At 73, the czech-accented and bushy eye-browed Stan Chadlek will still crush you. As we speak, he’s heading back to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands for the fifth time, this time to paddle 250 miles around tidal-colliding Unalaska Island with fellow adventurers Rob Avery and Ron Monkman. Throughout the 24-day expedition, filled with treacherous crossings, he also plans to placate his thirst for finding ancient mummies. “It could be my last big trip,” says Chladek, whose book on exploring Central American caves will be released this June. “I think the French have done it in doubles, but no one has ever done it in singles…” PL caught up with him to get his take on all things Aleutian…
Tell us about your trip up there last year, the Andreanof Islands Kayak Expedition.
Chladek: That was last May and June. Rob, Ron, Todd Leigh and I paddled 20 days from the island of Adak to the eastern shore of Tanaga Island in the western Aleutian Islands and back. It’s probably the farthest west in the stormy Aleutian seas as any modern kayakers have gone. We explored the rugged shores of several islands and accomplished crossings of the strong tidal races in the passes between the islands.
What’s your fascination with that island chain?
Chladek: The Aleutian islands are unique. Being a divide between relatively warm North Pacific and frigid Bering Sea, it’s the area of a weather vortex; breeding for storms. High volcanoes on the islands mean the formation of catabatic winds, coming down vertically from the heights. Windy, wet, foggy and cold — one of the worst marine weather on the planet’s ocean. Additionally, in absence of the continental shelf, there are fierce tidal races, rapids and rips in spite of the relatively small tidal range. The islands’ coasts are mostly cliffs, with a few beaches are on the Bering Sea side which are more less steep terraces. But there are usually big swells on the Pacific and consequently big surf on unprotected beaches. And most of the time, wind, wind, cold wind.
Any particularly harrowing moments from your last visit there?
Chladek: The hardest were three crossings of the passes (straits) out of four. One was easy with little wind. The toughest was the last nine-mile crossing in 25-knot winds and steep waves as the tide turned against us.
Our group functioned smoothly, with no separations, delays, flips or rescues. But I did have some tense moments during the last gnarly crossing of the Adak Strait from Kanaga to Adak Island. The crossing took over four hours in strong wind and large waves. We had very poor visibility due to the dense fog, especially in the first half. We knew the weather would not be ideal for the crossing before we started, but were forced to do it due to an impending storm. The storm was big, with 18-foot waves and 40-knot winds.
No equipment issues?
Chladek: As I tried to dry my spraycover earlier, I somehow tightened its safety strap. It was then too tight in the front and leaked in the large waves. Without identifying the problem, I was forced to pump my kayak five times during the crossing. In difficult conditions, this meant that one kayaker had to hook me up with his tow rig to prevent the wind drift while the second kayaker stabilized my boat as I pumped with the deck-mounted front pump. It was doable, but we lost lot of energy and time during these operations. As a result we were delayed and the flood tide started to run against us. The waves got bigger and steeper and the paddling in quartering winds against the current was exhausting. We all breathed easier once we reached the protected cove on the Adak Island.
Sounds like the weather was a big concern.
Chladek: It was. But we were generally lucky with it. It was less windy than on my previous three trips. But it was also much colder. We started to paddle in late May, when there was still lot of snow around. For all of us, it was a “voyage of discovery”; it felt like going into unknown.
Your trips have an archaeological component…did you discover anything important?
Chladek: Frankly, we did not discover very much in terms of the archaelogical stuff; much less so than on previous trips. But we studied in detail the geology of the coast, and saw tremendous amounts of marine wildlife. We also found two hitherto unknown ancient Aleutian village sites with depressions for houses barabaras and one more or less intact barabara still standing.
Planning on going back after this year’s trip?
Chladek:Last year was my fourth time paddling in the Aleutian islands and this year is my fifth. I am getting older, but I’m hoping that it won’t be the last.