It was thick fog for the entire 268-mile charter from St. Paul to Unalaska, but when we finally dipped down below the fog, we saw mountains rising straight up out of the ocean; harbors everywhere; boats and beaches, high-tech fish processing plants and wild tundra. Welcome to the incomparable Unalaska!
Janice Krukoff, Community Liaison at the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association’s Oonalaska Wellness Center and our local liaison extraordinaire, whisked us into a van and brought us to The Grand Aleutian Hotel (and yes, it looked grand to us) where she handed each one of us a goodie bag full of information and useful things from Unalaska.
We just had time to dump suitcases in our rooms before climbing into the van again.
As we crossed the bridge separating Amaknak Island from Unalaska Island, Janice clued us in on an important distinction: Locals never refer to their community as “Dutch Harbor.” The name of the community is Unalaska, or “Ounalaska” or “Oonalaska” (closer to the original Unangan). Dutch Harbor is the port. We appreciated the clarification: Dutch Harbor is to Unalaska as Long Beach is to Los Angeles.
Janice delivered us to the campus of Unalaska Junior/ Senior High where we hoped to make short work of putting up our set. But alas NYO athletes were high kicking, seal hopping, stick pulling and wrist carrying in the gym so we were “forced” to stuff our set into a closet and take off for a leisurely dinner at the Harborview where we could watch eagles soaring and sea otters swimming just outside the bay window.
We were so ready for the next day, Friday, our first company day off since Anchorage. Janice, our official unofficial tour guide, was determined we were going to make the most of it. First we met her at the Aleutian WWII Visitor Center, where Aquilina Bereskin welcomed us and Janice augmented the exhibits with stories about her family’s activities in the area during WWII. Then it was off to the Museum of the Aleutians, which manages to gracefully integrate the cultural and natural history of the region. The next event Janice had planned for us was really special. She arranged for Father Ivon Bereskin to give us a tour of his parish church, the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension Of Christ Russian Orthodox Church, the oldest cruciform church in the North America, dating back to the Russian fur-trading days in the early 1800s. Father Bereskin was most cordial and gave us all sorts of information about the icons, paintings and history of the church. He even allowed us to take some photos.
After lunch with the kids at the high school cafeteria, we returned to the Grand Aleutian for some free time. Some hiked, some napped and some just processed all the information we were given on our tours. For dinner we were guests at a community potluck hosted by the Qawalangin Tribe at the Unalaska Senior Center. The Unangan elders got a kick out of watching us eat all the different kinds of seafood, including octopus. We all enjoyed watching the Unangan Dancers.
Our Saturday got off to a great start at the Annual Pre-Easter Brunch hosted by the Ballyhoo Lions Club. The whole community turned out in the high school cafeteria for eggs, bacon, pancakes and a chance to admire all the children in their Easter finery. Jim Wilson, the Jr./Senior High School Principal who is also the President of Ballyhoo Lions, kept the event moving by giving away gigantic Easter baskets door prizes. We cheered when Janice Krukoff won one of them.
Putting up the set and doing workshops with the kids after brunch helped us work off the pancakes so we could focus on our Saturday evening show, our final performance of the 2019 tour.
It was a beautiful ending. Over one hundred community members watched the cast give some of their best performances. Everything seemed to click. For one thing, we had the whole set to work with, but we also had the confidence of knowing we could do the play with just a makeshift set. That confidence of finally being able to trust the play helped everyone relax and just do it. Having two weeks and seven very different audiences was a great gift.
After the show, we celebrated with a dance party across the street from the hotel.
The next morning was hurry-up-and-wait at the Unalaska Airport along with many workers from the fish processing plants speaking Slovenian, Russian, Korean, Filipino and other languages we couldn’t identify. We were all going home.
The fog rolled in. By this time we’d learned how to wait and welcomed the time to reflect on all the amazing, wonderful, hospitable, generous people we met. We headed to our respective homes confident that the communities of Northwest Alaska have the knowledge, experience, resources and the will to change the climate of fear and hopelessness that causes suicide. It was a privilege to work with them.