National Geographic : 1942 Dec
Riddle of the Aleutians A Botanist Explores the Origin of Plants on Ever-misty Islands Now Enshrouded in the Fog of War By ISOBEL WYLIE HUTCHISON IN a peacetime summer I made a trip to the Aleutian Islands to collect plants for the British Museum. I well remember the view from a volcanic peak on Kiska. As I sat on the crest I could look down on Kiska Harbor and see, far beyond, the pale-blue cone of Chugul Island. Above me two eagles soared. (See New Map of Asia, page 767.) Little did I think, as I watched them, that planes of the United States Army would soon hover over those serene waters and use every rift in the cloud mantle to rain bombs on Japanese ships.* My trip began in Scotland. I traveled to Seattle, where I sailed for Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula, and Kodiak Island. At Kodiak I was picked up by the small mail boat Starr, and in mid-July I arrived at Dutch Harbor. I had set my heart on ex tending my botanical quest to Attu, western most of the islands. My wish was happily realized through permission to take passage on the United States Coast Guard cutter Chelan. The Aleutians had scarcely been explored botanically before 1932. In that year Dr. Eric Hulten, of. Lund University, Sweden, ranged over the region and in 1937 published his work, "Flora of the Aleutian Islands," which includes the names of 481 local species. Since my journey in 1936, events have stirred the interest of the strategist as well as the curiosity of the botanist. Regarded as the key to the back doors of two continents, the Aleutians are fog-bound, their waters storm-swept, their atmosphere compounded of the chill of the Bering Sea and the warmth of the Japan Current. Stepping Stones between Two Continents The islands are the tops of a submerged mountain range which is a westward extension, for 1,100 miles, of the high volcanic moun tains of the Alaska Peninsula. The Russian Komandorskies are a further continuation of this range. For convenience, the International Date Line, which technically would pass through the center of the islands along the 180th meridian, has been twisted here to include Attu's 96 inhabitants in the Western Hemi sphere. This vast under-water range rises in places more than four miles from the ocean bed. The Aleutian Trough is one of the deepest ocean pits. Protruding above sea level, the rug ged crests may have provided stepping stones on which some of America's prehistoric in habitants slowly crossed from Asia to the New World.t Flowers are traveling even more slowly between the continents. The stormy voyage of the Starr, which used to ply monthly from Seward to Unalaska, and sometimes even as far as Umnak Island under its Norse captain was an adventure in itself. On each run the ship logged about 2,500 miles and stopped at 50 lonely villages and canneries. If a passenger could weather a trip aboard the Starr, anything else was easy, I was told, but I recall with pleasure the seven days I spent with interesting fellow-passen gers. The boat's first call in the Aleutians was the salmon cannery at False Pass on Unimak Island. Unimak is the largest of the Aleu tians and the nearest to the Alaska Peninsula, from which it is separated by a narrow channel unsuitable for ocean-going vessels. The gateway to the Bering Sea is at the next gap, between Unimak and Akun, where the wild waters were lighted by beacons at Scotch Cap on the south and Cape Sarichef to the north. Unimak Island is of interest to zoologists because it is the only island of the chain where the Alaska brown bear and caribou are still found. Its flora also is unique, for the other islands are treeless. On Unimak flourishing alder thickets, similar to those found in Kam chatka, reappear after a gap of 1,560 miles, as Dr. Hulten noted. A warning from our captain that I must not explore the groves alone because they were crossed by two bear trails confined my re searches on Unimak to the shore and the village. Colonies of tall blue monkshood (Aconitum *See "Bizarre Battleground-the Lonely Aleu tians," by Lonnelle Davison, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1942. t See "Exploring Frozen Fragments of American History," by Henry B. Collins, Jr., NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE, May, 1939, and "Discovering Alaska's Oldest Arctic Town," by Froelich G. Rainey, September, 1942.