The Long Goodbye
Hundreds of tidy houses that line this island’s winding streets stand empty, closed tight against the endless wind and frequent rain.
Antennae that once dotted the rolling tundra, listening for Soviet submarines prowling the Bering Sea, have been dismantled and taken away.
The U.S. Navy has bid farewell to Adak, a military outpost in the far-flung Aleutian Islands since World War II. The Adak Naval Air Facility, a Cold War surveillance center and a base for sub-hunting Navy planes, closed March 31 as part of the nation’s military drawdown.
With a population of 6,000 sailors, officers and military dependents in the early 1990s, Adak was once Alaska’s eighth-largest city. A sign on the road from the airport into town welcomes visitors to “The place where the winds blow and friendships grow.”
These days, Adak is a ghost town. Large “No Trespassing” signs bar entrance to many of the buildings. After the military left, about 100 civilian contractors remained behind, working on an environmental cleanup of the 72,000-acre base.
The Navy’s departure raises some perplexing questions about what to do with the roughly $3 billion in abandoned military assets.
The 280-square-mile volcanic island sits in the middle of the North Pacific, halfway between Seattle and Tokyo. “It’s a long way from everything,” says Capt. Keith Mulder, commanding officer of the base until the pullout.
Adak was a company town. With the exception of a few U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers, only military personnel and the base’s civilian employees lived here. There is no local government to take over the island.
As a result, Aleut Natives have taken the lead in trying to find new uses for Adak and the 1,000 homes, office buildings, warehouses, two restaurants and a new $25-million high school with an Olympic-size indoor pool.
Chris Gates, president of the nonprofit Adak Reuse Corp., gets excited when he discusses the possibilities. He envisions cruise ships and fishing vessels using Adak’s deep-water docks. He sees prison inmates housed in its barracks.
The island’s location and 7,600-foot runways could make it an economic bridge to the Russian Far East and a base of operations for companies involved in oil and mineral development there, Gates says.
And then there’s the fuel-tank farm, with a capacity of nearly 20 million gallons.
“We have this wonderful filling station in the middle of the Pacific,” he says enthusiastically. Gates predicts there will be 150 people living on the island within the next couple of years and as many as 2,000 within 10 years.
Since the Adak Reuse Corp. was formed last fall, there have been a few people who have traveled to the island to look at the facilities, “kicking tires,” Gates said.
So far, though, no one has made any commitments.
The Navy has made it clear that it has no money to maintain the base while new tenants are sought. After all, the point to closing bases is to save money, Mulder says.
“My fervent hope is that there is some kind of reuse, that someone can come out here and find an economic reason for being on Adak,” Mulder says. “The Navy doesn’t want to have its feet nailed to this base, spending money ad infinitum. It is not outside the bounds of possibility that this base will eventually be abandoned.”
As Mulder spoke with visitors in his office shortly before the base was closed, wind-driven rain rattled the windows. The rain stopped abruptly and, after a few minutes of sunshine, there was a sudden snow squall.
It was typical Adak weather.
The island’s fierce winds, damp climate, treeless terrain and frequent earthquakes have given it a reputation as a difficult place to live. Without new tenants, Adak’s buildings, utilities and runways are expected to deteriorate quickly in the wind and rain.
“The infrastructure is very expensive to maintain,” Mulder says.
Despite Adak’s harsh climate and isolation, the Navy worked hard to create a homelike atmosphere for sailors and their families.
The Sandy Cove subdivision would look like a suburban neighborhood anywhere in America were it not for the lack of trees. Children had just a few blocks to walk to the Ann C. Stevens Elementary School and Bob Reeve High School.
A peek inside the McDonald’s restaurant just around the corner from Sandy Cove reveals chairs stacked neatly on tabletops, ready for the next day’s Big Macs.
When the fog and clouds clear, Adak’s charms are evident--volcanic peaks, lush tundra grasses, scores of lakes and salmon streams. Clam Lagoon, just a few miles from town, is home to sea otters and Emperor geese.
The Navy even brought in a herd of caribou for the sailors to hunt. The sailors are gone, but the caribou remain.
John Martin, a civilian employee who lived on Adak for 15 years before retiring in March, will miss the island.
“I never really felt like I was wanting for anything,” says Martin, who worked as the assistant director of recreation at the base. There were hikes on Adak’s ridges, fishing in its salmon streams and picnics on the beaches.
“It was such a closed community. There were just not some of the things likely to cause problems. It was crime-free. Kids enjoyed being here,” says Martin, whose stepdaughter graduated from the island’s high school.
While the Navy leaves behind a modern city, waiting for reuse, there are parts of Adak that can never be reused. Unexploded ordnance dating back to World War II lies beneath the tundra. Large areas used as practice ranges and for bomb disposal will be fenced in forever. It is just too dangerous and expensive to remove all the mines, shells and bullets, Mulder says.
Even if the island’s buildings, runways and roads are never used again, Mulder thinks the military’s multimillion-dollar investment in Adak was not a waste.
“It’s like an insurance policy. You pay the premiums, hoping you never have to collect,” he says. “This was one small payment that the people of the United States made to make sure our viewpoint prevailed.”
‘It’s a long way from everything.’