Friday, March 13, 2009

An Unlikely Thing

My work has recently taken me to a very unlikely place for a short term assignment. The place is the Western Aleutians and as the inhabitants say- “Its not the end of the world but you can see it from here!” Visually striking, these volcanic islands rise from sea floor at the very edge of the Aleutian Trench resulting in rocky beaches, pounding surf and incredibly steep mountains. While out on my assignment I decided to do a little exploring with a co-worker and went beach combing on the rugged coast at low tide. While most beach combing involves a pleasant walk in the sand, these coasts required an athletic climb on boulders and bowling ball size rocks and enormous logs that had washed ashore a long while ago.

During our explorations we came upon a pillar of volcanic rock rising out of the tide line perhaps some thirty feet or so and topped with a shock of long billowy tundra grass. Not one to pass up such an opportunity we climbed up the sides for a view of a slightly protected cove to watch some seals go about their hunting. When we arrived at the top the view was quite spectacular and the island revealed its rugged coast stretching in both directions.

Hidden there in the grass at the top was a most unlikely thing in this far away place. A small pile of empty cartridge casings were present there and upon examination they had a very familiar shape. The presence of shell casings is not particularly unusual anywhere in Alaska and these islands had been the scene of several military occupations- in fact the site of the only battle for occupied U.S. territory during World War II. But these casings weren’t from some GI’s rifle firing any generation of U.S. military cartridge, or even from a Japanese rifle- these were of all things marked W.R.A.C.O.- .30 WCF! That’s right, the good and 110 year old thirty-thirty. These casing were old and had considerable verdigris but on a few the headstamps were still visbile despite decades of exposure to the hostile climate.
These shell casings wouldn’t even elicit the slightest curiosity in my hometown or even anywhere in the Lower 48- but what an unlikely thing out here. Being curious about such relics I took one down with me and a few minutes on the Internet resulted in the following identification. These cartridges were manufactured between 1895 (the .30 WCF’s year of introduction) and 1903 based on the headstamp data. After 1903 these were generally known as the .30-30 Winchester and the earlier .30 WCF moniker was dropped. These islands have been a military preservation since 1945 and were only rarely occupied prior to that as a seldom used Aleut hunting camp and much earlier as a Russian fox farming operation.

Who could have fired such an unlikely cartridge in this place? We may never know. A G.I. would have been forbidden to have a privately owned weapon here and the military never issued this caliber of weapon. The Russians had a presence here for a couple of hundred years and did issue a .30 WCF rifle manufactured by Winchester and even did so in respectable numbers but by the year 1895 the Russians should have been cleared out of these islands altogether. White fur and seal hunters rarely ventured this far out and the dangerous tides, lack of natural harbors and weather discouraged all but the hardiest souls from the place, besides by this time the abuses of the Russian fur trade had all but obliterated the sea otter population in the Western Aleutians. The Aleut population did occasionally come here in the 19th and early 20th centuries but generally chose to harvest animals with traditional means and only rarely used firearms during that time period. Artifics of earlier populations are sometimes found but these are more in line with the Ice Age than the Industrial Age age wise so that would preclude the use of guns.

So a neat little mystery developed from an accidental discovery of an errant shell casing. Who fired the cartridge and at what? An adventuresome white American hunter going after a catch of seals for food or a few remaining otters for fur? A renegade Russian doing the same thing on the remote and lonely shore of a foreign nation? A forward thinking Aleut who had adopted a firearm and its ability at doing what his people had been doing traditionally for many years?
We will likely never know but here in this lonely and far away place I’m quite happy to have the diversion to think about one of the many mysteries of the Western Aleutian chain.


Albert A Rasch said...

A conundrum of history.

Something to contemplate over while sipping Bourbon and warming the feet by a fire.

Albert A Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
The Range Reviews: Tactical
Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit
Southeast Regional OBS Coordinator

hodgeman said...

No bourbon, no fire.

It is a good indication that the 30-30 is more common than most think- and that says a lot.

Alan Ryden said...

Pretty Darn Interesting,...those Aleutians have got some Long history going on,
and the Thirty-Thirty fits the mystery perfectly
Good Read