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Shemya Island, the Aleutians

This page is about a place called Shemya which you've never heard of unless you've been there or know someone who has been. I've included a map below. Shemya is a two mile by four mile island at the end of the Aleutian chain, 200 miles from Russia. We called it The Rock.shemya-rocky shoreIt is a godforsaken place, and those of us who've experienced it share a certain bond of experience and fraternity. I, as an Air Force captain, was sent to Shemya for my remote tour and was 'basically' the only woman, among 1400 men.This was not so easy..I felt what it is like to be 'famous'..people had even 'heard of me' before I got there, eeeks! I lived there a year which was the normal Air Force tour. No natives live there nor on any of the other islands near by. Shemya is the second last island in the chain, and on the outermost island were based a few Coast Guard members. Sometimes we'd find glass balls that came from the Russian fishing boats (I had a couple of my very own Russian balls.) :) On clear days, 'across the way', I could see the uninhabited island Aggatu from my bedroom window; it was a very lovely site across the blue water.

While at Shemya, I experienced the 'land of the midnight sun'. I was amazed to discover that when the sun didn't go down, I didn't get tired. And, I find it interesting that I don't much remember the drudgery of the 'ever-dark' days but only remember the extra energy of the oh-so-lovely nights of light. shemya-lupine in bloomWe did have summer, about a month's worth, and during that time many, many flowers bloomed. I was surprised to discover that Alaska supposedly has more varieties of orchids than any other place (I don't remember where I read this, but I DID read it.) A friend was on leave during our month of summer; when he came back he was ohhing and ahhing because he discovered one bedraggled daisy. I said "Will, while you were gone, summer happened!" Poor guy missed the flowers and probably still doesn't believe they 'happened'.

The weather on Shemya can change in a flash; I have never experienced this rapid weather change and I've been to a lot of places. After it snows it might rain or the wind blows the snow partially away leaving the exposed brown tundra. As soon as that happens, it starts snowing again, and then it's sunny. Or so windy you have to grab onto others so you don't blow away. This all could happen in the space of a few hours. You never knowshemya snow cover how windy it is because one is used to gauging the wind strength by how much a tree is moving. Without trees this is difficult. One is never concerned about a weather forecast because it will change in minutes. There is no way to describe this weather, one must experience it. Although average precipitation is only 2 to 4 inches per month, some form of precipitation occurs on a nearly daily basis often in the form of 'mist' (and yet it felt 'dry' there because of the low dewpoint). It isn't frigid, just the strong, strong wind adds to the chill factor. The average temperature is 39.4 degrees F., with the average low temp being 30.6 degrees F. in January, and the average warm temp being 49.7 degrees F. in August. You will note the temp is relatively the same for the whole year. The winds and the waves are big...during WW2, more people were lost to the bad weather than at the hands of the enemy. You might find it interesting to check here for the current conditions.

Shemya, a 2 mi x 4 mi island
When I landed on Shemya (two miles by four miles long), I was impressed by the incredibly blue water, the color one finds in a swimming pool. I didn't realize that real water could be that blue. I could see seal's heads bobbing around and ducks, geese, and seagulls flying, as we drove around the island. The long strip on the left is the runway. One had to be an excellent pilot to land in the snowy, foggy, icy, conditions. Shortly after I left the island, a huge earthquake 'broke' the runway in two. The year that I was on the island we had many, many small quakes, but normally what they felt like was a big heavy truck rumbling by, vibrating the building rather than causing serious damage.

Our workweek included Saturdays, so there wasn't all that much time off. I spent after hours playing paddleball (we called it that, I'm wondering if it was really raquetball?). I loved that game, and got really good because all the guys wanted to play with 'the woman'. At first they 'treated me gently', but after losing, they decided I might be serious competition which only helped me get better. :) There was a guy on base who ate a lot of garlic; he probably took garlic capsules for health. When he played right before we did, the court smelled pretty darn bad since the garlic would escape from all his sweating pores. I love garlic, but not this way. :)

I was constantly invited to be the guest of honor at various parties (at places like this...eeeeks!) shemya-old cliff house 2001and I frustratingly wondered why none of the male officers were asked to be guests of honor. I was repeatedly told that I was there as a morale factor, that it was my duty to attend, and people were upset when I refused. I would rather have faded into the wall and been just another captain, there doing a job, rather than a source of 'entertainment'. Not being a drinker (a pastime of many on Shemya), I was more interested in the hobby shops, and the aforementioned paddleball. On Sunday mornings, my buddies and I had our weekly breakfast at the club where we laughed and enjoyed the morning of our day off. Shemya had a radio and TV station (actually the Air Force's station), and a movie theatre. I didn't have a TV, so never saw it, but they ran various movies and old shows like All in the Family and Marcus Welby without commercials. Going to the theatre with my parka hood pulled over my head, I felt wonderfully anonymous, but, when the movie was funny, and I laughed, people would start turning around knowing I was there. The movies weren't the most current; the movie I'll always remember was 'Blackula', an African American take on 'Dracula'. I was amazed (several years later) to discover that my movie-buff friend had actually seen it. They sold popcorn and goodies at the theatre.

