Alaska Picker Picks AdakUncovering items left behind in one of America's most remote outposts, Adak.
Story and photos by Kelley Turney
At Alaska Picker we are in the business of stories and junk. People share stories daily, some true, some exaggerations, and some just that, stories. In the past six years we have traveled all over Alaska, chasing junk—Delta Junction to Dutch Harbor, Cordova to Kenai, Northway to Nenana. One thing has always held true, the farther out we go, the better the stuff gets. About three years ago we had two gentlemen come into our store in the same week. They didn't know each other, had different occupations and told a similar story with the same conclusion, “You should go to Adak.” Hmm… Adak … old closed Navy base out in the middle of nowhere, I'm down. One of the gentlemen said, “You see this furniture over here,” pointing to a military style mahogany dresser, “I saw a warehouse full of this kind of furniture on Adak.” I asked him, “Did you take any pictures?” “No,” he replied. I continued my near interrogation of the poor guy and peppered him with questions. “Which warehouse? Where on the island? Who do I contact? Are you going back out there anytime soon?” All my questions were met with nonspecific responses and no clear answers. He had gone out to Adak to do some communications work for a company he no longer worked for, so it ended there … until a few days later. “Hey have you ever been to Adak?” “Why?”
[caption id="attachment_7526" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] McDonald's Drive Thru - Adak had a McDonald's back in the day. Probably one of their most remote locations ever.[/caption] “Oh there is some really cool stuff out there. They left everything. There is a movie theater, swimming pool, church, post office, bowling alley and gym, and warehouses of furniture. There is even and old McDonald’s on the island.” This guy had a little familiarity with the island and its layout. He said some of the “good stuff” was two to three miles from the docks. He then became the recipient of my next blast of questions. Again, no photos, no plans of going back out there, and no idea of who to contact. So as with most stories we hear at the shop, we relegated it to the back burner.
[caption id="attachment_7525" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Adak from Above - When we climbed the rocky hill we could see Adak on one side and the ocean on the other.[/caption] THE HISTORY: At one time Adak was the 6th largest city in Alaska. It housed around 6,000 military personnel and dependents. It held an important strategical location in WW2 for the Army in the retaking of Kiska and Attu Islands from the Japanese. Adak flourished as a Cold War era Navy base. A lot of secret squirrel stuff happened there—nuclear weapons, nuclear submarines, spying on the Russians, etc... The base was assigned for closure in the early 1990s and at the end of 1997 it was officially closed. There were still some personnel on the island till late 2000. In 2004, the Department of the Interior completed a land swap with the Aleut Corporation for over 47,000 acres of land on Adak. The Aleut Corporation now owns and controls most of the island, base buildings, and their contents.
[caption id="attachment_7523" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Bering Chapel, located on Bering Hill, it is one of the oldest remaining structures on Adak.[/caption] THE MESSAGE: In August 2016, I came into the shop early on a Tuesday morning. I looked up and saw a number 1 flashing on the answering machine. A lady’s voice on the message said in a nutshell, “You helped a friend a few years back with an estate in Anchorage. I am trying to help a friend who is attempting to empty warehouses and buildings on Adak.” I called her back and she began to enthral me with a similar story about the mythical furniture warehouse on Adak, amongst other things. I mentioned to her how we had heard this story before and I had to say that if she didn't have any photos then it would be difficult to commit to anything. “Send me your email address and I will send you one,” the lady replied. THE PHOTO: I am sure you all have heard the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, how about four thousand chairs. With one picture she had our complete and unfettered attention. I quickly called her back and asked, “Do you have anymore photos? I can't go to Adak for just chairs.” She replied, “Give me a few days and I will send them with a contact person.”
[caption id="attachment_7527" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Mythical Furniture Warehouse - This is over an acre of 1950's - 1980's furniture from the old Navy base.[/caption] THE WAITING GAME: Will she actually send me more photos? Was it all a ruse? To good to be true? To keep my mind from obsessing, I started researching Adak. I watched every Adak video on YouTube I could find. Google Earth was no help. I tried to answer the questions: How do we get things off the island? Barge? Plane? How do I get to Adak? Then the magical email arrived. THE EMAIL: Late in the day I heard a ding on my iPhone. I clicked on it with anticipation and boom… I had about a dozen photos of the interiors of two of the warehouses, the Public Works Building and the Furniture Warehouse. As I swiped through the photos my mind began racing. How?, What?, Who??? With that series of photos and a couple more phone calls, we were going to Adak. THE AUGUST SCOUTING TRIP: I was packed and ready with extra clothes, food, batteries, flashlights, headlamps. I had heard of people getting stuck in Adak and didn’t want to be caught unprepared. There are only two scheduled flights to Adak a week, Thursday and Sunday. I met my contact, Ken, at the airport. An amazing, kind and soft spoken man, Ken had been to Adak several times. His job was to attempt to empty some the remaining buildings in good condition for further economic development on Adak. As Ken and I talked on the plane we found out we lived on the same street.
