An Unlikely Thing – Exploring Shemya Island
By: Michael Rogers | Photos by: Jeff Brummett
My work in Alaska has never been what my friends in the Lower 48 think of as “normal.” I had travelled to many locations that by the reckoning of my childhood friends were positively outlandish—the North Slope oil camps, remote Interior villages, even a couple of mountaintop transmitters. But one assignment took me to a very unlikely place that would last a few years, Shemya Island. The island is in the Western Aleutians and as the inhabitants say—“It’s not the end of the world but you can see it from here!”
Visually striking, the volcanic islands that comprise the end of the Aleutian Islands are known as the “Near Islands” and rise from sea floor at the very edge of the Aleutian Trench—resulting in rocky beaches, pounding surf and incredibly steep mountains.
For anyone who has travelled there, the name “Near Islands” seems about as oxymoronic as they come. The islands are 1200 miles from Anchorage and don’t really seem near to anything. As an aside, the name actually comes from the Imperial Russians, since these islands were the “nearest” to Vladivostok, the hub port of the Russian-American Fur Company.
While out on my assignment, I decided to do a little exploring with a co-worker and went beach combing on the rugged coast at low tide. While the phrase beach combing invokes the mental image of a pleasant walk in the sand, the coast of Shemya Island requires an athletic climb on boulders, bowling ball size rocks, and enormous logs that have washed ashore a long while ago. The coast here is rugged and pounded by storms; the weather is frequently so bad that the station manager forbids residents of Shemya Island to venture outside, much less to the beach.
During our explorations on one rare fine day we came upon a pillar of volcanic rock. It rose out of the tide line perhaps some thirty feet or so and was topped with a shock of long, billowy tundra grass. Being young and adventurous, we were not ones to pass up such an opportunity and we climbed up the sides for a view of a slightly protected cove to watch some seals go about their fishing. When we arrived at the top, we found the view was quite spectacular and Shemya Island revealed its rugged coast stretching in both directions.
What we also found was rather unusual, hidden there in the grass at the top was a most unlikely thing in this far away place. It was a small pile of empty cartridge casings. Being interested in such things, I soon found about two dozen and upon examination they had a very familiar shape. The presence of shell casings is not particularly unusual anywhere in Alaska, while hunting sheep I’ve found empty cases on mountaintops where I thought I was the first guy to ever step foot. And it wasn’t like these islands hadn’t been the scenes of several military occupations—in fact the only battle for occupied U.S. territory during World War II occurred a mere 80 miles to the west on Attu and an entire Japanese division had vanished from the island of Kiska, only 40 miles to the east.
But these casings weren’t from some GI’s rifle firing any generation of U.S. military cartridge, or even from any Japanese rifle—these were (of all things) marked W.R.A.C.O. – .30 WCF! That’s right, the very good and century-old “30-30” from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. These casings were old and had considerable verdigris on the brass, but on a few the head stamp was still clearly visible despite decades of exposure to the hostile climate. If I had ever doubted the ubiquitous nature of the “30-30” before, I never would again.
These shell casings wouldn’t even elicit the slightest curiosity in my hometown in Tennessee, anywhere else in the Lower 48 or even Interior Alaska where the 30-30 goes back to the Gold Rush—but what an unlikely thing out here at the end of the earth. Being curious about such relics I took one down with me and a few minutes of searching on the internet resulted in the following identification. These particular cartridges were manufactured between 1895 (the .30 WCF’s year of introduction) and 1903 based on the head stamp data. After 1903 these were known in the gun trade as the .30-30 Winchester and the “30 WCF” moniker was dropped altogether. These islands have been a U.S. military preservation since 1943 and were only rarely occupied prior to that as a seldom-used Aleut seasonal hunting camp and much earlier than that as a Russian fox farming operation.
Who could have fired such an unlikely cartridge in this place? We will likely never know. A G.I. would have been forbidden to have a privately owned weapon here and the U.S. military never issued this caliber of weapon to anyone. The Russians had a presence here for a couple of hundred years and did issue a .30 WCF rifle manufactured by Winchester and even did so in respectable numbers. But by the year 1895 the Russians should have been cleared out of these islands altogether after the U.S. had purchased Alaska in 1867.
Anglo-American fur and seal hunters rarely ventured this far out and the dangerous tides, lack of natural harbors and cataclysmic weather discouraged all but the hardiest souls from the place. Besides, by this time the abuses of the earlier Russian fur trade had all but obliterated the sea otter population in the Western Aleutians. The Aleut population did occasionally come here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but generally chose to harvest animals by traditional means and only rarely used firearms during that time period. Artifacts of earlier Aleut populations are sometimes found, but these are more in line with the Ice Age than the Industrial Age, so that would preclude the use of guns.
So, a neat little mystery developed from an accidental discovery of an errant shell casing. Who fired the cartridge and at what? Was it an adventuresome Anglo-American hunter going after a catch of seals for food or one of the few remaining otters for fur? Was it a renegade Russian doing the same thing on the remote and lonely shore of a foreign nation? Or perhaps it was a forward thinking Aleut who had adopted a firearm and its ability at doing what his people had been doing traditionally for millennia?
That casing is since long gone from my personal artifacts and is now lost to the years, but I still think about it from time to time. I’m still curious as to the identity and purpose of that long dead person on a volcanic spire overlooking that small cove on Shemya Island.
We will never know, but out there in that lonely and far away place I was quite happy to have the diversion of thinking about the casing while the gales howled and the wind and rain lashed the windows of my quarters. It is only one of the many mysteries of the Western Aleutians. For future generations, there are still a double handful of casings on that spire … waiting to be found by an adventurous young person exploring that rugged coast.
Michael Rogers is an Alaskan explorer—a workingman travelling to odd places to do odd things for even odder people, and a curious collector of sporting artifacts from centuries past.
If you enjoyed this article, check out “A Day Exploring Prince of Wales Island.”