With the protected port of Dutch Harbor, in a ferocious ocean habitat rich in crab and bottom fish, Unalaska has grown from a tiny, forgotten Native village to a land with a greater volume of fish than any other port in the nation. The pattern of growth followed the form of the early gold rushes. There was a wild, lawless time in the 1970s when crab fishermen got rich quick and partied like Old West cowboys. Then the overfished crab stocks crashed, only to be replaced, starting in the mid-1980s, by an even bigger boom, when waters within 200 miles of the U.S. shore were rid of foreign vessels and American bottom fishing took off. Big factory ships began unloading here, and huge fish plants were built on flat ground chipped from the rock.
The process of the town's domestication had long ago taken hold when Hollywood discovered the fishery with the hit cable TV program Deadliest Catch. As the program shows, crabbing in these waters is dangerous and lucrative -- but it's far safer, tamer, and less profitable today than in the days when fishermen died by the dozens every year or came home rich men. The legendary rough bars closed years ago. As a visitor, it can be fun to visit the docks and bars, where it's easy enough to strike up a conversation with a fisherman about his adventures and close calls.
Is a hike over the tundra and a beer with a rugged fisherman enough to justify the $1,000 plane fare? Unless you're looking for the "real," rugged Alaska, maybe not. Unalaska has less than a full day of historic sightseeing; beyond that, you need some motivation. The fishing grounds are rich in large halibut, and it is possible to find someone to take you out; likewise, the countryside offers bird-watching opportunities you likely haven't experienced before, if you go find them.
Unalaska's history is Alaska's longest. The value of a good port out in the middle of the ocean was recognized from the beginning by the Aleuts. In 1759, the Russians began trading here and brutally massacred the Aleuts to subjugate them as slaves. The Russians built a permanent settlement here in 1792, their first in Alaska. Unalaska also was a key refueling stop for steamers carrying gold rush stampeders to Nome a century ago, which brought an epidemic that killed a third of the indigenous population.
In 1940, Dutch Harbor -- the seaport on Amaknak Island associated with the town and island of Unalaska -- was taken over by the U.S. Navy to defend against Japanese attack. That attack came: In June 1942, Japanese planes bombed Unalaska, killing 43. The Aleut people were removed from the islands for the duration of the war and interred in inadequate housing in Southeast Alaska, where many died of disease. The military pulled out in 1947, but the remains of their defenses are interesting to explore, part of a unique unit of the national park system. Thanks to a 1971 act of Congress settling Native claims, the Aleut-owned Ounalashka Corporation owns much of the land around town. But the National Park Service protects and interprets the World War II historic sites on Native-owned land.