by Kieran Mulvaney
August 28, 2007
Thirty-five years, eleven months, and eighteen days later, we finally made it.
On September 15, 1971, a crew of twelve set out from Vancouver Island in an eighty-foot halibut seiner called the Phyllis Cormack on a daring, even foolhardy, mission: to steam to the Aleutian island of Amchitka and protest, or even prevent, the detonation of an underground nuclear test. When the plan was first hatched, the group that organized the mission went by the name of the Don’t Make a Wave Comittee. By the time the Cormack set out to sea, they were calling themselves Greenpeace.
The Cormack didn’t make it to Amchitka. President Nixon delayed the test, the crew put into the Aleutian port of Akutan to figure out next steps, and the US Coastguard arrested them on a technicality. But the mission was a success: although the explosion, dubbed Cannikin, went ahead, it would be the last on the island: a further four tests were scheduled but canceled in the face of the enormous protests that found a voice in the Greenpeace voyage.
And yet, ever since, a circle has remained broken, a path unfinished. Almost thirty-six years have passed, the island has become a wildlife sanctuary, and a kind of calm has returned in this most remote of realms, and yet, no Greenpeace ship had completed the Phyllis Cormack’s journey and reached the shores of Amchitka.
To the last, Amchitka seemed determined to keep its secrets. We arrived as night was reluctantly yielding its grip, and even when daylight barged its way through, Amchitka lay shrouded in thick, seemingly impenetrable fog. An initial boat ride in search of a suitable landing beach provided little of great promise, but at least one option, and after lunch we headed ashore.
The island is ringed by thick kelp beds–the reason it was once lush habitat for sea otters, all now gone, whose violent deaths as a result of the blasts angered Irving Stowe and motivated him to protest the explosions, a move that gave rise to the Don’t Make a Wave Committee and thence Greenpeace. There was no doubt that the kelp could do serious harm to the propellor of the African Queen, our large inflatable, so we employed a shuttle service: from Esperanza to African Queen to the smaller Novuraina, which threaded its way uncertainly through the shallows, before we began an undignified clamber across kelp-coated rocks and finally made it ashore.
We had made it. We were on Amchitka. But the object of our attention lay a couple of miles away yet, over the intimidating-looking hillside that sloped down toward us. Undaunted, we picked and clambered and hauled our way to the top of the island, and there, of all things, stood a concrete hut at the end of a gravel road. It had been, presumably, a form of sentry post.
We stepped inside. On the floor there sat what appeared to unexploded shells. We stepped back outside.
We wandered along the road, but according to our charts and calculations, we needed to head inland a short distance. And so we marched across spongy mosses that sprang back up as our footprints left, along thick tundra that enveloped our feet as if trying to suck us into the ground, and tall grasses that hid holes into which at least some of us sometimes stumbled and fell.
Then we rose over a ridge and there, ahead of us, was what we had come to see: Cannikin Lake, created when the force of the blast caused the land to collapse, forming a crater which filled with water from nearby White Alice Creek.
It looked, frankly, disconcertingly peaceful and calm, the water gently breaking against the lush grassy coast, But its placidity is deceiving: samples have shown that the lake, the creek, and the mosses and lichens contain radioactive elements, which are still seeping into the groundwater from the blast chamber a mile below the surface.
At ground zero itself, close to the lake, the reality was more evident. Here, in stark contrast to the lush environment on the way in, the ground was all but lifeless, the remnants of scorched lichens clinging to bare earth. And there was something else, something I hadn’t truly realized until talking later with Raymond back on the Esperanza. This is an island that has felt but a handful of human footprints for more than thirty years, that is an undisturbed wiildlife reserve. But there is virtually no life here. Oh, there are some seabirds, some songbirds, moths and spiders and flies here and there. But compared to the other Aleutian islands we have visited, it is lush but desolate. The place just feels wrong. It feels violated. It feels … dead.
The crew had made it clear they had no intention of allowing us solely to come and monitor and document the site without making at least a symbolic statement, and so we stood, facing the lake, with the ship’s flags tied to poles and waving bravely in the strong wind, a testament to how Greenpeace has grown globally in scope in the decades since its founding, and how, on behalf of the nations of the world, we were reclaiming this patch of inhumanity and calling for peace.
Then the flags came down, and everyone stomped back over the hill, leaving Brent, Clive, myself–and Barbara. Barbara Stowe, 14 years old at the time of the Cormack’s sailing, our connection to the founding era, had sold pins and buttons on street corners for 25 cents a pop to raise money for the Cormack’s voyage. And now, representing all of those who had devoted so much time, energy, and emotion into making that seminal event happen, she was here, with us, bearing witness firsthand to the place her late father had sworn to protect.
We filmed some interviews, and then again we did battle with the terrain, forcing weary limbs through unforgiving ground, and then precariously down the slopes we had earlier climbed, before once more running the gauntlet of rocks and hitching a ride back to the welcoming Esperanza.
On the beach, some of the crew had arranged driftwood to spell "Bering Witness" in honor of the campaign, a quiet message visible only from the cliff tops.
And at the test site, too, a memorial now stands: a small piece of driftwood, which Diek retrieved from the shore and tied to a short post. In the wood, he carved a simple message: Phyllis Cormack 1971, Esperanza 2007. And now it stands on the shore of Cannikin Lake, a solitary sentinel, bearing witness on our behalf to a silence broken only by the blowing of the wind, the calls of the seabirds, and the gentle lapping of the waves.