tendency to blow up with regularity, carrying 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-breathable jackets. The island’s sub-arctic elements take no mercy, leaving even the most prepared to suffer through weather-induced misery. Every once in awhile though, the rain stops, the winds die and the clouds break: letting the most magnificent light shines through. Make sure to be outside when they do; don’t miss one of those rare, magnificent sunsets over the sea.