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Amchitka Island

by Guest Blogger

August 30, 2007

As some of you may know, Kieran has written a great blog about Amchitka and our time there. For me it is taking a little longer to process. Hence, although we left the island this morning and are on our way back to Adak, you’ll be hearing from me over several blogs about our time on this nuclear test zone. Starting now.
For any other stop I’ve been content to wander out of my cabin after the usual 7:30 wake-up call but for Amchitka I ask Hettie, who is on watch, to wake me at first sight of the island, even if it happens to be in the middle of the night. This is not likely, as we’re due to arrive at the staid old hour of nine am, but just to be sure.
Several of us are on the bridge a good hour ahead of time, tensely waiting for a first glimpse of this site that has so much historic resonance for Greenpeace. No-one from the early days of the organization, when we had a single campaign, a single focus, to stop a nuclear test on Amchitka Island, has ever made it here in a Greenpeace boat. Thirty-six years after watching the Phyllis Cormack sail out of Vancouver for Amchitka, I’ll be the first of that initial group who will arrive here on a Greenpeace ship. And what a ship. Instead of an eighty-foot halibut fishing boat, we’re pulling up in a massive boat with five zodiacs and a heli-pad on board.
I step outside, pull my collar up around my neck. I’m wearing a button on my jacket, a yellow button with a green peace symbol and one word, "Amchitka. We used to sell this button for twenty-five cents in 1970 and ’71 to try to raise the $18,000 we needed to charter the Phyllis Cormack. It preceded the green and yellow button we sold next which said "Greenpeace", a word Bill Darnell came up with at a meeting one night.
It is absolutely surreal to be standing on the deck of the Espy, nearing what was in 1971 the only refuge for sea otters in the world, a refuge that we all tried so hard to save from a series of nuclear tests. An island halfway between Russia and the USA. An island so remote few human beings besides Aleuts and members of the U.S. military, have ever been here. A destination now completely void of any human presence whatsoever.
I feel suddenly as if my father and mother, Irving and Dorothy Stowe, who helped start Greenpeace, are here with me, holding my hands. I feel as if my Greenpeace aunts and uncles, Marie and Jim Bohlen, Bob and Zoe Hunter, and so many others who used to meet in our living room, are here too I flash on my brother Bob too, who was largely resposible for 10,000 highschool students walking out of class to protest the atomic blasts here. I’m going to touch the soil of Amchitka Island for him, for them.
Although, truth be told, I’m going to touch it as little as possible. Despite assurances by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission that any radiation was contained, Greenpeace scientists found radioactive isotopes in groundwater and fish here in 1996. Everyone on this boat is nervous about landing on these shores.
Diek, who seems to have second sight, spots it first. "There." He points to a jutting shape like a looming sandcastle in the dark fog. A bright white light rims the horizon, like curious icing on a wedding cake. Too bright. I’ve never seen light like this and nor has Diek in his thirteen years on the sea. I can’t help thinking that it looks like nothing so much as a thick dusting of nuclear fallout. Suddenly the cold I haven’t felt all morning, even though I’m only in a thin coat, gets to me, and I step inside.
After we drop anchor the crew gathers to discuss what we’re going to do on the island, and then Pete sends an exploratory party out in a zodiac to penetrate the fog and figure out where we can come ashore. The kelp beds are thick around here, which is what used to attract the sea otters, and our zodiacs could get kelp tangled in their propellers.
I hide in the mess. How desparately I’ve wanted to see Amchitka, and now I feel nothing but dread. What are we doing, coming to the site of the biggest underground nuclear test in U.S. history? How much radiation is there on the island? Why don’t we just turn around and get the hell out of here? I’m ashamed of my cowardice, although I know I’m not the only one are having these thoughts. I know that workers at the test site have died from unusually high levels of radiation-related diseases but I rationalize that the exposure we’ll have, in a day or two here, will be minimal. On the other hand, I’m fifty years old, not young like our videographer Brent who muttered darkly "I want to have children," in a meeting several nights ago.
NEXT: We touch that soil…those rocks…and march through muskeg to the eerie site of thirty-acre large Lake Cannikin, created by the nuke blast.

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