by Stan Chladek
Expedition Members: Ron Monkman, Richard Kocher and Stan Chladek.
In June of 1741 Vitus Bering, the Danish explorer in the service of the Russian Imperial Navy sailed from Kamchatka southwest and subsequently west to discover Alaska, making landfall between the mouth of Copper River and Cape Suckling. After turning east to discover Kodiak Island he later landed at a group of mountainous islands off the coast of Alaska Peninsula. The crewman of the ship Saint Peter, named Shumagin, became very sick and was taken to shore with hope that his heath would improve. He died a day later, apparently from scurvy, and was buried at the narrow isthmus between the ocean shore and an inland lake, on the island which is known today as Nagai Island. This archipelago of 22 islands, located near the tip of the Alaskan Peninsula (about 280 miles east of Dutch Harbor on the Unalaska Island) was named Shumagin Islands in his honor. He was the first in a long list of Russians who died during their more then 120-year occupation of Russian America.
Like the Aleutian Islands toward the west, the Shumagins were originally inhabited by Aleuts. Their lives were totally based on using kayaks, baidarkas, for hunting sea mammals and fishing, since the treeless islands provided very little subsistence. In pre-Russian times, there were probably twelve native villages on six main islands (Unga, Popoff, Korovin, Simeonoff, Chernobura and Nagai). As the times passed, the villages dwindled, partly due to losses from civil strife, partly due to Russians, but mostly due to ravages from Kodiak Islanders (Koniags), who launched long distance kayaking forays from their home far northeast. In the twentieth century there were only two settlements left and after the village of Unga was abandoned in the sixties, only one settlement exists today, Sand Point, inhabited by both native and white population.
Studying the charts of the Islands indicated that all the ingredients of an interesting sea kayak trip should be there: remote islands with exposed coasts and steep topography, and long lines of cliffs intercepted with infrequent beaches. We could expect some protected areas in large bays, and most often we would be exposed to the swells of the open North Pacific. We anticipated similar weather as on my last expedition to the Aleutian Islands: that means wind, fog and rain and more wind. We thought that perhaps conditions could be a little milder, since charts did not indicate too many tidal currents. In fact, the tides were relatively small (only about 8’ in spring). As it turned out, the weather was indeed similar as at the Aleutians, with the famous williwaws (katabatic winds) viciously blowing quite often and quite suddenly. The Pacific beaches turned out to be more gradual then those on the Bering Sea, thus enabling us to get good surf rides and much easier landings and launchings. Also, there were more protected bays. However, the frequency of rain and fog even exceeded our rather pessimistic expectations!