‘Hear the nature, hear the wind’: Unalaska offers cruise ship visitors pleasant surprise
It was the tail end of cruise season when Darrell and Sue Zenk arrived in Unalaska. They came aboard the Orion, a ship operated by Viking Cruises.
The couple knew the basics. Darrell Zenk was aware that the town was targeted by the Japanese military during World War II.
“I didn’t know a whole lot about it except the bombing,” he said.
Not everyone knows the basics when they first experience Unalaska. For many, it exists in the mind as little more than a fishing hub. Thanks to its depiction on a hit reality show on Discovery, when some people think of Unalaska, they think of punishing waters, tough people and squirming piles of red king crab.
A first glance might confirm these preconceptions. The first thing that greets tourists stepping off of cruise ships in Unalaska is heavy industry. There are towers of crab pots and shipping containers, a gantry crane, semi trucks rumbling by and an army of workers keeping it all in motion.
Unalaska has about 4,000 residents and a salty reputation. It’s isolated, harsh and expensive to get to. It makes an unlikely contender for a dream vacation spot.
For the average Alaska visitor, destinations in the Southeast region of the state scratch the travel itch with stunning vistas and a sense of wilderness that few other places in the United States can offer. It doesn’t hurt that these spots also have robust tourism infrastructure designed to accommodate high numbers of guests.
In 2023 alone, Juneau saw a record-breaking 1.65 million total cruise ship passengers. Citywide records were also broken in Sitka, Ketchikan and Skagway.
“A good contrast”
Katherine McGlashan runs the Unalaska Visitors Bureau. She grew up in Unalaska, and wants people to appreciate its magic. To her, it’s more than just the town from Deadliest Catch.
“I think my vision stepping in was to promote more of our Unangax̂ culture. I try to speak more about our culture and what we do to keep it alive,” McGlashan said.
There isn’t much tourism infrastructure to speak of in Unalaska. Visitors disembark at the same dock as the big barges and pollock trawlers. They stand in a line just outside of the Kloosterboer fish refrigeration plant, then board a school bus driven by a local volunteer.
McGlashan said, “When they first get on, they're like, ‘A school bus, really?’ And I'm like, we're a small town, we utilize everything that we can.”
Throughout the summer, visitors marveled at Unalaska’s natural beauty, with a special admiration reserved for the island’s animals.
Dieter Posiwio, a tourist from Bremen, Germany said Unalaska wildlife is unlike anything he sees back home, even in his harbor town.
“As we came in, there were lots of whales, sea lions, sea otters. All this stuff you don't find over in Europe,” he said.
Jöerg Meyer is from Germany as well. He described Unalaska as “more cultural than expected.”
“It's a good contrast to those who live in big cities,” he said. “Come down, hear the nature, hear the wind.”
But culture goes far beyond natural beauty. Unalaska history is Unangax̂ history, and visitors often don’t know much about the island’s Alaska Native population.
While giving guided tours of the island, McGlashan emphasizes Unangax̂ life.
“I kind of always held on to the culture because my mom was very passionate about our culture and community,” McGlashan said. “So we always ate Native dishes, and she would invite her friends and family. And when elders would come over, they would speak the language. So it's pretty precious now because you don't ever see that happening anymore.”
Small but mighty
McGlashan has only one other employee at the Unalaska Visitors Bureau, Trevona McGowan. A handful of locals volunteer with them on the dozen or so days when a cruise ship is in town.
This year, the small tourism team broke the town’s record for visiting cruise ships. There were 20, two more than the year before the pandemic.
But McGlashan and McGowan are doing more than breaking number records. They also leave visitors with a raw, intimate picture of what life can be in one of Alaska’s farthest-flung corners.
“I had a guy on one of the earlier cruise ships, and he told me, ‘What you have here is very special. We’re going to Juneau — Juneau will get 10,000 people off of three different cruise ships at a time.’” recalls McGowan. “And he said, ‘You know, I’m probably never going to remember a single person in Juneau, but I’m never gonna forget this conversation I’m having with you right here.’”
The visitor’s bureau estimates the venues, buses and museums brought in over $270,000 from cruise ship visitors in 2023.
According to McGlashan, there are already 22 ships booked for 2024.