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Amchitka, anew.

by Kieran Mulvaney

August 30, 2007

Of all the places I never imagined I would visit twice …

We are about an hour away from returning to Adak. Few places have had as much an impact on everyone on board as this remote outpost, and whereas initial reaction to the apparent ghost town was disbelief and discomfort, the crew genuinely warmed to the community and the hospitality it showed us. For a few hours this evening, we will have an opportunity to experience it again.

We may take advantage of our presence here to refuel, if that proves possible. Otherwise, the principal rationale for returning is to give back something we borrowed.

We had little idea what we would find in terms of terrain on Amchitka, so George secured the loan of an ATV from someone in town. It sat proudly lashed to the heli deck on our journey west–the previous leg boasted fancy submarines, we had a Polaris four-wheeler–until we left our anchorage off the coast of Amchitka and tied up alongside at the island’s (surprisingly well-maintained) dock in beautiful, sheltered Constantine Harbor.

From the dock, the gravel road that the military had carved into the spine of Amchitka sloped gently into the distance, and several of the crew unhesitatingly used our temporary transport to drive up it and explore the island in much greater comfort than had been the case the day before. I stayed behind, as there was filming to be done, but I wandered around the vicinity of the dock, looking at the tell-tale signs that this silent, abdandoned spot had once been a hive of activity: dirt tracks now almost overgrown, drainage pipes emptying into the water; piles of trash and abandoned, rusting equipment.

Perhaps it was gallows humor, but after a while, we defined everything on Amchitka with the same pejorative adjective. There were no spiders, only radioactive spiders; no flowers, only radioactive ones. Want to reach the bluff that overlooks the harbor? Head up the radioactive road until you reach the radioactive fork.

We were joking, sort of, but it was rarely comfortable. Amchitka was beautiful and rugged and peaceful, but the demons were everywhere. The knowledge of what had happened there was inescapable; it invaded us, possessed us, bore deep inside us. I had wanted desperately to be here, as if it were my destiny, to the extent that the morning of our arrival I was almost physically sick with nerves and anticipation. But there was something about the spirit of the place that made me want to leave almost immediately.

"I hate this [expletive] island," I kept muttering. "I hate this [expletive] island."

And yet, it is now a part of me to a degree I never dared imagine.

It is not the island’s fault, what happened here. Amchitka did not ask for the violence that was visited upon it. Amchitka is the victim, not the perpetrator. Amchitka needs to be healed, not shunned.

We stood, a few of us, overlooking the ship and the harbor. We said a few words, gave thanks, expressed the hope that perhaps, in some small way, our presence there, by closing the circle started by the crew of the Phyllis Cormack thirty-six years ago, might somehow represent a process of cleansing. It is time for life to return to this place of death.

In honor of the sentiment we pronounced the bluff to be Esperanza Hill–not as a claim of ownership, but as a declaration of hope, for Amchitka and for the Bering Sea.

We returned to the ship and prepared to leave. But first we had to wait for Hettie and Mannes, who had stayed on board the day before while we had scrambled to the test site, and who now had taken the twenty-mile round trip up the road to the vicinity of the Cannikin test to see for themselves. They made it back to the Espy at almost exactly the time they had promised, but then they set my heart racing.

"We think you went to the wrong spot," they said.

They described what they had found to the side of the road: the site of the Long Shot test, definitely, and, farther north, evidence, they thought, of Cannikin. Of the latter, I was certain they were wrong: apart from anything else, our GPS had shown us to be almost exactly at the coordinates of the test. But, it was ALMOST exactly, not exactly: enough for us, after tramping across hostile terrain, to declare victory, but now I felt a nagging discomfort. There should have been a commemorative plate in the ground, believe it or not, but we didn’t find it. I wished now that we had looked with greater vigor for definitive proof; I feared that perhaps we had not seen Cannikin Lake at all, that in fact what we had sought had been just over the next ridge.

I wanted to go back to be sure. I wanted to go back so that, if I had been wrong, I could now find the correct site. I wanted to go back to explore the rest of the island, to bear witness to the results of the other tests, as if in doing so I would be able to confront their demons and rid myself of them. And I realized that, although one circle had closed, another one had opened.

I thought I would find closure. In fact, I found a beginning. Now I am the one who must return to Amchitka.

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