Sun, salmon and king crab

Published 9:33 am Friday, May 9, 2014

by James D. Howell

The sun came out yesterday. And today. Its brightness fills our eyes and our spirit. Mt. Moffet’s snow- capped peak and upper flanks are clearly visible. Curtain-free windows glare across desks and floors that have known very few sunlight shadows. Work slows; most personnel can be found staring, mesmerized into the brightness.

It is such a rarity on this remote island that the base commander declares a holiday for all Adak residents. Plans are made for a department picnic over at Finger Bay, just a couple of miles south on rocky roads.

Finger Bay is well known to us; it’s a local “getaway” destination. Anyone on the island can lay claim to any of the Quonset huts abandoned since World War II. The only requirement is that the building be registered with the Public Works Department. Many places have been fixed up with carpets, leftover furniture and other amenities and are passed down to new residents when the owner leaves the island. A name plate is usually affixed to the front announcing ownership. A number of the better furnished huts are located along the shore of Finger Bay.

During WWII, Finger Bay was a deep port for submarines. It’s a narrow, well protected body of water that serves as a base for king crab factory ships today. During the crabbing season, the factory ship ties up at the wharf and receives the catch of crab fishing boats. The fishing boats appreciate a market for their catch closer than Dutch Harbor. When the boats are unloading, local personnel can visit the ship and purchase a whole king crab for one dollar. Many king crab find their way to Adak pots.

In early summer, salmon make their way up Finger Bay to spawn in the shallow headwaters. Salmon spawning grounds include many of the shallow streams found on most of the Aleutians. Local fisherman hike to remote parts of the island to enjoy fishing those streams. Sometimes the fishermen require our services as a search and rescue unit.

Our picnic is centered at a larger Quonset hut that has a deck and a couple of rough cut picnic tables. We are the first group to make it here and have our choice of use areas. Decks were common during WWII; they kept feet and equipment out of the mud. Today, we’ll celebrate the sun, allow small children to run unimpeded by vehicular traffic, picnic and enjoy a break from work.

After lunch, some decide to hike up to Lake Betty. It’s not a difficult hike; it’s mostly flat along a well-beaten path after the road ends. Lake Betty is a reservoir, dammed up during the occupation of WWII. Today it serves as the main fresh water source for the entire naval complex. Water is not in short supply here, but it does need a certain amount of processing and elevating in order to have a reliable supply.

We hike along an unpaved road, past large rock outcroppings where the stream narrows and salmon rest before continuing toward their spawning grounds. This is the last spot for fishing during salmon runs. Just past here, the stream flattens out and into a broader shallow basin. Salmon come here and lay their eggs in the shallow rock pockets. The male fertilizes the eggs and both parents-to-be slowly release their last energies and die.

Bald eagles by the hundreds know the salmon’s schedule and patiently await their yearly feast. There is no patience during the feeding part and the old battle the young and males battle females for food. Adak has no significant trees and eagles perch on whatever rock outcropping is available. They waste little energy flying, content to sit and wait for the feast.

Today, the feasting is almost over; remnants of salmon not eaten drift in the shallows. Natural waterflow cleans leftovers in an efficient manner. We climb the short hill and sit on rocks overlooking Lake Betty. Our children run along well trodden paths and we bask in the unusual warmth. It’s a good day.

The afternoon sun makes our eyelids heavy, and our bodies content. It’s good to hear the laughter from small and not so small mouths; it’s good to feel free of the pressures of doing and responsibility. We retrace our steps to the cars and wind our way home.

Sunny days are rare here; a succession of sunny days is almost unheard of. I know on any given day, generally above six thousand feet, the sun can be found. On those days when I’m squinting through a bright, glaring windshield, I feel a little sadness for those who must remain under the clouds, earthbound.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at