Recently, rocks have been popping up all over Unalaska. This might not sound surprising, considering this is an island with countless rocky beaches. But these aren't just any rocks; they're rocks painted with images of peace signs, octopuses, foxes, and eagles.
After weeks of investigation, talking to locals, and creating ISO posts across social media platforms, I finally discovered where these rocks were coming from and what they were doing all over our parks, sidewalks, and public facilities.
When I asked Unalaska junior high students Iver Gates and Gotti Torres about some of the painted rocks they'd seen around the island over the past few weeks, they were extremely eager to share.
"They look like they represent most things from the island because [there's] the anchor, the boats, and then the eagles. And I don't know about the frog and the fish, but they look nice," said Gates.
"And on the back of them, it says they're made in 2020," added Torres.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing mandates that followed, it's been an unusually quiet summer for Gates, Torres, and many other kids this year.
Unalaska schools had been shuttered since late March, and many students have had little to no interaction with friends and teachers since then.
For these middle schoolers—who at the time, had been idling their summer vacation away at Town Park, bicycles strewn along the fence—the rocks seemed to spark a bit of excitement for them.
"And then one of them had my sister's name on it. And then when she saw it, she was like, 'Oh, I didn't draw that. I didn't put that on there,'" said Gates.
While Gates and Torres said they aren't sure if the rocks are meant to be taken, they've brought a couple home that they've found especially "cool."
For weeks, I had little luck figuring out who was painting the rocks or why, if it was a trend like other towns have done in the past—or even as Unalaska had been rumored to have done—where people leave painted rocks for others to take home, post pictures of on social media, and then replace with one of their own painted rocks.
But the rocks kept popping up: a puffin outside of KUCB, a blue whale at the post office, a butterfly and inspirational phrases on the benches outside of Unalaska's Community Center.
Finally, after reaching out over several platforms, I received an email from Kristy Zimmerman, saying she and her kids were the ones painting the rocks and leaving them around town.
"It just started with my husband and I saying let's order up some crafts for the kids to do while we're up there," said Zimmerman. "And one of the things I ordered was the painting pens, and I kind of had in mind that we would do some rock painting because I always wanted to try it."
Zimmerman—who lives most of the year in Washington State with her kids—said she was searching for a fun activity that could help keep her children busy and stimulated when they got to Unalaska, seeing as they wouldn't be able to interact with others while under the city's mandated 14-day self-quarantine.
"We just started painting them," she explained. "And then we kind of had this idea—a kind of fun, positive, uplifting thing for the community with all the virus stuff going on. And so we tried to do some fun kid stuff and then write some positive words on some of the rocks. It just kind of went from there."
Zimmerman said that she and her family were inspired by some painted rocks they'd seen out at Humpy Cove. She didn't know for sure who painted them, but everything just kind of fell into place, she said, and it wasn’t ever a full-fledged plan, but took shape over time.
"And I usually go on a walk every morning until the kids decided, well, when you go on your walk, we can go put the rocks out," said Zimmerman. "So they started joining me on my walks every night and it just kind of kept going from there. So we were doing it every day."
When I spoke with Zimmerman, she was off island, and expecting to return to Unalaska soon. New painted rocks were still popping up while she was gone, and she said she was happy to hear that they were bringing the community together—especially in the midst of an isolating pandemic. And she was glad people were taking them home and painting new ones.
"It was just really fun. It turned out to be a lot more fun than I ever expected. It turned out to be a lot bigger than I ever expected too."
Although Zimmerman didn't intend to leave such an enduring wake with her painted rocks, she unintentionally united the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. She brought students, families, and isolated friends together around an ordinary object most people— especially those living on a rocky island—would generally not give a second glance.