[caption id="attachment_7528" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Bering Theater - Located in the Recreation Hall on Bering Hill.[/caption] We hit the ground and within 30 minutes were looking through buildings. I took hundreds of photos with my iPhone and hours of video with my GoPro over the next four days and three nights. We must have looked in over 30 buildings and most had three floors and a basement. There was no power to any of the buildings so I could only see what my flashlight would allow. The highlight was the Fleet Hospital Warehouse where all the furniture was stored. Over 40,000 square feet of furniture, stacked 8 to 12 feet high. Hundreds of thousands of dressers and chairs. Rows and rows of furniture dating from the 1950s to the 1980s. The sight reminded me of the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark when they are putting the crated Ark of the Covenant into storage.
[caption id="attachment_7529" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Swimming Pool - There are several swimming pools on the island. This one is just down the hall from the Bering Theater.[/caption] By the last day it was hard to remember what was where. We spent the last day revisiting the best locations, measuring furniture and other items, tagging them with pink flagging tape in the event we were able to come back. THE PROPOSAL: After getting home and decompressing for a day or so, I sat down with my fiancee, Becky, who is the other owner of Alaska Picker. We discussed the cost, not only of money but the time and energy that would be spent on this potential project. It was much larger than anything else we had done in the past. We then sat down and wrote the proposal to the Aleut Corporation Board of Directors. With the proposal submitted, we waited two weeks for word back. Then in mid-September we received notification that our proposal was accepted. Now the work would begin. THE LOGISTICS: Logistics took nearly six weeks to get lined out. Let's start with flights. Alaska Airlines flies to Adak two days a week, and the round-trip fare is around $1200. Next, lodging. The Aleut Corporation rents some of the old base housing units out by the night, around $200 a night for two people. Then there was the big one—shipping. The obvious answer was a barge. We went with Samson Tug and Barge. We had used them before on a pick in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor in 2012 and they were great. I called up Samson’s Seattle office and the gentleman at the end of the phone said, “Where are you shipping from?” and I replied, “Adak.” He laughed and said, “Oh, Adak, my favorite 4-letter word.” At that point I became a bit concerned. Was this really worth it, was it even feasible? Come to find out there is not a regular barge service to Adak anymore, but they had a barge due out there in October. The last barge of the season. It was time to pop the question, “How much?” The ballpark figure was around $5000 per 40-ft container from Adak to Seward. Top that off with around $1000 per container to get it trucked from Seward to Wasilla. Lastly, we had to figure out transportation around the island and to move the big stuff. The Aleut Corporation rents vehicles on the island for around $65 a day. This was a time when it matters who you know, not what you know. I needed pallets to put everything on for shipping. I was given the number of a gentleman named, Dustin. He owns Premier Harvest, a seafood shipping/processing business on Adak. I was able to locate pallets on the island and Dustin was able to finish out the logistics of a flatbed truck, fork lift and short term storage for the pallets till the barge arrived. We brought all our own food and drinks (beer and wine included). Tools and lighting had to be rechargeable and packed in as well. We found some great LED 1500 Lumen shop lights that were worth their weight in gold on the trip. I even bought a drone to take on the trip with my GoPro. We shot nearly 20 hours of video. The video was converted to 11, 8-10 minute episodes by Nomad Cinematics and is available to watch on YouTube on our channel, TheAlaskaPicker. THE CREW: The crew that was going to pull this off, well, that was the best part. My future father-in-law, Bill, was in. He always wanted to go to Adak and figured this was his only shot. I also met Joe and Mike through a mutual friend and they were in as well. So in late October we made the reservations and planned to be there when the barge arrived to pack the pallets and load them into the container. THE PICKING TRIP: When we landed in Adak it was eerily calm. Like no wind at all. Adak is known as the “birthplace of the winds” for good reason. We immediately began scouting and playing tourist. We knew the next couple days would be long and hard. The bad weather eventually came and we battled winds blowing 50 mph and sideways rain. Mold could be found in every form you can think of. Over the next six days we packed over 30 pallets of items from Adak. Furniture, work benches, signs, barrister bookcases, a post office mail sorting table, reclaimed doors and flooring, and whatever else we could find that fit in the parameters of our proposal.
[caption id="attachment_7530" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] "Adak Carpet" - Nature is slowing reclaiming everything. This is an office inside the Public Works Building on Adak.[/caption] People always ask what was my favorite thing we found on Adak. I am partial to our salvage of the center court eagle from the old Bob Reeve High School. The school building is like most on Adak, ravaged. Mother Nature is taking the island back. Wind, rain, sun, rain, snow, wind, rain, repeat for the past 20 years. Paint was literally peeling and dripping off the walls and ceilings. New and old furniture and office equipment was crammed into rooms, sometimes as high as the ceiling. Everything there is wet with 100 percent humidity, 100 percent of the time.
