July 02, 2023
If the Aleutian Islands are a necklace reaching across the Pacific Ocean, separating it from the Bering Sea to the north, Umnak is the jewel at the center. The tiny island, floating more than 900 miles from Anchorage and 1,300 miles from Petropavlovsk on the great Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, is far from either mainland. But, for hunters in search of adventure, it’s worth the journey.
Last October, six hunters, who each signed up for this trip via Cabela’s Signature Outdoor Adventures, gathered in Anchorage for a private charter to Umnak Island to hunt reindeer. The plane was a 10-seater PC-12 Pilatus Turboprop. The flight from Anchorage to Umnak should take about four hours on a good day, with the full understanding that you may or may not make it all the way there. As with most flying in extreme environments, there is always the chance the plane will be forced back to its base due to weather. If this flight couldn’t get through, there wouldn’t be another within the time allotted for the hunt. It was a $20,000 gamble before even loading a gun.
A BUMPY RIDE
The plane arced above glaciers following takeoff, but a storm was approaching across the Bering Sea. The morning flight was rough. After three hours, the plane stopped in Cold Bay, a small village and abandoned military base, to refuel. Following that stop, the flight got even rougher. Instruments beeped steadily and the pilot told us he was preparing for “Plan B.” There was no explanation what “Plan B” was.
Sometime around our fifth hour of flying, we looked down through our windows to see running herds of reindeer and were simultaneously excited and highly relieved. On the final approach to Umnak, the winds were a full test of pilot skill at the VFR-only gravel strip that served as Nikolski Airport. As we landed, we were met by a relic and a reminder of the stark nature of the Aleutian Islands. At one end of the strip lay the hulking shell of a Douglas C-47A, the remnant of a nonfatal, 1965 crash caused by a sudden wind gust on takeoff.
ANCIENT HUNTING GROUND
Nikolski is believed by some to be the oldest continuously occupied community in the world, with archaeological evidence dating as far back as 8,500 years. The island provides an astonishing mix of abundance and challenges for its residents. It has hosted Unangan peoples for millennia and more recently, Russian hunters and fur traders, the U.S. military, sheep and cattle ranchers and adventurers. Today, its enduring community is small. About thirty people live on the island in ten households. Along with English, the Unangan dialect is spoken in most households, and some also speak Russian. Subsistence living and community activities, along with support of sporting visitors, sustain the community.
The town itself is a collection of low houses, geodesic planting domes, tanks and an aqua-roofed, turretted Russian Orthodox church with a beautifully carved interior. Beaches connect to grassy slopes, then low hills and headlands, and behind it all, Mount Vsevidov, an active volcano, rises in a perfect cone from the sea to over 7,000 feet.
In contrast to the stark surroundings, the lodge was modern and warm, and we settled in quickly. There are no trees growing on the island. The town is heated by electricity and diesel generators, which consume 14,000 gallons of diesel a year delivered by barge. Our guides were Josh Stamm, Vinnie Lestenkof, Dave Dushkin and Sterling Mize. Dushkin and Lestenkof are native guides who grew up in the islands and have Russian names and heritage. Every person in the village holds multiple titles and roles. Josh is also an island helicopter pilot, boat captain and heavy equipment operator. Lily Stamm takes care of the lodge and Tanya Lestenkof is the amazing chef. Along with being the chief agent and liaison with the air charters, reporting weather conditions and clearing the runway for flights, she is also active in tribal matters.
Mainland hunting gear isn’t going to do you out here. Your usual rainwear will keep you dry for a few minutes. Perhaps. Temperatures are not extreme, but in this raw and beautiful land the weather is constantly shifting from sleet to rain to fog to sunshine. The one constant is the wind. We had been carefully coached in outfitting ourselves with commercial rain gear, with the options of layering bibs beneath a long jacket falling all the way to your rubber boots. Goggles were sometimes necessary to protect our eyes from the driving sleet.
