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Adventure in the Aleutians

Even in the hottest of summer months, a typical day around the Aleutian Islands is filled with near freezing water and air temperatures and the possibility of 100 mile- (160 kilometer-) an-hour winds and two-story waves.

Yet this weather was not harsh enough to steer adventure writer Jon Bowermaster and three companions away from the Islands of Four Mountains. They braved these harsh conditions in order to see what few have seen: the "birthplace of the winds."

Cover of Birthplace of the Winds

Courtesy of National Geographic Books

In Bowermaster's new book Birthplace of the Winds: Adventuring in Alaska's Islands of Fire and Ice, he describes the Islands of Four Mountains as being in "the middle of the Aleutian Islands, a chain of more than a hundred small islands, strung like a 1,400-mile-long necklace between the Pacific Ocean and the cold waters of the Bering Sea."

In an expedition partially funded by the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council, Bowermaster, photographer Barry Tessman, Sean Farrell, and Scott McGuire set out in two tandem kayaks to explore the area where kayaks evolved.

The first kayaks used by the Aleuts 3,500 years ago were made of sealskin stretched over driftwood or whalebone; seams were smeared with animal fat to keep out frigid waters.

Battling the Bering Sea

On June 13, 1999, the first day of a 25-day trip, the team arrived at their first campsite with enough gear, food, and equipment for a month of exploration.

With each move, the four packed all gear and food into their kayaks because if a storm hit, they could be stranded for days or weeks. Each day the team faced "current coming from one direction, wind from another, and waves from another," said Bowermaster.

According to Bowermaster, kayaking in the fog was preferred because fog meant the seas were calm. However, navigating in the fog had to be precise. If a landing site was missed the next stop would be the Marshall or Midway Islands, thousands of miles to the south.

The waves, wind, and current of the Bering Sea could easily have their way with the relatively tiny 22-foot (6.7-meter) fiberglass kayaks.

Because the water temperature stayed near 35° F (1.6° C), falling out of the kayak was life threatening. Bowermaster writes that the Aleuts, who had a high tolerance for cold temperatures, "could survive up to 45 minutes in the water; we gave ourselves half that."

To the Top of a Volcano

Towards the end of the trip on July 4, the team climbed to the highest point of the islands, Mount Cleveland, a snow-covered volcanic peak that rises 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) above slapping ocean waves. "It was the prettiest day during our month-long in stay the Aleutians," said Bowermaster.

The eight-hour hike to the top culminated with a 50-foot (15-meter) crawl because of 60 mile- (100 kilometer-) an-hour winds at the summit. "From the top of the mountain we had 360-degree [view] of 100 miles around," he said. "We could see a site very few people get to see."

"Every time we turned a corner, we couldn't believe we were there. We couldn't believe what we were seeing. As we climbed higher and higher, all of the islands we had previously visited, all of the routes we had paddled between the islands were exposed."

Always an Adventurer

After the trip, Bowermaster and Tessman had planned another kayaking trip, this time along the coast of Vietnam. The sea-kayaking mission, from the border with China to south of Danang, is a "180-degree difference" from the Aleutian adventure. Bowermaster said he expects long days of kayaking, lots of people, and hot, tropical temperatures.

Bowermaster is still planning to go on this trip despite the loss of long-time partner Tessman. Tessman, 41, disappeared on January 16, 2001, on a regular kayaking workout on California's Lake Isabella and is presumed dead.

In Birthplace of the Winds Bowermaster describes Tessman as "solid…a key ingredient when you're about to put your life in each other's hands.

Along with writing Birthplace of the Winds, Bowermaster and Tessman teamed up to produce a children's version of their book. "Kids are greatly inspired, as we all are, by adventure," said Bowermaster.

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