If you fly three hours west out of Anchorage on a Sunday afternoon, along the spine of the Aleutian Islands that separate the Gulf of Alaska from the Bering Sea, and you land in Adak, you’ll walk off the plane into an otherworldly place, stunning in its natural beauty, rare for its isolation from technology, rich in military history.
You’ll also be there just in time for donuts.
Adak, population maybe 100, is one of the most interesting American communities you can get to by jet. Its few residents make their homes on a large abandoned military base that dates back to World War II. A visitor can’t help but be struck by the ghostliness of the place at first: its boarded-up elementary school, empty commissary, childless neighborhood playgrounds and wind-battered vacant houses giving way to the elements. But the longer you spend there, the more your view of it changes, like your eyes getting used to the dark. As the shadows come to life, you realize where you are: an independent-minded, truly Alaskan small town. It is impossible not to be charmed.
Everything in Adak used to be something else. City Hall used to be the high school. The store, which is only open two hours a day (because after that electricity costs eat all the profits), used to be a community center. The Navy-issue hutches holding beer and wine at the liquor store? They used to be in some- body’s living room. The Bluebird Café (one of two restaurants in town) is in a house on a suburban-feeling cul-de-sac. The only way you know it’s a restaurant is the “Open” sign out front. About half the neighboring houses are empty.
On Sunday nights, Imelda Cleary, who was born in the Philippines and runs the restaurant with her husband, Michael Rainey, pads around the little kitchen, filling the bowl of her KitchenAid mixer with warm water, sugar and yeast. When the yeast bubbles, she shakes in the flour.
“I don’t really measure, I just do it by my eyes,” she says.
By that time of night, business at the restaurant will have slowed to a trickle. Maybe a fish plant worker or two, or a contractor in town disposing of the old unexploded ordnance the military left behind. The menu is part American favorites (bacon cheeseburgers and homemade pizza) and part flavors of the Philippines (pancit bihon and lumpia).
Cleary and Rainey met when they were working in the commissary on a Navy base in Lemoore, California. They came to Adak in 2012 to work at the Icicle fish plant. Cleary was hired to work in the kitchen. The couple have five children between them, but only one, their 16-year-old daughter Sharon, lives with them in Adak.
Since the base closed in the mid-1990s, the fish plant has been Adak’s biggest employer. It seems always to be in a cycle of boom and bust. Owners come and go. It opens, drawing workers and filling the twice-weekly jet, and closes again, emptying out the town.
When the plant closed last time, Cleary and Rainey decided to stay. There was something they liked about Adak. Sure, there were empty buildings and it was remote, but there was also something comfortable about it, with its familiar faces and the predictable rhythms of the fishing and crab seasons. Internet is so expensive in town that most people only have access for an hour a day at most.
You’ll never see anyone staring at an iPhone.
“People tell me that it’s scary-looking, reminds them of The Birds movie with the ravens and the empty buildings and stuff,” says Rainey. “I don’t see it that way; it’s home.”
Every week, Cleary makes enough dough for eight batches of donuts. She lets it rise and then cuts the sweet, soft dough into rounds, filling sheet pans. She lets them rise again, slowly in the refrigerator, overnight. Early Monday morning, as most of Adak sleeps, she melts Crisco in her big pan and begins to fry.
Once the donuts are cool, Cleary fills and frosts them. Glistening chocolate and maple with custard on the inside. Pretty soon, there are faces in the doorway.
“It’s kind of like the watering hole for the community. Everybody goes there; they know what day she’s going to have the donuts,” says Mary Nelson, who has lived in Adak since 1997. “People see each other. We visit.”
Food in Adak comes in on the jet, so produce is hard to come by. You can buy dry goods at the store, but they’re expensive. Hostess donuts show up there on occasion. But they aren’t like what you get at the Bluebird Café.
“It is a treat to have donuts that taste like something you’d get when you go to town,” says Debra Sharrah, the city clerk. “Fresh and warm.”
Photos: Nathaniel Wilder