Caribou hunting on the other side of the date line

On an island where the bald eagles nest
So distant that East turns to West
For days, just a few,
I chased caribou
And had a well-deserved rest.

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. I danced back from the brink of burnout in 2010, and, honoring a one-year non-compete clause, went for adventures working in out-of-the-way locations. After jobs in Alaska, New Zealand, Iowa, and Nebraska, I returned home and took a part-time position with a Community Health Center. I used vacation time to do two short assignments in Petersburg, Alaska. I left the Community Health Center this month because of a troubled Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system.
I went caribou hunting on Adak Island, the southernmost of the Aleutians, and both the most western and most eastern permanently inhabited place in the US.
Russian enslavement of the Native Aleuts in the 1700’s and the subsequent famine depopulated Adak. When, during WWII, the Japanese invaded Attu and Kiska, at the eastern end of the Aleutians, Adak remained uninhabited. The population peaked at 100,000 for the campaign against the Japanese. During the Cold War, the Navy stationed 6,000 on Adak, and in the 60’s, introduced caribou to the island as an emergency food supply. With no predators, only hunting keeps the population in check.
The Navy abandoned the base about 20 years ago, tore down a lot of buildings, rendered safe the chemical and other weapons, and turned the island over, wholesale, to the Aleuts.
Today, the year round population has stabilized at about 300. Two jets a week land on a first-class runway; the TSA workers come in and leave on the jet. The island has two general stores, a cell phone shop, a self-service gas station (price per gallon $6.81,about twice what it costs at home), a division of the US Fish and Wildlife service, a school system with 5 teachers for 30 students, a restaurant, a post office, and a clinic staffed by a PA.
But housing for 6000 remains. A week’s visit gave me a taste of the mood of living in a ghost town: large numbers of uninhabited buildings, and a few energetic lively folks enjoying an island lifestyle with lousy weather. Everyone knows everyone except the tourists. Conversation and courtesy come easily.
Hunting, fishing, and birding tourism remains the main industry. The Aleut Native Corporation hopes to bring in commercial fishing facilities to compete with Dutch Harbor, and, eventually, a container ship dock to deal with the Northwest Passage and Transpolar routes. They already have the infrastructure.
Rain falls 340 days a year on Adak, and winds in January can exceed 100 MPH. Stuff made by humans rots and rusts, and becomes one with the island. No trees grow on Adak, but eagles frequent the streams where the salmon spawn, and walrus raise their young on a deserted corner.
In the airport on the way back to Anchorage, our party of 6 (two of us doctors) comprised the majority of those in the waiting lounge. I struck up a conversation with a young man who hadn’t come in on our plane. I asked if he’d been hunting.
No, he hadn’t, he’d been fishing. Commercial fishing, for halibut. Three days before, one of the crew members had started having asthma problems. The boat came to port but the crew member died shortly after arriving at the clinic.
The young man wore a haunted look. I didn’t know what to say.
I didn’t reveal my occupation.


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