Outside attraction: Tiny Alaskan community flourishes at edge of America

by @RyanSchuessler1 July 12, 2015 5:00AM ET

Adak, 1,000 miles from the mainland, pulls in those looking for a new life in abandoned military base

Adak’s residents gather around a bonfire to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Ryan Schuessler

ADAK, Alaska — Sitting around a bonfire of burning pallets and driftwood, the people of Adak recently gathered to celebrate the Fourth of July, waiting for the sun to set just enough to start the firework show.

It’s a scene familiar across the United States, but in Adak it has an unusual backdrop hard to match elsewhere. A volcano looms in the distance. The cold Aleutian wind blows, stifling the children’s laughter and rattling the loose siding on the abandoned Navy housing across the road.

Some might find it hard to imagine why anyone would move to this abandoned Cold War–era Navy base more than a thousand miles from Alaska’s mainland. But the people who have made their way here say Adak offered a fresh start and an escape from the modern world that many became disenchanted with.

But life is not easy. Adak’s hundred or so residents, who call their island the Rock, had to fight to keep air service from Anchorage, and they pay hundreds of dollars each month for basic Internet access. Jobs are hard to come by. Yet people keep moving here, drawn by the isolation that comes with living near the end of the Aleutian chain and guided by little other than the inexplicable feeling of home that many say they found in Adak.

‘It’s otherworldly’

“We’re kind of a demographic of ourselves out here,” said Alain Beauparlant, 33, who just moved to Adak with his wife, Carrie Plant, in early July. One of the only married couples without kids on the island, they moved to Adak after falling in love with it during previous visits.

“It’s otherworldly. It’s a really strange mix of beautiful scenery and urban decay, all in a rural setting,” Plant said, surrounded by unpacked boxes in her house that overlooks the Great Sitkin volcano.

The latest chapter of Adak’s long history is one of rebirth. Originally inhabited by indigenous Aleuts, the island was depopulated by famine in the early 1800s. When the Japanese captured the Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska during World War II, tens of thousands of American troops were part of a counterattack launched from a base hastily constructed on Adak. That base remained open as an important outpost during the Cold War — complete with a McDonald’s — until it was shuttered in the late 1990s. That’s when the Navy gave more than 40,000 acres of land and buildings, asbestos and all, to the Aleut Native Corp., which began selling old Navy housing to the people who became Adak’s modern settlers.

Now home to about 100 people, Adak was built to hold thousands.
Ryan Schuessler

Much of the old base’s structures remain in Adak, the westernmost inhabited island in the Aleutian chain before the border with Russia. But the buildings are abandoned and being chipped away by the island’s strong winds and the occasional cyclone that finds its way north from warmer parts of the Pacific. It is among these modern ruins that Adak’s residents have built their town and its small economy, largely based on fishing and tourism.

“What I see, we were given a pile of crap and told to make a city out of it,” said Estrella Rizo, who moved her five kids to Adak from Oregon in 2013. “If things are good [in the future], I see my kids graduating from here.”

That future is still uncertain, but demographics are on Adak’s side. Contrary to the trajectories of many small communities across Alaska and the rest of the United States, Adak is growing more diverse — and younger. The Aleutian Islands are already the most racially diverse region in the United States, but Adak is unique because of the number of children for a town of its size. Of some 100 year-round residents, about a third are children, which is promising for growth — if they stay.

Some of Adak’s children in a Fourth of July sack race.
Ryan Schuessler

“We get more and more kids each year,” said Rex Poe, one of the few in modern Adak who also served there in the Navy. “But we have to find something else than what we got right now for the place to survive.”

“We need cheaper energy here too,” said Mike Eickhoff, who moved to Adak from Montana 11 years ago. Gas in Adak costs more than $6 per gallon, and electricity rates remain high. “That would solve a lot of problems. It would bring a lot of jobs here.”

Adak has had its share of close calls since it was incorporated in 2001, becoming America’s westernmost municipality. Alaska Airlines, which runs two flights a week to Adak from Anchorage (weather permitting), came close to cutting service in 2013. Last year the Federal Communications Commission slashed its subsidy to Adak’s Internet and phone service provider, which already charged high rates compared with the rest of the state because of the island’s remote location.

“The people that are left here are the ones who stuck out it through the hardest times, because they love Adak,” said Elaine Smiloff, who moved to Adak in 2004, referring to the early years of Adak’s resettlement, characterized by what she said was rampant municipal corruption, budget deficits and power outages. “Now we’re building, and I think we’re building with a stronger foundation. It’s more of a community.”

An abandoned building next to Finger Bay, near Adak.
Ryan Schuessler

Home in the hinterland

In many ways, Adak is the typical small town. Everybody knows everybody and one another’s business. The town school is the community’s lifeblood. Despite the challenges that come from the island’s remoteness, many residents say they could not live anywhere else.

Sitting in her living room, which would overlook the sea if it weren’t for a row of decaying houses, Esther Bennett described how she immediately felt at home the first time she set foot on Adak.

I’ve always been an island girl,” she said with a grin. “We’ve got a remote, haunting, rugged beauty. But it’s not for the lighthearted.”

“When I’m here, I almost forget there’s an outside world. We’re insulated from a lot of the negative American culture.” Beauparlant said. “There are places like this you can still go and live a lifestyle that few people get to live. We’re living, especially in this day and age, a lifestyle that few would understand.”

“It’s been good for me,” said Poe, who did seven tours in Vietnam. “I don’t get in a lot of trouble out here. I don’t remember the last brawl I was in. That’s something for me. It really is.”

Of his post-traumatic stress disorder, he said, “I’m able to handle it a lot better out here than I could in Anchorage.”

“It’s a lifestyle you don’t have everywhere else,” Smiloff said. “I think Adak is just starting to blossom.”

Children splash in the cold water of Kuluk Bay for a Fourth of July polar plunge challenge.
Esther Bennett would be able to see the ocean from her window if it weren’t for a row of abandoned Navy housing units.
Ryan Schuessler
Adak residents decorated cars and other vehicles for the annual Fourth of July parade.
Ryan Schuessler
April Bennett blows up balloons for the parade.
Ryan Schuessler
Many in Adak say they were drawn to the town by the isolation that comes with living on the last inhabited island in the Aleutian chain before the border with Russia.
Ryan Schuessler