Family friendlyPublic transit is accessibleWalkable to grocery storesYards are well-keptLots of parksWalkable to restaurantsFriendly neighbors Safe at night Pet friendly Streets have sidewalksA quiet areaSense of community
Small, remote town that is both wonderful and dreadful
Wild Alaska (
Sep 24, 2011)
It is difficult to give a succinct review of the Unalaska / Dutch Harbor area because, as most residents would attest to, it is amazing one day and horrible the next. Many of the mood swings relate to the weather, but the love/hate relationship we all have with the community goes ...Read
Visiting the area and moving here are obviously two very different scenarios and actually should be two separate reviews. Hopefully you can get what you need from this one review, no matter what situation you are in. I am not trying to bash the place -- it is just an honest review after living here for a number of years.
The Weather. To summarize: Wow. It can change from clear blue skies to torrential rain and "Hang on to the car door!" wind in about as much time as it takes to put on your hiking boots. Hurricane-force winds are not unusual here, though they rarely make the news. We had a gantry crane (used for moving containers on and off ships) blow over one year and it was barely talked about outside of this town. Unlike much of Alaska, winters are really not very cold (just a touch colder than the Seattle area), but the conditions beyond temperature are not for the weak. Snow drifts and ice, along with many unpaved roads (some of which skirt the edges of cliffs), often make driving a heart-stopping experience. However, sunny days are fabulous enough to make people forget about the bad-weather days. I wouldn't use the word "breathtaking" to describe many places, but a view from one of the hilltops on a sunny day here is exactly that and is worth the trip, if you can get here.
Why do I say "if you can get here?" It is expensive, and there is no "on a shoelace budget" way to travel here. It is expensive to visit here, to move here, to live here, and to leave here. We have one choice for an airline, the ferry only comes twice a month during the summer (a spendy three day trip from Homer, AK), and driving here is not an option. Look up a flight on the Alaska Airlines web site and you will see what I am talking about. There are a number of choices for shipping household goods, but it is quite a trek for a barge or a ship, so it is... that's right... expensive.
Shopping opportunities are limited, but there is a Safeway and an Alaska Ship Supply. Both have groceries, which often cost 2-4 times as much as many towns in the "Lower 48." Hawaii is the only place I have been to that even comes close to the cost of groceries here. It is difficult to find clothes and shoes, along with many other items, so people usually shop online or on vacations.
This is not a good place for people with ongoing health issues. There is a clinic, but they provide limited care and the turnover rate for providers is relatively high. I would never move here if I had a child with medical or mental health issues. If someone needs immediate medical care that is beyond the limited facilities in town, they are flown out, often at a cost of $15,000 or more for the flight. Also, women do not deliver babies here, so they all have to leave town 3-6 weeks prior to the due date.
The schools are very good. There are two buildings -- one for grades K-4 and another for 5-12. The 5-6, 7-8, and 9-12 are divided pretty well in the building and do not cross paths too much. Many of the teachers are very good (as with any school, there are some that are not!), and the community is very supportive of the school. All kids have the opportunity to participate in sports, but air travel is required to compete and the district cannot afford to send the whole team. The band program is phenomenal!
The community center, which most people refer to as "The PCR," was recently remodeled and is very nice for a small town. They have a variety of programs for all ages. The facilities include (not a complete list): free weights and cardio equipment, a basketball court, two racquetball courts, a teen room, a small after-school program, a pottery room, and areas to rent for parties and meetings. The library, which is near the PCR, is also a comfortable space with a good collection.
There is not a lot to do as far as indoor entertainment -- no movie theater, a bowling alley that is only used for special events, and not much nightlife other than the bars (which are a good place for people watching!). But the outdoors, on a nice day, is beautiful. Hiking is peaceful here, with no worry of bear attacks. Watch for hidden holes, both natural and human made (many from WWII), which can cause ankle and knee injuries. August and September are the best months to pick blueberries. These blueberries are the best you will ever taste, and may very well be the healthiest, too. Some years they literally carpet the hills! Just make sure you stop by the Ounalashka Corporation to get a permit before you hike, pick berries, or drive on many of the roads outside of town -- you will need to buy a recreational use permit to be on Native land. This applies to both residents and visitors.
All in all, I would highly recommend Unalaska / Dutch Harbor as a place to visit. I think mid- to late-August is the best time, but that is because the blueberries are amazing. If you are a WWII buff and/or enjoy hiking, this really is a great place to visit. Moving here is a different story. I would never move here unless I had a high paying job lined up or a lot of money in savings. Even then, I think it is not a good location for most people. Housing can be an issue as well, particularly for families or those with low or modest income. Decent, reliable vehicles are also in short supply. I would recommend doing more research than you normally do before a move. Visit before moving, if at all possible, and talk to the locals about their experiences. Be ready for small town issues x 10... everyone knows (or wants to know) everything and confidentiality is rare.
But... on the bright side... did I mention the amazing blueberries? :)