Dutch Harbor will most likely not be found on many tourists’ lists of places to see while visiting Alaska. Although surrounded by awe-inspiring scenery by land or sea and being a well known name to people who watch the TV show “Deadliest Catch” each year, this small, busy fishing port is too remote for the average vacation traveler. Even so, it is uniquely beautiful and can be a great destination for the right person.
Few people outside the fishing industry realize that this little port and it’s “sister city” of Unalaska actually houses the busiest International fishing port in the United States. Being located pretty much in the center of the North Pacific, directly on the shipping routes between the West Coast and Pacific Rim nations, Dutch Harbor is the main hub for all of the Pacific Rim partners. The amazingly rich fishing and crabbing found in the dangerous Bering Sea draws fishermen from all over the world.
Dutch Harbor is where the serious crab fishing fleet docks their boats when they are not at sea during crabbing season. Unalaska and Dutch Harbor are located on remote Amaknak Island on the Aleutian Chain, nearly 800 miles southwest of better known Anchorage, Alaska.
Work can be brisk here for fish processing and support-based businesses catering to the commercial crab and fishing boats, charter fishing boats and pleasure craft that come and go with the different fishing seasons. Fishing and fish processing are the main source of economy for the areas approximately 4,000 year-round residents. Most of the crabbing vessels are home-based out of Seattle, Washington and bring their crews with them when they journey north each year. The port is a vital link for these boats; providing supplies, spare parts, transportation when needed and repairs.
Crabbing is undoubtedly one of the most hazardous and most physically demanding professions in the world. Between tilting, ice-covered decks and frigid winter winds howling over heaving seas and the short days and long nights northern Alaska is famous for, the Bering Sea is a hard master. Injury is almost certain and death by accident or drowning is far too common. Still, when the fishing is good, the pay is worth the risks to these determined fishermen. When the fishing is poor … well, there is always next year. Most of the crab fishing boats working the Bering Sea have been handed down through more than one generation of fishermen.
With some of the richest and most productive fishing grounds on earth at its very shores; charter boats out of Dutch Harbor often land world-class salmon and halibut. For those few visitors not interested in fishing, the local mountains of the Aleutian Chain also offer great hiking and backpacking trails and outstanding photo opportunities. Some of these trails were originally established by Unangan hunters thousands of years ago.
The native and European history of this region is long and involved, with the first Russian settlers documented as far back as 1759. The town’s name of Unalaska was most likely an adaptation of the Aleut word “Ounalashka” meaning ‘Near the Peninsula’. Dutch Harbor, on the other hand, was given its name because the Russians thought it was a Dutch ship that was the very first to enter the harbor.
The fastest and most practical way to Unalaska and Dutch Harbor is by air and Alaska Airlines is the only service provider. There are some accommodations on the island, but reservations are essential. There is also a ferry that travels from Kodiak Island to Unalaska once a month … but only between the months of April through October. The last ferry of the season arrives in Dutch in mid-October and departs only five hours later. This gives a whole new meaning to the term “don’t miss the boat!”
Dutch Harbor is a spectacular speck of land in the middle of nowhere. Anchored to the mainland by a curving chain of volcanic mountains and perched on the edge of the ever-changing Bering Sea, this is a land of challenge as well as a place of beauty.