Tuesdays and Fridays were our big exciting days because mail was delivered (so we ALWAYS had air mail) :). shemya-ravensWe had to learn to get our outgoing mail done in order to make mail run. Mail run was the biggest morale booster there was...our contact with the real world. I imagine these days e-mail is used which I think would be wonderful for keeping in touch and keeping things real. Also on these days fresh milk and eggs were delivered, and new people were delivered, and those whose time was up gladly but a little fearfully, left.

I hadn't planned on putting anything about Shemya on this website, but recently after a discussion with a friend, I checked the web and found a very comprehensive site by George Smith about Shemya. Reading that site and its guestbook led me to deep reflections about 'the Shemya experience', and I was moved to share a few pictures shemya-bering sea overlookand words from that time and place. I am hoping that somehow my Shemya page will reconnect me to some people who have been a part of my 'ancient long ago'.

I have seen a few of my friends since I left the island and I've thought about and wondered about them and others during the years. If you are (or know of) any of these people, please write me, Barbara Nowak, here: Larry Pack, Robert Stambaugh, Stefan Beck, Lee Jacobs, James Garlock, Elliot Boney, Ron Greene, Ed Cone, Stan Stahl, and Will Zettler. Col Ohlinger from the '16th' (who I did not work for and I wish I had, my experience would have been a lot better) supposedly had cancer, I'm wondering about him. And Jane Snively from Portland Oregon (whose last name is probably changed), visited the island as part of an education program, and I'd love to reconnect with her. If you know any of these people, or if you know me and I haven't mentioned your name, WRITE ME!!

Shemya, by the Bering Sea
Sitting on the ocean edge in my parka. The rock is molten lava, and is very dense and black (thus the nickname for Shemya, 'the Black Pearl of the Aleutians'). The island itself is a rather big junk heap. When the U.S. left this place after WW2, they dumped millions of dollars of new/used equipment off the shores. One can see all kinds of junk including bullets and other kinds of ammunition, in amounts that are uncomprehendable in size, and old trucks and planes etc, rusted in junkheaps. It is called the 'million dollar junk pile'. It would have been more expensive to get all that stuff back to mainland U.S.
Shemya at sunrise
Seeing a sunrise on Shemya was rare (picture by McKenzie). Seeing snow that landed horizontally, rather than straight down was normal. Fog was normal too as were winds blowing to the high, high heavens. Also, the water from our faucets was brown (orange). This was supposedly rust, and we were told it was 'safe'.
Shemya and tundra
I love this picture (by Tom Ryan) of the tundra. We were warned not to walk outside in it because hurricane strength winds could happen in a split second and we could possibly fall into fox holes (dug by the military during WWII) that were covered by the tundra and the warning was, we might disappear from the face of the earth forever. Note the radar in the background. There are no trees...the wind is often very strong and no tree can survive the conditions of the island.
'big Alice' located on Shemya
"Big Alice" (another creative picture by Tom Ryan). We would always hear the humming of the radar while listening to the radio or music. Upon returning to the mainland, I discovered that music I had taped contained the whooshing of the radar. :(
Shemya buildings-air view
This picture gives you perspective. You can see Big Alice in the picture above this one, and here you see where it is relative to the other buildings. The composite building is giant. It houses offices, eating facilities, BX, most living quarters, etc. People also lived in the dorm across the street from this composite building. Note my room, and my office. :) Nothing was painted. I at first couldn't handle the drabness, it all looked so old and creepy. I was told that because of so much rain and snow and salty humid air the wooden buildings needed to breathe rather than be covered with paint.
Shemya-front area composite building
This is a close up of the picture above this one, where I've pointed out the office. This building was designed by the same person who designed San Quentin. Can you see why? :) Note the totem pole, and the fact that the flag is blowing in the usually present wind.
shemya-Barbara and blue fox
The blue (actually Russian) fox was the only animal that lived on the island (well, maybe there were mice and rats??). We were warned to be careful because they might carry rabies, and as you'll note, I'm being careful. :) I'm actually feeding the poor guy a stone.. That's Ed Cone's truck. Ed, are you around??? There were a couple of dogs too, but they weren't around where I ever saw them.
Shemya map
I'm always impressed looking at a map of this place. We were very far from EVERYwhere; actually, 200 miles from Russia (and about 1500 air miles from Anchorage). The International Date Line bent around us, on a clear day we could see tomorrow. :) We were between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea and these two water bodies meeting is what caused the hurricane-proportioned winds and waves.

SAC's Gen. Carlton visiting Shemya
Welcoming General Carlton from SAC (Strategic Air Command). I am, of course, demonstrating my most elegant military bearing here, standing at 'full military attention'. :) Click here to see Shemya 'today': shemya2002

 

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