Sweeping through more than a thousand miles of Bering Straits and Pacific Ocean waters on Alaska’s western edge can be found the Aleutian Islands archipelago. Towards the outermost tip of this chain of 100 or so remote islands is Amaknak – the island which is home to the port of Dutch Harbor.
This is a land of great natural and dramatic beauty; in summer wild flowers such as wild orchids, iris and lupins carpet great swathes of land in purples, blues and pinks while in winter all is a blanket of snow and the swirling fogs hide the volcanic peaks from view.
Like many Alaskan destinations Dutch Harbor has a rich history. The city of Unalaska (on an island of the same name of which Dutch Harbor is a part) has been the ancestral home of the Unangax for thousands of years. Later on Russian fur traders and the country’s most prosperous fishing industry arrive into the tale. The story also includes a three year chapter of WWII bombings and battles which almost unbelievably is so little known outside of Alaska it is referred to as the ‘Forgotten War’. Everywhere you go here you will find remnants and relics of that past – from pillboxes to bunkers and gun mounts to ruined forts.
In a part of the world in which storms can churn the ocean into a fury, the value of the deep protected waters of the natural harbor here was first recognized and utilized by the native people thousands of years ago. Today – as the only deep-water port in the entire Aleutian archipelago – Dutch Harbor sees the arrival of many ships from a diversity of countries and has long been the most lucrative fishing port in the whole US. In fact its huge king crab industry is the reason why many might feel familiar with Dutch Harbor long before they set foot on its soil. The ‘Deadliest Catch’ – a highly popular Discovery Channel series which screens the dramatic and dangerous daily lives of crab boat crews – showcases Dutch Harbor fishermen who relax in the bars around town after bringing in their catches.
Dutch Harbor and Unalaska – today joined by a bridge – make for a destination both stunningly lovely and fascinating. Whether you are interested in native culture, wildlife, World War II history or simply want to feast on fresh seafood and spend time in a decidedly different remote corner of the world, a day spent here is going to be filled with adventure and interest.
Everything is within easy (and usually walkable) distance of everything else and if you don’t want to expend any energy there are several tours which will take care of ferrying you between all the major points of interest. The following itinerary includes all of the town’s must-see sights but it is worth mentioning that you may have to juggle things around a little depending on the time of year you visit as this affects attraction opening hours.
A Morning in Dutch Harbor
Your Dutch Harbor day is going to be filled with exploring this area’s fascinating past. In order for you to get the most out of that experience it helps to have some overall insight and the Museum of the Aleutians offers a wonderful and absorbing introduction in this way. Afterward you can immerse yourself in some stunning scenery and enjoy encounters with the area’s plentiful marine wildlife on a boat cruise.
Museum of the Aleutians
While elsewhere in the world small towns are not typically where you would head to experience highly regarded and cutting-edge museums things are a little different in Alaska. Many small Alaska communities can boast excellent museums housing incredibly significant collections and Dutch Harbor is one of them. Curated to a high professional standard, the impressive Museum of the Aleutians traces a time-line of the native Aleut people – also referred to as Unangan or Unangax in the plural – from its many thousands-of-years-old roots to the present day.
Through exploring the museum’s displays, exhibits both permanent and temporary and many artifacts recovered from a multitude of archaeological digs, found in the near vicinity and wider Aleutian region, visitors will learn a great deal about the rich cultural heritage of its native people. Your entire journey of discovery will cover many thousands of years, taking in along the way the subsistence life of ancient humans, the exploitations of the Russia-governed era and the town’s beloved cathedral from that period, the World War II years and the lives of modern day Aleut in this remote corner of the world.
For the earliest Aleut, surviving in this often harsh and extreme environment involved a highly developed understanding and intimate relationship with the land and ocean. It was also necessary to devise excessively creative ways to utilize what could be found to provide food, clothing and shelter. Skin boats and the kayak – which you will see examples of at the museum – allowed them to get out onto the water to hunt seals, whales and otter. Such animals were not simply a source of meat but provided all kinds of essentials – very little of a slaughtered carcass went to waste. The furs and skins were used for clothing and shelter in myriad ways while other parts of the animal provided specific needs. One example of this is a waterproof garment known as a kamleika which was made from sea-lion intestine stitched together using sinew as thread and needles made from bone. Such garments which were highly flexible when wet along with many other kind of clothing types can be seen at the museum.
Some of the museum’s most precious artifacts are those recovered from Aleutian Island coastal archaeological sites – thought to be some of the most ancient ever unearthed in North America. Items within these collections include such gems as bowls made of whale bone, weapon heads made from obsidian and tools ornately carved from bone.
