Heart of Darkness

by Guest Blogger

August 30, 2007

We are moored off Amchitka Island, as far west…and interestingly, on the map, also as far east…as a boat can go. How ironic it is that visitors here were once greeted by a sign "This is a wildlife refuge and no weapons are allowed", words rendered absurd when the U.S. government set off their biggest underground nuclear test ever here, blasting the earth, sea and animals to smithereens.
When the 1971 blast, code-named Cannikin, ripped through this island, puffins were found with their legs driven through their chests. Sea lions miles from shore had their eyes blown out of their sockets. And the sea otters this refuge was set up to protect? Against reason, I am hoping to see even one.
But as we shuttle in zodiacs from the ship to a precarious stretch of jagged rocks some distance from the shore, as close as we can manage to get without the thick kelp rendering our propellers unworkable, there is not a single otter nibbling on the kelp beds they used to come here for.
The difficulty of our landing, which takes my mind momentarily off the otters, seems appropriate. The first Greenpeace boat, an eighty-foot halibut trawler jerry-rigged to hang together, braved thirty foot high waves and the hazards of the capricious Aleutian fall weather to try to make it here. A cushy landing for us would seem far too easy.
We climb out of the zodiacs and start to gingerly leap and crawl from kelp-layered stone to stone, sometimes wiggling on our bellies over barnacled slabs of rock, managing by some miracle to avoid slipping and falling into the drink except for one crew member who trips on a mass of seaweed and slices his leg open.
We have more than the usual reasons for not wanting to fall into this particular part of the ocean. After Cannikin was exploded, iodine 131 and Krypton 85 started leaking into the sea. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission denied that the shot cavities leaked, but in 1996 Greenpeace scientists found radionuclides –such as the plutonium byproduct americium 241– in White Alice Creek, a rapidly-moving stream that flows into the Bering Sea. It took six more years for the Department of Energy to declassify documents showing that it was known as early as two days after the blast that radioactive isotopes were leaching into groundwater and the ocean. No wonder an unintentional swim here is something we’re particularly anxious to avoid.
Ashore, we wander up and down a beach covered in black sand and driftwood. Kieran asks me how I’m feeling. I think about that. On the one hand, I’m very glad this isn’t a nuclear test zone anymore. On the other, I’m extremely angry. How dare any government think it has the right, or any rationale whatsoever, to harbour nuclear weapons? And against all reason I keep looking for a sea otter. The A.E.C. estimated that "only" 20 to 240 of these animals would be endangered by the blasts. Post-test assessments estimated 700 to 2,000 died.
We set off for Lake Cannikin, the thirty-acre water-filled crater that the A.E.C. failed to anticipate would be created when the bomb exploded and a sizable portion of Amchitka Island imploded.
First we have to climb the near-vertical cliff that surrounds the beach. We start up, lifting legs waist high through vegetation as the muskeg sinks and bounces under our feet. I expect to see insects, small mammals, but there is not so much as a mosquito. It’s beyond eerie. Has what happened here so outraged the environment that not a single living creature will return?
We spy a concrete hut, enter and slowly back out when we notice what looks at first like large cans of soda but on closer inspection turns out to be unexploded ordnance.
We troop on, through a fierce wind. Someone trips over a wire, almost goes down. Muttered expletives about this island are heard and I want to defend it. It’s not Amchitka’s fault for God’s sake, it’s the fault of massive unrestrained power-mongering egoism by President Richard Nixon whose personal approval was required to set the bomb off, after massive protest by not only other countries like Canada and Japan which stood at risk of earthquakes and tidal waves from the blasts, but a sizable portion of the U.S. government. Nixon, and arrogant personalities like then head of the A.E. C. James Schlesinger, who announced that it would take at least a thousand years for radiation to dribble into the Bering Sea. Egoism and arrogance. As I think of it, traipsing through the muskeg, I get more and more outraged. God damn it! And then I think, if there is a God, he or she or it does indeed appear to have damned it. No living creatures anywhere. The very air feels weird. We stop, waiting while Brent shoots some background shots, and I crouch down in the grass and look hard at the variety of plants here…because there is that, there are mosses and lichens and…what is that? A fly? A wasp? No, a black spider. Some of the crew crowd around, joking macabrely: bite me.
When we reach Ground Zero, we find the muskeg fractured with patches of bare, barren earth, like the balding heads of cancer patients. Nothing has grown here for thirty-six years. Words like "abomination" and "blasphemy" spring to mind. What kind of hell on earth have we come to? Again I get the feeling I had on the boat, of sheer dread, and I wish we could turn around and hightail it out of here, but we have a mission to accomplish.
Below us lies a huge brackish body of water that we think, we hope is Lake Cannikin. By GPS we’re at least very close. By now its spitting rain, the wind is fierce, my socks are wet and like some of my mates I’m almost shaking with cold. As we tie flags from countries all over the world onto bamboo poles, Kieran quietly suggests I read a small sign made out of driftwood that Diek has planted beside the lake. Bending down I see the carved words "Phyllis Cormack 1971" and below that "Esperanza 2007" and I bow my head as tears spill out. With these simple, poetic words, Diek has completed our journey. He has brought the crew of that first Greenpeace boat here, to this island they tried so hard to reach. Their faces flash through my mind, especially the four who have died: journalists Bob Hunter, Ben Metcalfe, Bob Cummings; and Captain John Cormack. And, kneeling here beside this sign at this abominable lake in the crater that the bomb carved out, I turn and look at the Esperanza crew holding up flags from all over the globe: Russians Slava and Victor (who once worked on nuclear submarines); Helena and Brent from Australia; Freddy from Argentina; our Dutch crew Ruurd and Diek; Rao from India; Tom from Belgium. Others from Canada, England, the U.S., and more countries. We’re here, standing for peace, in this dreadful valley. And I know we, and all of Greenpeace, will stand for it and for the environment and all the creatures of the land and sea and air for as long as we exist.
I must thank a few sources: Dean W. Kohlhoff’s book "Amchitka and the Bomb"; Jeffrey St. Clair’s article "Report on the Environment" in "Fishy Business II", 2002; and Bob Hunter’s "The Greenpeace to Amchitka".

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.