Location Start with a lush volcanic island on the edge of the Bering Sea, add a dash of red foxes, a sprinkling of bald eagles and a healthy helping of emerald hillsides, and you can begin to picture the natural beauty of the Aleutian Island of Unalaska.
The name comes from the native Aleut word unalashka—"where the sea breaks its back." The island lies at the heart of the 1,100-mile-long Aleutian Island chain, which separates the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea. This arc of more than 200 islands forms the northern border of the Pacific "Ring of Fire" with 46 active volcanoes, making the Aleutians one of the most geologically active places in the world.
A short two-hour flight from Anchorage International Airport transports you to this tundra-carpeted isle. The fishing villages of Dutch Harbor and Unalaska town occupy only a tiny portion of the island's 80 square miles; the rest is trackless wilderness.
Weather The ocean moderates the climate here. The average temperature ranges from 31 degrees F in February to 56 degrees F in August. At any time of the year, storms can sweep in unexpectedly and unleash drenching rains. A waterproof jacket and pants, plus adequate protection for your gear, are required. Don't assume that a clear morning will stay that way—the weather changes very quickly and without warning. Photo Experience Exploring this island frontier is easy: just shoulder your tripod and start walking. You don't even have to leave the coastal villages to see the island's most photogenic subject‚ Unalaska Island boasts one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the world. On some days, it seems as if every lamppost and traffic sign has its own eagle warden. Since the island is treeless, the eagles build nests right on the cliff faces. Climb nearby Mount Ballyhoo and Bunker Hill to see their nesting areas and the million-dollar views of the towns and glacier-capped volcanoes.
My favorite spot on the coast lies a few miles down the road from Unalaska town. Summers Bay is an idyllic spot where fern-carpeted hills meet a black-sand beach. The eerie quork quork call of ravens and the crashing waves will be your constant companions. Hike down the beach to photograph Steller's sea lions, whiskered auklets and tufted puffins.
Don't overlook the luxuriant inland valleys. The Unadaga Bay Trail leads you into the island's interior, where you'll pass a deep gorge with unnamed waterfalls spilling into a green valley. There are no trees or power lines to obscure your views, and you can leave the bear bells behind; Unalaska Island's largest mammals are red foxes and wild horses.
Wildlife shooters should pack their 300mm or longer telephotos for frame-filling shots of seabirds and foxes. The wide-open valleys beg for panoramas, and macro enthusiasts will delight in the tiny tundra flora.
Best of all, you'll be alone. Since 90 percent of the island is pristine wilderness, it's easy to leave civilization behind.
Best Times The long days of summer are the best times for photography, with an average of 16 hours of daylight. The end of August brings another photographic treasure—the return of the salmon. There's nothing better than lying on the spongy tundra grasses watching juvenile bald eagles fight over a salmon lunch, and if you get hungry, just pluck a handful of blueberries or raspberries off a nearby bush.