Happy to be in Attu

We arrived at Attu Island 4 days ago, thankful for a remarkably easy 12-day passage. It was cold and foggy, with a bit of rain now and then, but we had no rough weather at all.

We ended our time in Japan with a perfect farewell. First, a very kind woman we met came to host a traditional tea ceremony for us right in the cockpit of our boat. She whisked matcha (powdered green tea) to a perfect froth, interrupted only by the obnoxiously large wake of our least favorite fishing boat speeding up the river. Then, a few other friends we’d made came by with parting gifts and rolls of colored streamers. As we stowed the last few things, they noted that we were five minutes late for our estimated departure time, reminding us that we really never managed to adjust from island time, which is fluid and rarely involves watches, to Japan time, which is extremely precise. We each held onto one end of a roll of streamers while our friends held the other ends on shore, cast off the dock lines and sailed away for Alaska, waving to our friends until the streamers, our last link to Japan, broke behind us and we reeled them in.

We had some light winds at the start of the sail and used the motor a bit while we watched anxiously for fishing boats and gear in a thick fog. Boats would appear on the radar a mile away but we would never see them. The breeze kicked in as we got a bit further from Japan, and we had a pleasant reach for the next several days. Les, the wind vane steering system, steered flawlessly and we hardly had to adjust the sails, so we were able to sit on top of the companionway steps at night to hide from the wind and stay a bit warmer while we watched for ships (temperatures were in the mid-to-high 30’s, according to the very accurate zipper thermometer).

The wind died again after we had made it just past halfway, but it came back as a gentle tailwind a couple of days later. In the quiet seas, we heard whale spouts nearby, and one night, we had a double treat. First, we spotted an enormous sperm whale resting at the surface just a few yards from the boat, breathing deeply before his next thousand foot dive. A few hours later, two bull orcas powerfully parted the waves cruising behind the boat.

Twelve days after leaving Kushiro, we found ourselves in yet another thick fog sailing just a mile off the coast of Attu Island. The radar confirmed that Attu did exist, but we couldn’t see it. Then Attu disappeared from the radar, too, and we were convinced that it was just our luck to arrive right at the moment when Attu sunk into the ocean forever. Luckily, Attu came back a few minutes later. Shortly after that, the clouds began to part and Rob caught a faint glimpse of the dark shades of a mountain top. More clouds lifted, the wind increased, and it turned into a sunny day! A curious sea lion raised his head to investigate us as tufted puffins flew across the growing view of a stunning ridge of snowy mountains and sharp cliffs. We surfed past isolated rocks and turned into a comfy harbor in Massacre Bay, where a boat we had met in Kushiro was already at anchor and another tiny puffin was patrolling the anchorage.

We hustled to get off the boat for a walk while the sun was shining, and we found half a dozen marshy lakes surrounded by Aleutian cackling geese, a subspecies of Canada goose endemic to the Aleutians. Angry goose mammas herded their goslings into the rushes and tried to distract us as we walked along an old gravel road. Our bay seems to be a magic bay. We hurried to catch the sun, but our four days here have all been sunny. Clouds wrap themselves around the taller peaks and crawl into the valleys from time to time, but there have been enough sunny patches that we have even had a view of the sharp profile of Agattu Island, 30 miles away. We hear that a boat that left Japan when we did, but went straight to Adak, hasn’t seen the sunshine yet, so we’re pretty happy we stopped here in the magic sunny spot.

The scenery comes on a much grander scale than we had imagined for an island 35 miles long and 10 across. There are layers of deeply wrinkled mountains, wide river valleys, marshy floodplains, lakes, and waterfall gorges. The mountains, though the tallest is just under 3,000 feet, are still thickly coated in snow. Birds, mostly geese and gulls, are nesting everywhere and we feel a bit badly about the number of goslings we’ve terrified, but it’s impossible to walk on the island without scaring baby birds. We have also found snow buntings, snowy owls, and common eiders, among others. The first layer of tundra-covered, round hills behind the beaches are abloom with wildflowers—lupine, crowberries, chocolate lilies, irises, orchids, violets, mallow, nagoon berries, blueberries, asters, and many others. Behind these gentle hills, the steep, rocky peaks rise above the river valleys. Along the beaches, sea ducks squawk with dozens of chicks paddling along behind, and today we found a sea otter contentedly munching urchins in the kelp.

The terrain, despite the steep mountains and rocky cliffs, is also surprisingly accessible. There are no trees or scrubby brush, so it’s easy walking. Until 2010, there was a Coast Guard loran station here; before that, a Navy base; before that, World War II battles; before that, villages with Russians, Americans, and Aleuts; and for the 10,000 years before Bering reached the islands in 1741, the Aleuts lived here, hunting, fishing, and navigating these often treacherous waters by bidarka. One or more of those developments left gravel roads in a few places along the island, and they are not yet overgrown, so we were even able to take our little bikes on an overly ambitious mountain bike ride across the island to see the other side. Every turn is more stunning. There is also a lot of rusting junk around (even fire hydrants!), but we can’t tell exactly what pieces of rusting metal come from what era in the many layers of Attu’s history.

Attu has turned out to be a perfect spot to arrive. We are thrilled to have finished our last big crossing, excited to be here, and having a great time exploring. We know that our moms are also delighted that we have finally reached Alaskan territory. They, apparently, have not spent as much time watching The Deadliest Catch as the rest of the world has. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of miles to cover to get back to the mainland, and July is really the only reasonable month to be out in the middle of the Bering Sea in a small sailboat, so we can’t stay at Attu for much longer. We will probably leave in the morning to take advantage of a few days of likely tailwinds to move on to another island.

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Sam Glover

Sam Glover is a lawyer and the founder and Editor in Chief of Lawyerist.com. He also works with lawyers on motion practice and appeals, and is President of the board of directors of HOME Line, a nonprofit Minnesota tenant advocacy organization.

One thought on “Happy to be in Attu”

  1. Your mothers ARE glad you are in Alaskan territory…… because we LOVE that the US Coast Guard is so easy to call… not because we think you’re home free! Be safe.
    One of the Moms

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