Stuck on an Island…

I remember the first time I experienced what I would come to recognize as community. The year was 2003 and I was working for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC). I along with project managers from ADEC, the Navy, and USEPA travelled out to Adak Island, a small island about 1500 miles out the Aleutian Chain, to visit several sites that were being remediated.

Adak is the site of a former Naval installation which was established at the beginning of involvement in WWII in order to retake the islands of Attu and Kiska, which were both occupied by Japan (it is little known that these islands were the only locations during WWII where battles actually occurred on American soil). Naval Air Facility Adak was closed in 1995 and work commenced to clean up the base to return the island and City of Adak to the The Aleut Corporation and the island’s inhabitant.

The City of Adak (which was transferred to The Aleut Corporation in 2004) consists of around 300 people (many of which are seasonal residents). Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, this small town, 1500 miles out the Aleutian Islands, is often larger than many Nebraska communities I work with at the moment.


Looking across Sweeper Cove at downtown Adak. Great Sitkin Island in the background. Photo by author.

The trip was memorable for several reasons. We ended up being stuck on the island for 10 days when the landing instrumentation went down at the airport, requiring pilots to be able to visually find the island and approach the runway (I can honestly say I was stranded on an island in the Pacific for 10 days!). I met a sailor from Australia who stopped to refuel and restock his sailing vessel and enjoyed some adult beverages with fisherman who came in to drop off their load of fish for processing (payday = much festivities!)

When you’re on an island (and especially stuck on one!) you learn a lot of things about people. You also quickly learn about local politics, local personalities, and how the two often (seemingly) don’t mix.

The most memorable thing occurred when a resident family brought in a load of dime bright (meaning fresh from the sea) sockeye salmon. Of course we had to go down and check it out!

What I saw still sticks with me almost 15 years later:


Processing fish on the docks in Adak. Photo by author.

The small boat dock was filled (pretty much to capacity – you can see it’s underwater in the photo above!) with local residents working to process the catch. People who I believed to have absolutely hated each other (either through their own words or actions) were standing side-by-side, talking, telling jokes, laughing, and processing fish. Like they were all old friends and nothing was ever any different.

The moment is still powerful because here was an instance where people set aside their differences and worked with each other to do what needed to be done. People who would barely talk to each other on a day-to-day basis were helping each other. There was a certain, unspoken level of trust that despite their differences, when the need arose they would help each other. And regardless of what so many people today seem to think, it can be done.

That’s what community is all about. It’s about setting aside our personal interests and working with others to the benefit of all. By doing this, we build networks and structures which allow us to address issues which might come along. That’s the power of community.

I had the opportunity to go back out to Adak several times over the course of my time at ADEC. And during that time, some of the names and faces changed, but the willingness to work together despite their differences did not. I would suspect it’s still the same to this very day.

I would hazard a guess that most of us have probably experienced something like this at some point in our lives. What were the circumstances? Why did it happen? If we stop and think about it, we will realize how special those moments are, and why it’s important that they happen.

I’ll close this post out with a memory from my last day on Adak – a photo of the sun rising over the island. It’s a reminder that there’s always a new day with new opportunities waiting to be sought out. We have the ability to work together to address our issues if we take the time and are open to doing so.

My hope is this blog will help others find opportunities to make community happen.


Sunrise over Adak Island. Photo by author.

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