|Adak! Originally a naval base, and
today a far-flung outpost of Alaska, it’s so far away from the rest of North
America that the International Date Line actually shifts around it. Adak is
the westernmost city in the United States, the southernmost city in Alaska,
and is, in general, the last outpost of civilization this side of Siberia.
The only North American settlement farther west is the US Coast Guard
station at Attu, which has flirted with on-again, off-again threats of base
closure, and is only accessible to Coast Guard personnel in any case.
It’s a long trek to Adak from Seattle, a journey that spans three time zones and ends almost halfway to Japan. During World War II, the Japanese invaded nearby Kiska and Attu islands, prompting the Army Air Force to build a base at Adak. During the Cold War, Adak transitioned to Navy control and expanded to become one of the largest cities in Alaska, with over 7,000 residents. Under the Navy’s careful maintenance, Adak was as neat as a pin.
At the end of the Cold War, in May, 1994, the base was closed. It was expensive to operate, and the Pentagon didn’t anticipate either the threat of a militarily emergent China or the threat of North Korean nuclear missiles (both of which have recently—if belatedly—renewed military interest in Adak). Through a series of land transactions ending in 1997, the Aleut native corporation (which represents the interests of the indigenous Aleut people) was given control—at virtually no cost—of substantially all of the buildings and facilities on Adak. These included thousands of new and recently renovated housing units; a shiny new hospital (opened in 1991) complete with operating theatre; a recreation center with a weight room, bowling alley, miniature golf course, and arcade; multiple world-class, DoD specification, multimillion dollar data center facilities built for undersea surveillance and other military purposes; a brand new high school with an Olympic sized swimming pool; and finally, a first class airport supporting instrument approaches with a runway long enough to accommodate modern jets.
These days, anyone rich or creative enough to do so can visit Adak. There are two flights weekly on Alaska Airlines from Anchorage via King Salmon at a fare of over $1,700 from Seattle (flying to Turkmenistan is literally cheaper).
Alternatively, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members can cash in 20,000 frequent flier miles for a ticket. Obviously, this is the best way to go – you can with some creativity earn 20,000 miles for under $800, less than half the cost of a fare to Adak (and you get to take 20,000 miles worth of trips besides). Availability was initially a challenge, but since I’m an Alaska Airlines shareholder, I asked about the difficulty of finding award seats at the annual meeting. After the meeting, the head of revenue management approached me and offered to help me find award availability. True to his word, he assisted me in locating award seats around the end of August.
When I told my friend cstone of my plans to visit Adak, he was interested in going too. He had just enough Alaska Airlines frequent flier miles for the trip, and after tweaking the schedule a few times, he managed to cash them in for seats all the way from Boston.
Arriving on Adak, the airport (technically operated by the State of Alaska) was a harbinger of things to come. Grass grew through the crumbling pavement on the taxiways. Inside the terminal, the ceiling was falling down in places due to a leaky roof. The restroom was filthy, and probably hasn’t been cleaned since the Navy turned over the airport to civilian control. At the airport, I met Dona from the Aleutian Housing Authority, and agreed to meet her back at her office. I also picked up the keys to the rental car from Will. Well, rental pickup, actually; an early 1990s Ford F150 4wd pickup truck with over 110,000 miles on it. Dented, rusted, and with its wheels out of alignment, the truck said “US Navy – Official Business Only” on the side. There were no license plates—they aren’t needed on Adak, since all the roads are private. The rental cost $75 per day—plus fuel, at nearly $4 per gallon.
Our first order of business was to get the keys to the rental house. We met Dona back at her office, and paid $225 for one night of lodging, plus tax. This was a relief; we were scheduled to leave at 3:00AM on Saturday and as we would only be staying over one night, we weren’t charged for two. After checking out the house, we jumped in the truck and began to explore the island.
About 100 people eke out a tough, bleak, and costly living at the edge of America. The rapidly dwindling Bering Sea fishery is the mainstay of the economy, such as it is. Of the facilities the Navy left behind, only the power plant, high school, general store (formerly the community center), and the former officer’s club are still in use. Since the base closure in 1994, everything on Adak has fallen into disrepair (although the facilities in active use are in slightly less disrepair than the others). The high school, for example, has a leaky roof and the pool is full of green slime. The cafeteria has been converted to a store and restaurant called the Bake and Tackle. The Housing Community Center is now a general store. It has a leaky roof and missing floor tiles these days, but still manages to serve as a community hub—they’ll even give you a ride. And the fuel depot is open three days a week, although some of the tanks are marked “Decommissioned, For Emergency Use Only.”
