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Articles Blog

Dutch Harbor, Alaska

Karyn Planett

The Friendliest Catch

Dutch Harbor is famous for many things, not least of which is its role as the home port for the popular reality TV series “The Deadliest Catch”. But you might have to consider a new reality after your visit because some think this is also the home of “The Friendliest Batch” of people north of the Lower 48.

But Where Are We?

We are 800 miles southwest of Anchorage on the rugged Bering Sea coast of Unalaska, a spot in the Aleutian Islands chain known as the “Ring of Fire”.

Dutch Harbor sits smack in the heart of the North Pacific and Bering Sea fisheries. It’s home to fewer than 5,000 permanent residents, a number that explodes during the peak fishing season when as many as 6,000 to 10,000 additional workers arrive to roll up their sleeves and tackle the catch. Local leaders are happy to point out that, according to official reports, Dutch Harbor annually retains it’s title as winner of the nation’s “greatest quantity of fish landed” competition. In one season, professional fishermen in something like 400 boats bring in over 750 million pounds of seafood, worth close to $200 million. In their nets, hatches, hulls and cages are a variety of local specialties including herring, halibut, salmon and different types of crab. This mighty haul is handled by five seafood processing factories then shipped to countrymen down south as well as to other destinations worldwide.

Oh, back to “The Deadliest Catch.” If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of some of the show’s major players like Sig, Keith, Andy, Josh, John and Jake, perhaps even Wild Bill. Although this Discovery Channel hit has been in our homes for ten seasons now, these guys still appreciate their fame and enjoy being recognized.

A Port in the Storm

This little place has long attracted the world’s attention, even before the not-so-well-known film, “Dutch Harbor, Where The Sea Breaks Its Back.” The Aleuts, also known as Unanagan, staked their claim to this bountiful landscape many centuries ago. They were lured here by the fine fishing, which they did from nimble vessels called iqax fashioned from animal skins. According to some specialists, this may have been the prototype for all kayaks that followed. Iqax were fashioned from pieces of driftwood strapped side-by-side with strips of animal sinew then draped with the tanned hides of seals and sea lions. The entire vessel was boiled in seal oil to create a watertight boat capable of riding out some serious seas.

There was other game for these original islanders including sea otters and fur seals, which brought the Russians here in numbers seeking their pelts. That was in the mid-1700s not long before Captain James Cook sailed into the area. He wrote in his logbook, “the waters of Dutch Harbor are ice-free year-round and the spit provides a sheltered anchorage for vessels from the storms of the North Pacific and Bering Sea.”

Time marched on and the U.S. bought Alaska in 1867. Prospectors heading to the Nome Gold Rush provisioned here between 1899 and 1909. World War II left its dark mark as told in the local Museum of the Aleutians and at the Aleutian World War II National Historical Park.

A Look About

Two important landmarks are “must-see’s” for visitors to Dutch Harbor. First is the Church of the Holy Ascension, found at the western end of the little town. It’s bright roof and distinctive architecture hark back to its Russian Orthodox origins. Inside is a collection of fine icons and other memorabilia. More of the same is on view at the Museum, including Aleut artifacts, old photographs, Russian items and objects from the early days of fishing, as well as materiel gathered up from the days of World War II. You’ll learn that this was the only place on American soil, other than Pearl Harbor, that was bombed during the war. In response, American servicemen based here built a runway in only nine days so the U.S. could defend against further attacks.

Well, you’ll hear all about this as you wander about. Locals might even boast about “Trusty Tusty”. “Who’s that,” you ask? It’s not a person, it’s the MV Tustumena that bashes into the rough seas between here and Homer, Alaska serving as the trusty ferry for adventure-seekers and those commuting back and forth. Thankfully, you’ll be stepping back aboard your Crystal ship to tackle these waters in complete comfort.