The Christmas-tree forest.
Imagine an entire forest lighted with the dazzle and joy of a family Christmas tree. Stringing miles of colored lights from top to bottom and hither and yon--what a chore that would be! Accomplishing such a feat would take all of Santa's elves working at warp speed--or an incredibly small forest.
Luckily for the Kiwanis Club elves of Adak Island, the Adak "National Forest" is small--33 trees all told. It's so small the entrance sign reads, "You are now entering and leaving Adak National Forest." This tiny cluster of Sitka spruce surely comprise America's smallest forest. A leisurely walker can circumnavigate the entire forest in less than a minute.
Like a deserted island surrounded by water, the Adak forest disrupts the monotony of the open tundra. It nestles on an east-facing slope just inland from the frothy Bering Sea. On a clear day, you can view the forest with Mount Moffett as a backdrop. Moffett and the miniature forest are a couple of the prominent landmarks of Adak.
Adak is located about 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, in the stepping-stone chain of islands known as the Aleutians. Due to its extreme western location, Adak played a strategic role in the outcome of World War II. Its proximity to Kiska and Attu (which the Japanese occupied early in the war) provided U.S. forces with an outpost from which to attack the Japanese. The military stronghold on Adak also protected North Pacific sea lanes, Alaska territory, and the Pacific Northwest.
The Aleutian Campaign of World War I was a brutal fight that was both physically and emotionally draining for the soldiers. Some of the troops sent
to the Aleutians were instructed, clothed, and outfitted for a desert environment. When the soldiers stepped off the ships, they found themselves in the howling wind and near-freezing rain typical of the Aleutians.
For the last half-century, Adak has continued to be a strategic military location. It is peopled only by military personnel, civilian support crews, and their families. But Adak has one of the friendliest small-town atmospheres in the country--despite its horrific weather.
The historical journals are sketchy, but most likely the Adak Forest trees were planted as a morale booster sometime in 1944. Perhaps thousands of spruce were planted throughout the Aleutians in the 1940s, but today the Adak Forest is the only significant result. After 49 years, the trees are seven to 15 feet tall and six to seven inches in diameter. By contrast, in Southeast Alaska, near the heart of this tree's natural range, an average 50-year-old Sitka spruce will be 80 to 90 feet in height and 15 to 20 inches in diameter.
Although the Aleutian Islands are not conductive to growing large trees, the small size of the Adak Forest enables Adakians to put a special spin on their Christmas tradition. Bob Akens, a 13-year island resident and member of the Kiwanis Club, said, "We light up the whole forest as a community service. Everyone here is a way from their real home at Christmas so this brings a little bit of hometown spirit to Adak.
"I don't remember whose idea it was, but it started as a joke during a Kiwanis meeting," Akens said. "Everybody got a good laugh out of the idea of putting lights on the forest, but by the time Christmas rolled around, we did it," and everybody loved it!
About a half-dozen Kiwanis Club members spend four or five hours stringing the lights--but it's not quite that simple. "It usually takes three or four attempts due to weather," Akens said. "Once the weather cooperates, it's not too bad. But last year the snow was so deep it was difficult moving around.
"We don't count how many strings of lights we use," he continued. "That's irrelevant anyway--the wind rips apart the wires. We just splice them back together. Last year we started with 1,750 lights, and the wind broke all but about 20 percent of them. I don't remember how much time I spent repairing wires and replacing bulbs."
For the last several years, the Kiwanians have produced and sold Christmas cards featuring the lighted forest. The proceeds, in the form of scholarships, have gone to local high-school seniors. "We've provided $2,000 to $3,000 worth of scholarships each of the past several years," Akens said.
Another Adak holiday tradition is the annual Audubon Christmas bird count. The Adak forest can be integral to this project as well. While most of the 30-plus bird species discovered during this Yuletide event are found along the island's rugged coastline, a Christmas surprise can flutter out of the forest canopy. Several years ago, Van Klett, the assistant refuge manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service on Adak, spotted a northern shrike.
"I was really surprised," he said, "because this is a bird not normally found out here. It was an immature bird, and it flew out of the trees and landed on a powerline, where we all got a good look at it. Each year during the bird count, I go by the forest and holler and rattle the trees. But only that one time did anything fly out."
It's not likely anyone on Adak will ever select and cut a personal Christmas tree from the Adak forest. However, with their own lighted forest and a shipment of pre-cut Christmas trees annually barged up from Seattle, the good folks of Adak have their own unique way of celebrating Christ's birth and the winter holidays.
Lon E. Lauber, a freelance photographer and writer in Wasilla, Alaska, lived on Adak from 1984 through 1991.
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|Title Annotation:||Adak National Forest, Aleutian Islands|
|Author:||Lauber, Lon E.|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1993|
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