[caption id="attachment_7524" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Sea of Chairs - This is the picture that made us go to Adak. We estimated there are 3000 chairs stored in this warehouse.[/caption] We explored nearly every floor of every building we had access to in that week. In the old Bering Theater, Joe and I found a catwalk above the theater allowing you to walk from the projection room to the stage without being seen from below. The creepiest building by far was the abandoned hospital and dental clinic: operating rooms, an X-Ray laboratory, and the morgue. The most beautiful building was the Bering Chapel. Built in the late 1940s, it is one of the oldest remaining structures on Adak. Again, weather has taken a toll on this beauty and I am not sure it will last too many more years with the huge holes in the supporting sidewalls and roof. THE HICCUPS: There were really very few hiccups on the trip. We overcame the lack of light issue in the buildings by being able to open some larger bay doors. We are all Alaskans so we just rolled with whatever the weather handed us for the day. We ran out of beer while we were there and paid $22 for a six pack of Dos Equis. I got addicted to sour gummy worms, thanks to Joe. The barge ended up being nearly three weeks late. Luckily, some of Dustin's guys loaded the pallets in the containers for us. No Wifi or reliable phone service was a blessing and a curse. It was a week before the general election so not having to deal with all the political ads was a huge plus, but not being able to talk to my loved ones for a couple days when the phones were down was hard. The best part was we didn't see any rats. We heard stories about huge rats running around the island. All we saw were a few small long-dead ones. THE REARVIEW MIRROR: Adak is a special place for many reasons: history, natural beauty and its people, just to name a few. Its remoteness is calming and mesmerizing at the same time. No stop signs, sirens, traffic, or “noise.” When this adventure first started I didn’t imagine we would spend the better part of four months with just one pick. I hadn’t imagined phone calls, emails and messages on social media from all over the United States, even Brazil—from people who grew up on Adak, had family members serve in the military on Adak, got married, baptized, and had children on Adak. Who would have thought this place 1200 miles southwest of Anchorage, in a different time zone and nearly at the end of the Aleutian Chain, would be so endearing to so many. It is truly the “birthplace of the winds.” By Kelley Turney, Alaska Picker | Follow Alaska Picker on Facebook March, 2017 https://www.thealaskalife.com/blog/adak-island-abandoned-alaska/
I was also stationed at Adak at NSGA ComSta in 1971-72. Just as my tour was finishing I met a new arrival, possibly from my home town of Delta, Colorado. He worked in the teletype shop and I was assigned to the CTT area classified projects. Interesting to bump into this after so many years away from windy old Adak. Have checked Google Earth and see that the whole Antenna array where we worked is long gone and given over to other technologies. Wouldn’t that be a kick if you were the same Jim Smith I met way back then and we experienced the sojourn to the Birthplace of the Winds.
We were there 1983-1986.. graduated from University of Alaska through their Rural outreach program, and worked as Director of Religious Education at the Adak Chapel… It was a wonderful experience…
I was stationed on Mt Moffett 1964-65 as a SeaBee operating power plant, doing building maintenance and working on communication towers. Adak is an island of memories!
As with many others some great memories. I was on Adak at NSGA ComSta from March 69 to April 70 as a CTR. Sat Position 4. Tom Kelly was my section supervisor. Great memories of the place. First night we had a “Mild” Earthquake. Many more to follow. Still remember when the USO brought some Island ladies to dance in grass skirts. This was in the Ptarmigan Club at ComSta. Bad move to have isolated men in the presence of those lovely dancers. Had some good memories in huts out near Lake Andy. Good fishing for Dolly Varden and salmon in Lake Andy. Could go on but enough. Oh yes Tom’s wife worked on the Crab boats and we would go to Tom’s house and play cards and eat Alaskan King Crab on an occasional weekend off.
I was stationed at the Mt. Moffett transmitter site from late 1961 to October 1962. During the Cuban missile crisis I was transferred down the hill to the Oceanic Research facility. I would go go back to visit if I could but the site is all gone. I was a second class petty officer, electronics technician communications. It was beautiful in the Spring and Summer.
This is Keith Shaffer. Your neighbor in housing. How are things with you folks?
Penny and the boys and I moved to Colorado in 95 and have been here ever since.
I still remember our first trip to Hidden Bay for reds like it was yesterday. Thanks for being my guide.
Worked at NAVFAC as an OT from 76-77. OT rate is now gone. What was left of us went to SONAR ST. SOSUS ASW lives on and is now declassified. Some of us learned to drive a car for the first time on the island, Had a 68 Chevy Impala GOLD in color that had a paint job in red paint that said “‘DOROTHY I DON’T THINK WE ARE IN KANSAS ANYMORE” and a HODAKA 175CC dirt bike that would get me in trouble all the time.
