Boarding the Ferry. Peter Metcalfe/AMHS
By Catharine Warren
It was her aunt’s best friend, Isobel Hutchison, who lured Janet, my British traveling partner, and me, a Canadian, to Alaska in July 2006. Exactly seventy years earlier at age 46, Isobel, an intrepid Scots adventurer, naturalist, and amateur botanist, journeyed across the world to the Aleutian Islands to collect specimens of its unique plant life. We followed in her wake aboard an Alaska State Ferry, island and village hopping, sailing westward from Homer, halfway to Siberia and back, in just seven days.
For those preferring alternative accommodation, you may pitch your tent on the upper deck! C. Warren
What was our fascination with this unassuming woman who traveled and researched alone in an age when this was so uncommon? A 1949 citation awarding her an honorary degree from St. Andrews, Scotland, collects sufficient reasons: “A scientist by training, a poet at heart, she has braved the lonely icy wastes of Greenland and Alaska, the mist and fog of the Aleutian Islands, and the untrodden spaces of Canada, … Journeyings worthy of romantic saga, contributions to the rich collections of rare plants … books swelling the exciting literature on Arctic travel … a mastery of six tongues, and novels and poems written in her own”.
Strewn like seeds in the wind, the Aleutian Islands are flung out into the stormy North Pacific for eleven hundred miles. Arched between North America and Siberia, this spine of volcanic mountains hems in the Bering Sea to the north and the Japanese current to the south, providing potential for storms of two opposing weather systems.
The islands have unique vegetation unlike any other on earth, with a mingling of plant immigrants from east and west, survivors from Beringia, believed to have been an ancient land bridge connecting the two continents. Goldenrod, lupine, kinnikinnick and yarrow arrived from North America to the east. Iris, purple orchid, Kamchatka rhododendron and Chukchi primrose came from Asia to the west. Some species extend into both ends of the Aleutian chain, but have not yet reached the middle islands. No wonder our botanist, Isobel, was drawn to this place.
The author at Dutch Harbor, Unalaska.
Our Aleutian-certified ocean class ferry had a capacity for 220 travelers, sitting up and in 26 staterooms. We made reservations about six months in advance to ensure a July 2006 round trip voyage. For our Aleutian adventure, Janet flew from Britain to Vancouver, I from Calgary, and together we flew due north to Anchorage, Alaska.
In Anchorage and Fairbanks, we visited superb museums that introduced us to Alaska’s native peoples including the Aleuts, so named by early Russian explorers. They now prefer to be called Unangan or Unangas. We learned not only about the ferocious storms that buffet the Aleutian chain, but also, with sadness, the stormy history of its people: at the hand of the Russians, the Japanese, and the Americans after Alaska was bought from Russia in 1867. During World War II, many Unanagan, as US citizens, were evacuated to south east Alaska, put in camps, and neglected. About one-quarter of them died.
Dining aboard the Tustemena. C. Warren
On July 11, one day later in the year than Isobel, we sailed westward out of Homer on a fine evening with a backdrop of snowy volcanic mountains lit by a sun reluctant to set in the Arctic summer. On board the Tustemena, nicknamed the “Trusty Tusty”, our en suite cabin was roomy and good food was tastefully presented for each meal. Our Rough Guide had briefed us that “the Tustemena is no cruise ship, but a working ferry with a mission to call in at the half-dozen fishing ports along the way to drop off vehicles, people, and supplies. The ferry seldom stops for long, but the hour or two you spend in port is enough to make a brief impression.”
A longer stop at Kodiak before reaching the Aleutians gave us several hours to explore , including the Baranov Museum, an 1808 building built as a sea otter fur warehouse and office for the Russian American Company. We met the curator, Ellen Lester who knew of Isobel’s books, and whose own passion was that of fine basket weaving.
Isobel had waited in Kodiak for over three weeks for the delayed appearance of the S.S. Starr of the Alaska Steamship Company to arrive and transport her to Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island. Her accommodation on board the Starr on July 10, 1936, made ours seem the ultimate in luxury, claiming it to be “the most adventurous vessel of an adventurous fleet.
I had been warned,” she writes, “that the Starr, although the most adventurous, was also the most uncomfortable passenger-carrying vessel in Alaska (my informant had even added ‘in existence’). Her tiny cabins each contained three iron bunks, one so close above the next that to fit into it (and worse, out of it) required a special course in gymnastics. … The engine room …was practically one with the dining room, and the heat, especially in cabins at that end of the salon, was apt to be as liquefying as might be expected from a celestial body.”
Tustemena in Kodiak harbor. Peter Metcalfe/AMHS
Though we traveled light, indispensable to us on board were two books we re-read and consulted constantly. Her biography, Flowers in the Snow, tells us that Isobel made four major northern journeys between 1927 and 1936, twice to Greenland, Arctic Canada, and the last, exploring the full extent of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. However, it was her book, Stepping-Stones from Alaska to Asia: the Aleutian Islands, published in 1937, that my companion, Janet, brought from Britain. A cheaper second edition of this book without Isobel’s poems, water color paintings, or list of Aleutian flowers was published later in 1942 in North America under the name of The Aleutian Islands: America’s Back Door.
