How long is 1,500 miles really? Once endurance voyages tot up thousands of miles, they can be hard to comprehend. The Aleutian islands, however, are easy visualised. They are Alaska’s chain of volcanic islands, swooping 1,500 miles across the Bering sea towards the Russian coast. To cross the Aleutians, anyone could see, would be a long way to go.
But that’s what world circumnavigator Sarah Outen and documentary filmmaker Justine Curgenven set out to do by sea kayak. Launching from the village of Adak, they filmed their 101-day voyage along the remote coast back to the mainland village of Homer, Alaska. What results is a gritty montage of foaming breakers, fog-covered volcanoes, sea lions, otters and an endless grey-green horizon. ‘There’s just us on this vast beach,’ says a windswept Outen surrounded by white sand, ‘and there are hundreds and hundreds of these beaches across the islands.’ Kayaking the Aleutians gives a sense of the scale of this huge landscape full of marine wildlife.
The islands were not always so empty of people. For thousands of years native Aleut people had a strong presence, and with it a rich tradition of kayaking and sea navigation. However, the relatively recent history of diseases borne by European colonists and forced evacuation during WWII has decimated the population to a handful of outposts, some just a few dozen strong. The pair make pitstops at these villages, allowing them time to interview community members. Is the Aleut culture thriving here? ‘No,’ says Elaine Smiloff, former Harbourmaster in Adak, ‘but there’s no way to go backwards. We are figuring out how to go forwards and take the good things with us.’ The film shows 1930s footage of Aleuts using skin-on kayaks as well as today’s generations remastering traditional crafts at culture camps. It fleshes out layers of human culture in an outwardly inhospitable landscape.
The short respite in these communities make the rest of their journey seem all the more exposed, particularly when they must cross the open ocean between islands. To navigate these gaps, some of them 50 miles across, is a close arm wrestle with nature. ‘It’ll be the most challenging thing either of us have ever done,’ says Curgenven. Even in the best of weather, boats can be pulled off-course by the tidal rips funnelling through the gaps. Meanwhile, the region’s volatile skies are the birthplace for destructive low pressure weather systems on the west coast of the US. This precariousness is felt in waterlogged close-ups of the pair – who are often exhausted – and in the scrunch of the wind tearing at the camera microphones. If the crossings take too long, the kayaks must be landed in the pitch-black darkness. In one such instance, Curgenven captures the yellow reflective glow from the eyes of sea lions, watching them try to get to dry land.
Among a line up of films showcasing some of the world’s most beautiful underwater locations, Kayaking the Aleutians shows what can be learned at the limits.