I’m particularly interested in telecommunications, and since I was driving, I headed toward some arrays of satellite dishes. All communications off the island are via satellite, which makes connectivity off the island both slow and expensive. Cable television is beamed in via an array of satellite dishes. Long distance telephone service is available from the Alaskan carriers GCI and AT&T Alascom, and GCI provides Internet service via satellite as well.
As we drove around, we encountered workmen laying fiber optic cable to homes and facilities. In speaking with the construction workers, we learned that the City of Adak secured a government grant to lay fiber to the home. With a new high-speed metropolitan area network, Adak will be well positioned to be the communications hub of the North Pacific if terrestrial links and inexpensive power became available (at 22 cents per KW/h, you won’t be seeing data centers opening on Adak anytime soon). However, as long as the island is hamstrung by often unreliable satellite communications, neither cstone nor I could see any point in making this investment. Adak could much more urgently use a government grant to paint their water storage tanks, which are rapidly corroding from lack of maintenance. Will, the mayor of Adak, appreciated my incredulity. With a resigned tone, however, he dismissed it. “Things are different here. It’s not like the rest of America,” he said. “The politics are impossible for an outsider to understand. Hell, I’m the mayor and I don’t even understand them sometimes.”
Navy buildings and facilities are everywhere, many looking from a distance like they are still in active use. The abandonment and vandalism only shows when you get up close. Adak is, for the most part, a ghost town, although one in which a few people still live and work. It’s eerie; the base was closed abruptly and nearly everything not of military significance was left behind (freight was cost-prohibitive to do otherwise). The only place in the world I can think of quite like it is Chernobyl. The drive-through menu is still posted at the former McDonald’s restaurant, frozen in time in—ironically—the “Jurassic Park” era. Rolls of chain-link fencing patiently await a municipal construction project that will never begin. A hospital that was brand new in 1991 is mothballed today, waiting for patients that will never arrive. Thousands of houses sit fully furnished, remodeled only a year before they were abandoned but now slowly succumbing to the elements, with moss and field grasses growing in the gutters. Well-appointed playgrounds sit silently among the empty neighborhoods; to the rusted swing sets and overgrown basketball courts, the laughter of children is only a faded and distant memory.
Like many places in Alaska, the primary forms of entertainment on Adak are drinking, fishing, and other F words. Felonies, for example. We chatted with Dona, who told us that she sent her 17-year old off of the island after he went on a crime spree the day after Christmas last year, committing six felonies in one evening. Hardcore ones, like breaking into people’s houses and stealing guns.
The Navy left behind educational posters (featuring “Boomer The Otter And Pals”) warning kids to stay away from old base facilities and unexploded ordnance. Unfortunately, they haven’t been effective. With no security to speak of on the island (and only one part-time police officer), nearly every former Navy facility has been broken into and vandalized. Boredom is the worst enemy of any teen’s parent, as unabated, it rarely ends without trouble.
We opted for drinking as our form of entertainment, and visited the Adak Sports Bar and Grill, known locally as the “ASBAG” (pronounced ass-bag). Cstone and I ordered food. It was outrageously expensive (which I expected) and wasn’t very good (which I didn’t expect; Alaskans take their food seriously and a bad restaurant rarely stays in business for long). The bartender was aloof, and coughed in my drink to boot. We decided to do our own cooking from then on and buy our beer at the liquor store instead. As it turned out, Will owns that, too. “I rented you a truck earlier today, and now I’m going to tell you not to drink and drive,” he said with a grin as he sold us an 18-pack of Rainier. It was a whopping $33.00, the most I’ve ever paid for beer, but certainly in line with the cost of everything else on Adak. In any event, it was considerably cheaper than the ASBAG.
The next day, we visited the general store. I quickly understood why the Adak residents on our flight had used their entire baggage allowance for large coolers, and carried backpacks stuffed with canned food on the plane. The prices were outrageous! Milk cost $13 per gallon, a small frozen pizza cost $14, and a jar of spaghetti sauce was $6. We learned that freight costs $1.50 per pound, which is reflected in the cost of everything sold on Adak. I bought some cheese, cstone bought some spaghetti, and we got a few other random food items. This was sufficient for dinner.