In its quest to remain as a leading expert in the field of all-things-Aleut the museum is also home to researchers and works in close partnership with local professionals in the fields of anthropology, linguistics, art and science. In doing so the museum ensures it offers the most authentic and in-depth experience of native Unangan culture and heritage to its visitors which in short makes for an unmissable experience.
Morning Coffee Break in Dutch Harbor
After exploring the town’s museum you have time for a pause and refreshment break before getting out on the water. If the weather is fine you might want to just grab yourself a cappuccino or espresso from the Alaska Ship Supply store – two minutes walk from the museum – and find somewhere to sit, relax and take in the scenery. This store is the community’s supplier of everything from marine hardware to groceries but it also has an espresso counter serving decent coffee.
If you’d prefer a cafe environment a ten minute walk from the museum will bring you to Island Grind which serves coffee of the espresso variety as well as smoothies and some home-made cakes.
Also within a very short walking distance is Amelia’s Restaurant which serves as breakfast, lunch, dinner and coffee venue. This charming space inside a wooden single storey building has been on the Dutch Harbor scene for many years now and is popular with both tourists and locals.
Cruising the Bay by Boat Tour or Kayak
Refreshed by your coffee break it is time to see for yourself some of the incredible scenery and wildlife of this remote corner of the world.
Unalaska and Dutch Harbor are surrounded by mile upon mile of pristine and naturally stunning marine and island environments where the only inhabitants are a wealth of fascinating wildlife species. Getting on a boat to explore the hidden coves, empty bays, waterfalls and wide open waters will not only give you a sense of how isolated these islands are but also shower you with endless views of their natural magnificence. On a clear day your panoramic views will also take in the active Makushin Volcano which last erupted in 1995.
While tours vary in their length, where they head and the kind of watercraft you travel in the highlight of all such boat trip tends to be the plentiful wildlife and the kind of encounters which are of the extreme close-up kind. This area of the planet has an intensely healthy marine ecosystem filled with kelp forests, soft corals and sponges inhabited by a vast diversity of fish species and aquatic invertebrates; with so much food to hand marine mammals also thrive here in the kind of densities seen in few other places in the world. Many of these come very close to land including porpoises and humpback whales.
All of this means your boat journey is almost guaranteed to involve spotting wildlife. You may find yourself within feet of bald eagle nests or cruising past seals lounging on the rocks or rafts of otters drifting amid the kelp, working at opening shells for the feast within. Besides the eagles bird-life is plentiful; some of the most fascinating species to watch are the puffin and aucklets which both dive and use their wings to propel themselves extremely quickly underwater in pursuit of fish.
Longer tours head out to the stellar sea-lion protection areas where in summer you can watch pups at play or witness the incredible spectacle of a humpback whale breaching before slamming back into the water in a cascade of ocean spray. Orca and sperm whale are also a frequent sight in deeper waters at certain times of the year
For those who like to get a little more active there is also the opportunity to explore by kayak, either with a self-rental or led by guided tour. Unalaska Island is full of protected bays or calm harbor waters so this isn’t just an option for the adventurous. Although you won’t cover as much ground as you would on board a boat with an engine you have the added advantage that your progress is practically silent. This means the very high possibility of some incredible wildlife encounters with everything from porpoise to otter. Seals and sea-lions are especially inquisitive in the water and often swim around and under kayakers to see what they are up to.
Lunch in Dutch Harbor/Unalaska
While venues for dining in Dutch Harbor/Unalaska are understandably limited what there is offers a surprising diversity with regard to both cuisine types and atmospheres. You can opt for casual to refined with regard to food quality and surroundings while taking your pick from cuisine types which include seafood, Mexican and sushi.
The majority of the lunch venues fall into the casual dining category with Amelia’s – where you may have taken your coffee break – a popular choice. This charming little place has been running for many years now and offers an extensive menu with a great range of good quality Mexican dishes. If you want the chance of a chat with a ‘Deadliest Catch’ fisherman head to the Harborview Bar and Grill. This no-frills spot offers a wide choice of soups, pizzas, sandwiches, salads, pastas and burgers and a very laid-back atmosphere.
Next to the Harborview Bar can be found Harbor Sushi which is normally only open later in the afternoons but often changes its hours to include lunch in the summer.
If you want the chance to watch marine wildlife as you lunch head to the Norwegian Rat Saloon. Serving pizza, burgers, ribs, wings and such fare this waterfront restaurant/pub which has indoor and outdoor seating is often a great spot from which to spot otters, sea lions and even whales cruising by.
