National Geographic : 1952 Jul
North Star Cruises Alaska's Wild West Gay-hearted Eskimos Welcome the Annual Supply Ship to Lonely U. S. Shores That Face Siberia BY AMOS BURG With Illustrations from Photographsby the Author S EEKING a bird's view, I clambered up the foremast to the crow's-nest of the North Star to view the stout vessel's annual departure from the harbor of Sitka, Alaska, for Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Already her exploding 1,750-horsepower Diesel was sending convulsive shivers through the 5,000-ton Alaska Native Service ship and up her mast as Capt. Charles H. Salenjus' voice boomed from the bridge: "Let go the bow lines! Let go the stern lines! Hold the spring line!" On the deck below me, sailors scrambled about as they hove in the thick manila lines, like writhing pythons that the rumbling winch drums took up and subdued. Native Students Wave at Their Ship As we got under way, Aleut, Indian, and Eskimo students at the new Mount Edgecumbe Educational and Medical Center on Japonski Island kept pace with the ship on foot. They waved to native friends aboard and shouted messages until our gathering momentum sped us beyond the reach of call or gesture. This was their ship; on our voyage we would visit 45 of their home villages, reaching all the way to the northernmost tip of Alaska. Down on deck I had to pick my way. Every available foot of space was cram jammed with a deck cargo of oil drums, tractors, and boats, all lashed down in proper sequence for delivery. These were only part of the 300,000 items, purser Bill Wanser told me, that packed the ship from deck to keel. They made up the annual consignment of essential supplies and equipment bound for teachers, schools, hos pitals, and native cooperative stores scattered along 2,000 isolated miles of coast. By twilight the North Star plowed into the Pacific Ocean past cratered Mount Edge cumbe, for two centuries the guiding sentinel for mariners steering from seaward for Sitka Sound. Cruising at 11 knots, she reached westward for the Aleutian passes that would lead north into Bering Sea (map, page 58). In three days we picked up the rocky Shumagin Islands and threaded their passes westward along the south coast of the Alaska Peninsula. Islands and mainland, devoid of trees, seemed to have been sprayed by a thin green paint through which rock protruded everywhere. Poking its peak through the clouds, 8,900-foot-high Pavlof Volcano puffed smoke like a giant slow-breathing locomotive. "There are at least 76 major volcanoes along this coast," pointed out a teacher bound for Akutan. "Quite a few are smokers. The na tives are afraid of them." On the evening of the second day from the Shumagins, the North Star passed Scotch CaD Light at the entrance to Unimak Pass. A heavy fog blanketed the light. But on our ship's mainmast, high above the flying bridge, the radar scanner revolved ceaselessly. Unimak Pass, guarded by two great lights at its north and south approaches, passes almost all the traffic between Bering Sea and the Pacific. This traffic includes an estimated million fur seals bound for the Pribilof Is lands,* hordes of red salmon for Bristol Bay, and countless thousands of dog, or chum, salm on that crowd up icy Arctic rivers to furnish the grateful Eskimo with his hors d'oeuvres. And sea traffic is not all: the direct air route to Tokyo passes over Unimak Pass. Slack Time Hits Dutch Harbor At 5 a.m. we docked at Dutch Harbor. When last I had seen that wartime naval base, in the autumn of 1941, bulldozers and power shovels had been tearing frantically at the mountainsides to create a fortress against Japan. Lonesome, rain-drenched soldiers car ried out maneuvers on the mountains.t Now we looked out from the North Star on a vast huddle of empty, shuttered barracks whose surplus contents had been power-barged south to Seattle junk yards. A few Marines on lonely vigil said we could not go ashore. The marshal of Unalaska and his jailer came aboard. They said they'd killed 500 sea lions that summer, combining sport and conservation. One man here declared a sea lion ate a thousand pounds of salmon daily. Later I consulted the ship's encyclopedia, which reduced the sea lion's diet to 40 pounds and gave him a wider choice of foods. * See "The Fur Seal Herd Comes of Age," by Victor B. Scheffer and Karl W. Kenyon, NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE, April, 1952. t See "A Navy Artist Paints the Aleutians," by Mason Sutherland, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1943.