Went back in early 80-81 to work at the USAF EL-070 Green Pine system with Mitch Freitas, James Burrell, and Richard Hawkins, and brought home a Husky, Lab mix named KASHIN who was named after a (soviet destroyer) who lived quite a few yrs longer after leaving the island. He was the most loyal hiking dog a person could have as we spent time in a survival barrels waiting for the weather to clear on our hikes….
GOOD people, times and memories.
Stationed at the Navfac October 1st 1970 til Oct 31st 1971. RM3 in Comm. Roomed with Ralph Woods, Rick Kohler, Joe Roderick, and a host of other crazies. Still laugh about the times
we had after all these years. Would love to visit again.
I was the first female alter server on the Hill!
My job took me to Adak twice a year for 20 years, I sold gold nugget jewelry in the base exchange. I was the only vendor that went out there, they flocked to buy every Mother’s Day and Christmas time. I have so many stories over those years, it was very interesting.
My dad was stationed there and we took one of Jim Beams pups!! Fat Albert was a great family pet for about 12 years. He traveled to many duty stations with us. He has a son named Beamer after his grandfather!
My dad did 2 tours there and we all loved it. My sister and her husband were the first marriage in the chapel at ComSta. That was over 50 years ago!
You helped me establish my first savings account! I was there throughout 1969, working in the Admin Bldg. My office was next to Captain Glenzer’s and Commander Loran Parry’s. They were CO and XO, respectively, but you wouldn’t know it from their attitudes. Just great guys! Both encouraged me to go to college. Worked with Mrs. Bishop a lot – she used to ask me to use my calligraphy skills to make place cards and such for the various ceremonial dinners. I also handled most of the CO and XO correspondence. I came out of Adak with about $2k, saved for college, with your help. You always had such a bright smile behind the counter, which made doing business at the bank even nicer. Yeoman 3rd Class Larry Ray
I served with NAFAC for a couple months and then NAVSTA PWD for almost 4 years as a Planner Estimator from Jan 1989 to Sep 1992. The most treasured years of my life. Thank you for posting your article and photos. So many wonderful memories and friendships form Adak… “Where the four winds blow and friendships grow” (quote from the old welcome sign at the NAVSTA Adak Air Terminal.)
My husband and I were in Adak from. 1990-1994. It was the most unusual place but we enjoyed meeting so many people and friends we still enjoy. Sorry that it closed.
I was stationed at the NavFac from Nov 1969 to Nov 1971. Great memories! Lived in the last barracks on Bering Hill. It was a “secret” barracks due to the nature of our work, so any visitors were restricted to the lounge area. Wrote a column for the weekly paper, too. Also got involved with the amateur theater group on the island – Adak Little Theater – acting and directing. Great people! We’d put on plays in the Bering Theater; three performances in one weekend, every twelve weeks or so. Also tramped all over the island. Great hiking! I know I’m overusing the word, but really a great time over all.
Was in SPEC COMM DIV nav sta bldg P80 1973-1977. My daughter was born there.
Lots of memories. Loved it there.
I worked on the Lucky Strike tide up in Finger Bay in 1973.
I’m trying to find a RM1 Rick ? Can’t remember his last name. A little stocky, blonde hair, real nice guy. Know his last name?
I was stationed there June 1972 to June 1973 as a USN Seabee. I worked the “Sea Land ship moving the supply containers and moving the base trash.Anyone remember “White Alice”? Reeves Airlines? I swam in the pool pictured and went to theatre pictured. We also had pretty decent library as well. I too have a lot fond memories.
Some of my best memories are of Adak. It was a love it or hate it place and I loved it. My best years of teaching were there and I made some lifelong friends there.
I remember you went to UGA and I used to let you have
my Great Speckled Birds from Atlanta to read. I still live
in Ga. and talk to some of the old guys that were stationed with
us. We were RM’s and CT’s in comm. Hope you have had a
great life as I have. Have a few pictures with you in them as
a matter of fact. Take care
I was stationed in a dock patrol squadron nine(VP-9) twice first was 1967 in my last employment 1970. I’m sitting here as we speak watching the deadliest catch, it brings back memories I had an old old Chevy I would drive down to finger bang and buy whole king crab of the process and boat. Do you know of anyone who might know the names of the boats that docked and finger by and unloaded to the crab processor?I completely understand the nightmares of a
Adak, Experienced ittwice.
I too was there from 79 to 80…Port Ops on the Navy tugs. Was one of my favorite places to be stationed at with the most memories. If they had Mc-D’s and TB there, might have stayed longer…but first time away from home/states I left too early and regret ever since.
You worked at the AUW compound?