The Grand Aleutian Hotel is far and away the town’s most refined dining choice. However, one of the restaurants here only serves dinner while the other – Cape Cheerful – will only be suitable if you intend to lunch after 2 pm.
An Afternoon in Dutch Harbor
The bulk, if not all of your afternoon, will be spent exploring the multiple WWII relics scattered around an outdoor park museum and discovering the moving and incredible story of Alaska’s ‘Forgotten War’. If you still have time after this you can visit the beautiful cathedral to learn why the native Unangan took the Russian Orthodox religion to their heart and also perhaps make a short tour of the waterfront Memorial Park.
The Aleutian World War II Visitor Center and National Historic Area
While history lessons for children from the United States are almost certain at some point to include accounts of the bombing of Pearl Harbor – the event which triggered the US’s involvement in the war – there is an Alaska chapter in the World War II history books which few are actually aware of. Bombs were dropped by the Japanese, battles were fought after a Japanese invasion and there were both US civilian and military casualties in the Dutch Harbor area. However, the events of this three year period which lasted from 1942 until the end of the war are so little known it is often referred to as the ‘Forgotten War’. There is also a further tragic side to this whole period – the enforced internment of the Unangan people of the Aleutian Islands.
It is impossible to understand either the Dutch Harbor story or anything about native culture without exploring this side of its history. Your visit to the Museum of the Aleutians this morning will have given you an introduction to this integral chapter but at the WWII Visitor Center and Historic Park you will be able to get an in-depth understanding along with the opportunity to wander a large area liberally littered about with fascinating remnants of this time. Highlights include huts, gun mounts, tunnels, barracks and fort sites.
In June 1942 Dutch Harbor was bombed over a two-day period by Japanese forces which was followed by a land invasion and a subsequent occupation of Kiska and Attu Islands. US military forces struck back, mobilizing tens of thousands of troops and eventually reclaiming the territory in 1943 after many months of battle which left thousands dead.
It seems impossible that any element which involved half a million US, Canadian, Russian and Japanese military personnel in this mighty global conflict could be so buried to all but Alaskans. But this is not the only part of the ‘forgotten’ story; it seems equally unbelievable, if not even more so, that in 1942 hundreds of US citizen Unangan people living in a series of Aleutian villages were rounded up by US naval personnel, herded aboard transport boats bound for an area near Juneau and interned thousands of miles from home and against their will until the end of the war in 1945. The reason given was as protection for their own safety and although there is no doubt this was a war zone during some of that time the villagers were not given the freedom to decide their own fates. Furthermore, they remained forcibly interred long after the Japanese had been cleared from the islands. On being forced to abandon their ancestral villagers these native people also had to watch as homes and buildings were set on fire to prevent them being utilized by any invading military following a ‘scorched earth’ strategy.
Although elsewhere it might be different this entire story never was and never will be forgotten by those who it affected – the Aleutian islanders. By visiting both the Visitor Center and the open-air Historic Park – a collaboration between the Ounalashka Corporation and the National Park Service which protects the area – you too can unearth every aspect of this history.
The WWII Visitor Center
From the initial bombings of 1942 in which residents desperately scrabbled to save priceless church icons, through the harrowing internment years and the bitter war aftermath, this free museum allows you to follow the entire story.
The museum – which was opened in 2002 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Dutch Harbor’s 1942 bombing – is housed inside a flight control tower which has been restored to resemble its wartime appearance of the 1940s. In what is probably the most comprehensive collection of memorabilia, artifacts and personal accounts relating to the ‘forgotten’ war in Alaska, the WWII Visitor Center covers every aspect of those years. You can browse a vast number of photographs, military equipment exhibits and uniforms, maps and newspaper articles from the time or even read what was on the Christmas menu for the soldiers actively serving in Alaska in the 1940s.
There are two levels; the first floor exhibits include the bombing of Dutch Harbor, the final decisive Battle of Attu and the story of the internment camps. Head upstairs to see how the air-control tower would have actually been fitted out in 1942 and to view some movie footage of the era.
A significant part of the collection is given over to accounts of the internment camps known as ‘duration villages’. Squalid conditions in these old broken down former fishing canneries, usually without running water or electricity and little in the way of adequate food, cold-weather clothing and medical facilities, was harsh and insanitary and led to many deaths through tuberculosis and pneumonia. It is believed as many as 1 in every 10 of the residents died during the three years in which these camps existed.