There are no roads past town. The hourglass-shaped island was shaped by its active volcanoes, and from these huge slopes slip numerous rivers which flatten out into plentiful lakes in great tree- less, grassy plains. Soil erosion is so rapid that bridges could never be built, even by the U.S. Army. To traverse this harsh landscape we used workhorse Polaris Ranger UTVs. That they are the preferred vehicle there is a pretty impressive product endorsement, though even the Rangers eventually experience problems, particularly with the suspension as it takes a beating over the rough terrain.
Our first morning, once properly dressed, we packed food, water, guns and binoculars and took the UTVs high up steep hills from where the views were incredible. The reindeer we had come to hunt were introduced from Siberia in the early 1900s as a food source for locals and military personnel. With no bears or larger predators, and few hunters, the reindeer have thrived for more than a century. Now more than 5,000 of them roam wild over the island.
From our vantage point we could see multiple groups — herds of 10, 100 or 200. Spotting scopes helped determine which herds to pursue. Our stalks were complicated by the network of creeks and lakes strewn across the plains like spiderwebs. We hopscotched our way through, taking turns pulling each other out of creek beds deeply carved into the landscape. When we reached lakes, we often had to circumnavigate them, sometimes driving through the shallow water when surrounding ravines were not navigable.
After closing the distance, the real stalk began as we scanned the herds to locate the mature bulls we were targeting. Belly down and peering over knolls, we were immersed in the smells of the islands. The winds carried rich odors of washed-up kelp, mosses, crushed grass and sometimes the smell of the abundant feral cattle that also roam this island. There were only three ways to shelter from the wind—in the lea of a hill or shelter of a deep ravine, ducked behind the UTV’s windshield or stay in the lodge.
The guides were excellent, born for the job. Despite the weather and terrain, each hunter experienced the excitement of a successful hunt. One day the wind kept us inside the lodge entirely as speeds rose above 90 miles per hour. We watched the roiling sea and grasses through the windows that day, mesmerized by the power. Guide Josh Stamm pointed out a huge wind turbine that failed to spin, immobilized because it couldn’t handle the wind load. I’ll never complain about our winds in Montana again.
THE FRUITS OF THE LAND
Driving through the village I saw smoke rising from a chimney in one of the houses. As a wood-burning aficionado, I wondered where the wood could be coming from on an island without trees or bushes. On our next hunt, Lestenkof took me to a beach littered massive hardwood logs from the Bering Sea, Japan and Russia, and another beach piled with cedars from the Pacific coasts. I saw an unlimited amount of wood piling up, ever-replenishing. One after- noon on the way back to the lodge Vinnie said, “That log is way too good to pass up!” We spent an extra half-hour with the winch to bring it up from the beach, where he marked it and left it to dry.
The creeks running through the villages are the sources of spawning salmon. This raw island provides so much of what they need —reindeer, cows, wood, salmon, seaweed, seals and sea ducks. Josh and Lily Stamm have started a small sheep flock and we spoke of the hardy Icelandic breed we raise back home. The resilient feral cattle are a special and wild situation. A 2008 volcano eruption at the north end forced the evacuation of the island’s only ranch, and every subsequent attempt to corral the escaped cattle has been a full-on rodeo, with ferocious bulls, bad terrain and worse weather so far winning out every time over the capacities of human technology and ingenuity.
As our visit ended, we saw how the islanders make good use of any extra space on the flights that bring hunters in and out. As we waited to board the plane, two new dishwashers were unloaded, along with many fat orange pumpkins to celebrate Halloween. In their place for the return flight to Anchorage were pallets of antlers, capes and reindeer meat waiting to be loaded into the plane that bore witness to our hunters’ success.
I fell in love with everything about Umnak—the rawness, the logistic improbabilities, and the huge smiles of the residents of this amazing island. The living evidence of millennia of sustainable living existing alongside decades of Russian, ranching and military history. We left feeling so fortunate to have experienced this extraordinarily beautiful, constantly changing land.