Leaving the store, we started the day by watching eagles. They enjoy sunning themselves on the airport landing lights. It was a delight to see them wheeling around the sky, then effortlessly landing on a narrow perch. Down the street from the eagle perch, we explored an abandoned building (the sign inside said it was the NAVOCEAN PROFAC DET ADAK, whatever that was). I thought it would be interesting because while it was in use, the people inside really didn’t want uninvited visitors. It was surrounded by two rows of barbed wire fencing, and there were bright lights all around. There was a small data center facility, but most of the inside was actually offices. One room, located in the center, appeared to contain whatever was being protected. It was built with a giant blast door (to complement the one that had to be opened to get into the facility from the outside), had very thick concrete walls, and there was nothing inside except an old Mountain Dew can, two chairs, and a bunch of power and network connections. I’m guessing it was the crypto room. Throughout the facility, walls were moldy, the paint was peeling, and the carpet was rotting; this was to become a recurring theme when exploring abandoned buildings on Adak. Overall, I thought it was a lot less interesting than it appeared from the outside, but cstone was fascinated. He wandered around for over an hour taking pictures of every inch of the place. This also became a recurring theme.
We then headed toward Clam Lagoon. Leaving town, there is instant solidarity in seeing another human being. It can be hours before you encounter anyone. When passing another motorist, there is always a friendly smile and a wave. There is no cellular service on Adak, and the topography makes radio communications spotty at best. People keep an eye out for trouble, and are always ready to lend assistance to their neighbors.
When we reached Clam Lagoon, a sand bar near the road was occupied with a cavalcade of seals. They alternately sunned themselves, swam, and grunted to one another and nobody in particular. “Wazzup,” said one of them (yes, really) as we approached to observe the party. Along with the seals, which were a delight to watch, sea otters treated us to a swimming lesson, as they dived and rolled on their backs. Gulls, eagles, and hawks circulated around the lagoon, occasionally diving to retrieve an unfortunate victim in their talons. Interpretive signs appeared periodically along the roadside, although they were often surrounded by waist-high field grasses.
A dirt road led to the former Armed Forces Radio station, and we drove to investigate. It was just another abandoned building, but the maintenance records (still posted) showed that the roof leaked even before the Navy abandoned it, and the sailors who worked there had lodged multiple complaints with the safety officer. We continued up the road past the radio station (ignoring the spray-painted warning that read “TURN BACK, FUCK YOU, YOU HAVE BEEN WARN”), and discovered an apparent weekend retreat. Like many recreational facilities on Adak, the Navy sailors left it fully intact for the next visitors. Although it had been ransacked, it had not been vandalized (vandalism seems to primarily target larger island facilities). A pristine Chicago Tribune issue from February 22, 1994 was sitting on the table, just where Dan Lehman , NGSA PSC 481 (whoever he is) left it. The headlines spoke of a simpler time, when NAFTA was still under debate and it was actually controversial when the government was discovered to be breaking the law.
The road continued uphill, and I put the truck into four wheel drive. I shifted into lower gear as the road became steeper and narrower. It was tough going, but my efforts were rewarded as we reached the top of a bluff. A stunning panorama unfolded beneath us, revealing the Pacific Ocean, black sand beaches, the volcanic peaks of neighboring islands, and (of course) more eagles.
On the other side of Clam Lagoon, we spotted more buildings, so we drove over to investigate. This was a separate part of the base, which contained its own barracks and facilities. One of the buildings was a world-class data center. No expense had been spared in constructing it, and it appeared to have been completed in 1992 or 1993. I recognized some of the access control technology that was in use; it has only recently become available on the civilian market. Unfortunately, this multimillion dollar facility has been completely destroyed, because vandalism and a leaky roof have allowed the place to become thoroughly soaked.
It was more or less the same story with nearly every other building and facility. We explored most of them on the island, and nearly everything not in active use has been overrun by vandalism, the elements, or both. Most of the vandalism is alcohol-fueled and utterly senseless. For example, a top-of-the-line pool table, left in one of the barracks’ rec rooms, was broken to pieces and surrounded by beer cans. The carpet in the room was soaking wet because someone broke the window—presumably just because they could. Even the pet cemetery has been vandalized! Cstone found the disrepair fascinating, but I just found it depressing. Over two billion dollars of top-notch, world-class facilities, left to rot by a government lacking both foresight and inventiveness. By the time of our 3:00AM Saturday flight, I wasn’t overly disappointed about the idea of leaving.