Picturesque Russian Orthodox Bishop’s House at Dutch Harbor, Unalaska. Peter Metcalfe/AMHS
This later edition, judging by a new preface written by Isobel and published when Japan was already occupying several of the western islands, appears to be a kind of wartime briefing for Americans about the Aleutians.
Reminding us of their remoteness, she opens the preface by saying, “I wonder how many people knew where the Aleutian Islands were situated before they came into prominence when the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in Unalaska Bay!” She concludes the introduction by saying: “Kodiak and Dutch Harbor are no longer the green villages I knew six years ago; they are great naval and air bases in the forefront of Alaska’s defense system. The red hand of war has been steeped in the quiet harbor of Kiska [an eastern Aleut Island not visited by us] and has turned its waters to blood. But wars, after all, are transitory; it is the flowers that last. And it was the flowers I went to seek.”
Castle Rock is a landmark along the Aleutian route. Peter Metcalfe/AMHS
A typical ensuite stateroom aboard the Tustemena. Peter Metcalfe/AMHS
Alaska Marine Highway System
The AMHS serves 31 of Alaska’s coastal communities with two additional southern ports of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada, and Bellingham, Washington, about a two-hour drive north of Seattle. From its most southern port to the last stop on the Aleutian chain, the route is over 3,500 miles long. In most of the coastal communities, the only way to travel from one village to another is either by air or by ferry.
The route is so full of opportunities to see and experience the cultural heritage of the native people, the historic locations where gold was king, the fantastic beauty of the mountains, sea and glaciers, and the many forms of wildlife along the way that the U.S. Federal Highway Administration has designated it an “All American Road”, the highest designation that can be bestowed. The route is served by 11 ships that all have food and beverage service, and carry both passengers and vehicles. Many ships have cabin accommodations for longer trips.
Our guide in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska, Bobbie Lekanoff, was born in Washington State but married an Unangan who typically has a Russian last name. She met the ferry in Dutch to help us find flowers as well as to take us to historic sites during a five-hour stopover.
On Unalaska, 120 different types of wildflowers bloom in the course of the summer, including a bluebell or harebell found only in Japan and the Aleutians and a dozen species of wild orchid. Bobbie could not locate one orchid species that Isobel referred to obsessively as “my long lost friend”, the creamy white spicy-scented but elusive Hooded Ladies’ Tresses. She even took us to her home to try to find it in a yard filled with orchids including many species of white bog orchids and a small rare purple orchid.
Dutch Harbor with Russian Orthodox church on the left. Peter Metcalfe/AMHS
Isobel’s account, going beyond that of the traditional flower book, encourages interaction with other travelers. Our fellow passengers with laptop and digital cameras shared their flower pictures with us and we came to know a little about their lives as well. John, in his sixties, told us he’d been in the military for many years. “But now I’m a member of Veterans for Peace. One day I woke up and realized my country had been at war for most of my life.” For several years he has been happily employed as a social worker and teacher in remote Arctic villages. Along with John, we came off the ferry feeling positive and refreshed, recalling Isobel’s words, “Wars are only transitory; it is the flowers that last”.
Follow Up Facts
For more information about sailing the Aleutian Islands route with AMHS or to make a reservation, phone toll free 1-800-642-0066 or log onto www.ferryalaska.com. One of the 26 staterooms aboard the Tustemena is wheelchair accessible, meeting ADA standards. The ferry also has an elevator. Two worthwhile videos, a PBS video in two parts called The Aleutians: Cradle of Storms, and a second, about the Aleut evacuation from the Unangan viewpoint were presented as part of the educational program by Tustemena‘s on-board naturalist, Doug Stuart.
Dutch Harbor/Unalaska has an excellent website: www.unalaska.info.
Author recommended books:
The Rough Guide to Alaska  by Paul Whitfield and Tim Burford
Flowers in the Snow: the Life of Isobel Wylie Hutchison  by Gwyneth Hoyle
Wild Flowers of Unalaska Island  by Suzi Golodoff.
Interested in other Alaska Travel options? Check out our magazine’s richly-illustrated feature articles about:
Discovering the charms of Alaska’s isolated capital city, Juneau.
Senior-Friendly Helicopter Hiking on Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier — an ultimate high!
Catharine Warren is a retired professor with an interest in travel. She lives in Alberta, Canada with yearly visits to Cyprus. An earlier Alaska Ferry trip, also with her friend Janet, focused on totem poles from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, and back to Rupert where they took a Canadian ferry to the Queen Charlotte Islands. Published books and travel articles include: Vignettes of Life: Experiences and Self Perceptions of New Canadian Women (Detselig). Painted Churches of Cyprus (Metohos) and Desert Scherazade Safari: Spirit of a Desert (Arch).