For many Unangan life did not improve once the camps were closed down. Some were prohibited from returning to their ancestral villagers while those who made their way back to original homes found that which hadn’t been completely destroyed had been ransacked. Soil and drinking water remained contaminated for a long period afterward further compromising health and the ability to survive and provide for themselves.
Despite the fact that this whole period of US history remains highly emotive to native people the museum is excellently done, offering facts rather than sensationalism or bias.
Even if you don’t want to explore this museum you will need to stop by the Visitor Center if you intend to walk around the Historic Park. Almost all of this island has been owned by the indigenous Ounalashka Corporation – representatives of the internment camp survivors and descendents –
since the 1971 native claim act of Congress so you have to obtain the essential Land Use Permit.
The Visitor Center also has an Historical Park walking tour map which will considerably enhance your explorations.
The Aleutian World War II National Historic Park
Covering 134 acres on Amaknak Island where Dutch Harbor is located, the National Historic Park incorporates the site of Fort Schwatka – one of a series of four forts built in the area during the war years as part of the US’s defensive campaign. Abandoned as a military site since 1947, the whole was awarded National Historic status in 1996 as part of a movement to officially recognize not just the island’s role in the war years but to bring to light the injustices suffered by the native people during that time.
While touring the whole site will lead to discovery after discovery of war relics and remnants there are two principal areas which are located at both top and bottom of the island – Bunker Hill and Ulatka Head where the fort was located. Besides the war relic sites the area is also where several ancient Unangan communities were previously located.
Mount Ballyhoo, Ulatka Head and Fort Schwatka
Beyond question the focus of the Historic Park is the site of the former fort of Schwatka which perches on 1000ft Ulatka Head on the 1634ft-high Mount Ballyhoo and represents the highest US coast-located fort ever built. Once a network of over 100 separate buildings made up of command centers, barracks and work stations along with gun mounts, bunkers and tunnels used for carting ammunition, much of the whole can still be seen – albeit in a collapsed and partially ruined state. The gun mounts however are well-preserved and the incredible view from this vantage point is also worth the trek.
The fort can be accessed via the Ballyhoo Trail which follows two separate approaches to the mountain, both of these take around 45 minutes and feature a multitude of points of historical interest along the way.
Unsurprisingly considering the name, Bunker Hill is the location of some WWII bunkers and various other ruins including huts, ammunition storage and gun emplacements. Rising to just 400ft the Bunker Hill area is an easier climb than Mount Ballyhoo and takes around 30 minutes to get to the top. If you approach via the Captains Bay trail the ascent is less steep than that from the Airport Beach side. Views from here are also magnificent, taking in 360 degrees of island, harbors, beaches and ocean with bald eagles a common sight.
Although not actually part of the war remnant sites, the long extension of land at the top of Amaknak Island known as the Spit makes for a wonderful walk if you have the time and inclination.
The Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of Christ
Beyond doubt Unalaska’s (and perhaps even the Aleutian Islands’) most prominent man-made landmark, this Russian Orthodox onion-domed bleached-white church is yet another of the sites you should visit if you want to understand the whole native culture story. It is an essential piece in the overall Dutch Harbor/Unalaska history which also happens to be lovely to gaze upon.
Built at the end of the 19th century – the oldest of its style in North America – and incorporating within it some earlier churches from the beginning of the century which formerly stood on this site, the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of Christ sits squeezed between a rugged green hill and the ocean; a setting which makes it especially photogenic.
Life was hard for the native Aleutian Islanders after the Russians arrived. Mistreated, exploited and enslaved by the fur traders, the Unangax also had no natural resistance to the diseases which these occupiers brought and within thirty years a people which had survived for thousands of years unmolested saw their population decline at an alarming rate. When Father Ivan Veniaminov – later canonized as Saint Innocent – founded Unalaska’s church and began his fight on behalf of the Unangan through the Russian courts it was inevitable that so many would convert to his religion, having gained so much from his protection. A dedicated champion for cultural rights and the preservation of native traditions, Father Veniaminov was to translate the bible into Aleut and create a workable alphabet for certain Unangan clans, allowing them to physically document their history after he himself mastered several of their native dialects. With more than one parish to care for, Father Veniaminov paddled his way around and between islands in a canoe, braving the tempestuous seas in all seasons.
Father Veniaminov’s churches became an incredibly valuable community focus for the Unangan who operated as lay preachers, formed choirs and conducted services in their own language.
The church remains at the heart of the community to this day with services still held every Saturday and Sunday in English, Unangan tunuu and Slavonic.