The weather had other plans, however. Fog completely socked in the airport, so our flight was cancelled. Nobody was sure when (or whether) it would be rescheduled, but Dona’s husband let us back into the housing unit we were renting. So we at least had a place to stay that wasn’t an abandoned building. Nearly every non-resident on the island was with a tour group. The Alaska Airlines agent said “Well, you two are, for lack of a better term, the only oddballs here. Just be sure to ask at the post office and general store to find out the word on transportation out.”
On Saturday, I rescheduled my rental car in Anchorage. Cstone was a little stressed out about the possibility of being stuck on Adak for several days, since he works for a startup and couldn’t take a lot of time off. However, he cheered up quickly; after all, more time on Adak meant more time to explore abandoned buildings we’d missed! If I didn’t underscore the point well enough before, cstone loves exploring abandoned buildings. It’s one of his favorite things in the world to do. Since I was driving, though, I set the agenda for the day; if we were going to explore abandoned buildings, they had to be small ones in interesting places. Sure enough, after some spectacular drives along seldom-used back roads, we discovered two getaway retreats used by the locals, and a couple of funky vacation cabins left behind by the Navy. The most interesting of these was flanked by official-looking signs warning of unexploded ordinance along the driveway, which I gleefully ignored. What the hell, if I blew it up, it was only a rental car! I discovered the city dump, and the pet cemetery (which is overgrown and vandalized). And eventually, we found the end of the road—a brand new gate, with a brand new lock, and a brand new sign that read “Restricted Area – US Gov’t Property – No Trespassing.” Whatever lay beyond probably had something to do with the Star Wars missile defense system that is reportedly being installed on Adak.
One abandoned building was so random and offbeat that it had no trouble holding my interest. A giant hangar at the airport is almost completely filled with used, rusting refrigerators and washing machines. They’re lined up neatly in rows, where they’ll sit for eternity in all likelihood. At the going rate of $1.50 per pound for freight, they’re not going anywhere soon. Nor are the rusting black 55-gallon drums, labeled “UN1A2/X135/S” (I’m not sure whether I want to know what was in them).
On Sunday morning, we got the word: Alaska Airlines was going to attempt a flight during the daytime. It was cloudy, rainy, and overcast, and the locals told cstone about one winter where the weather was so bad that no flights could land for 5 solid weeks. He was understandably a little apprehensive, but the plane landed right on time which brightened the mood considerably. The mood on the fully loaded plane was jovial all the way to Anchorage; the Alaska Airlines station manager’s wife was having a baby! The drinks were free, and we enjoyed dinner at The Moose’s Tooth (my favorite Anchorage hangout) that night.
The people who live there call Adak “Birthplace of the Wind,” and I believe it. Nobody knows quite how fast it can get, because the wind ripped the anemometer off of the tower. It tears the siding off of houses, sandblasts the paint off of road signs, and shatters windows so violently that curtains are instantly torn to shreds. In a millenium, long after people have given up trying to live there, it’ll blow away most of the evidence of human settlement on Adak. Buildings will blow down. Bridges will fall. Roads will crumble to dust. Some remnants will blow away into the ocean, volcanic ash will cover the rest, and the tundra grasses will eventually reclaim the island. Adak, however, will never again be home to thousands of people, making a living spying on Russia from the end of America.
To see my pictures, please click below:
I updated Wikipedia with tons of hard-to-find information gleaned on my Adak trip. Unfortunately, some jerk named Jarfingle deleted it all. However, if you'd like to go, read my version of the article.
My jaw just about hit the floor when I opened my mail this afternoon. Alaska Airlines is a class act. Not only did they go out of their way to help me cash in miles for this incredible trip, but they later sent me--totally unsolicited--two vouchers, each good for $25 off a future flight. The reason? To apologize for the inconvenience of the weather cancellation! Weather is outside of any airline's control, as are airport facilities and a variety of other factors. Alaska may not be the airline they used to be; few airlines are these days. The Alaska spirit still lives on, however; it starts with the smiling Eskimo painted on the tail, and finishes with their employees. They truly are the best in the business.