The interior of the church is home to around 700 precious artifacts and relics. Some of these date from the original chapel here and include icons, books and a significantly large collection of art from the 1800s, all of which miraculously survived the WWII bombings thanks to the dedication of the people. The church – which underwent a huge restoration in 1996 – is now a National Historic Landmark where visitors are often treated to unofficial tours by the current priest if he is available.
The Bishop’s House
Just across from the church can be seen the large Bishop’s House which dates from 1882. Currently not open to the public, there are plans to also restore this historic building which was constructed for a bishop who drowned at sea before ever arriving at his new home. The small cemetery at its side includes the grave of a former bishop of Alaska who died in 1882.
The Memorial Park
Located a 15 minute walk from the cathedral can be found the oceanside-set Memorial Park created in 1992 on the very grounds where the original Unalaska town once stood. Amid a sea of fluttering flags representing all of the area’s service branches, the park is dedicated to all those who have lost their lives at sea including fishermen and navy and coastguard personnel as well as honoring all those who were connected to or died during the World War II years.
You can wander a series of walkways marked with plaques and monuments and explore the WWII bunkers and other relics or simply enjoy the lovely view.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Dutch Harbor
Dutch Harbor and Unalaska are small which means there is not a vast number of drinking and dining venues. As all of the evening options function as bar and restaurant at the same time it is often easier to select the kind of atmosphere you are looking for and then transition from pre-dinner drinks to dinner in the same place.
As you might expect seafood features heavily no matter what kind of cuisine type is being served and all of your choices are casual and informal with one exception – the Grand Aleutian Hotel.
If you’d like to hear a few fishermen’s tales of the kind which get told on the ‘Deadliest Catch’ and mix in with a crowd where the favored mode of dress is days-old working clothes, beards, warm caps and rubber boots your best bet is to head to the Harborview Bar and Grill. With a lively and authentic Alaskan pub atmosphere, the Harborview’s bar is large with regard to physical size and drinks range and whenever you feel ready you can order up some food from a large menu which includes burgers, pizzas, fish and tacos.
Another pub choice is the Norwegian Rat Saloon which bills itself as having the ‘best ribs in town’. Also on the menu is such fare as pizza, wings and burgers. During the summer when true daylight lasts for about 17 hours be sure to grab a table by the window or in the outdoor seating area. The Norwegian Rat Saloon is right on the waterfront and it is far from uncommon to see otters, sea-lions and whales passing by or playing in the ocean as you enjoy your drink or meal.
At the other end of the Dutch Harbor drinking and dining scale is the Grand Aleutian Hotel which as the only higher-end offering in the area is popular with tourists. You can relax with a cocktail here as well as a wide choice of wines, beers and spirits. From a dining point of view, this refined option offers either the Chart Room with its fine dining menu or Cape Cheerful which is more casual fare, although still of the high quality well-presented kind. The Chart Room offers a touch of sophistication with a range of small plate or large plate menu options and plentiful seafood such as local-caught crab, halibut and cod. For non-seafood fans there is also duck, lamb and steak.
If you happen to be in town on a Wednesday or Friday you can look forward to a seafood buffet or barbecue feast which takes place on the seafront deck when the weather allows.
An Evening in Dutch Harbor
Dutch Harbor and Unalaska’s appeal lie in their stunning natural backdrops and the opportunity of being part of a small and remote Alaska community for a day. Night life doesn’t really exist beyond a few bars although as is so often true of Alaska’s small towns these places are often filled with the sound of live music.
The Harborview Bar and Grill often has something going on in the evening which might be anything from a casual group of friends making music to regular open mic nights and dancing is far from uncommon here. The UniSea Sports Bar and Grill is another possibility for live music while the Cape Cheerful Lounge at the Grand Aleutian Hotel stages regular performances by local musicians in the summer.
If you’d prefer to be a little more active after your evening meal you can always take advantage of the long summer daylight hours when the sun never really sets and go for a stroll. If you didn’t have time to fit the cathedral or Memorial Park into your busy afternoon now is an ideal time to put that right. Alternatively Dutch Harbor/Unalaska has several parks. One of these is Sitka Spruce Park – a National Historic Landmark and one of the few places you will find in the area where there are many trees together as they don’t grow easily and naturally here. Originally planted in 1806 with a few original trees remaining and a haven for birds, this park has earned itself a place on the list of historically significant sites as it was one of the first documented examples of an afforestation project in North America. There are a few interpretation signs as you wander and also a trail which brings you to a lovely cliff edge lookout.
If you’re ready to experience the beauty of Dutch Harbor/Unalaska in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!