Pat Harvie’s spread in the Aleutian Islands has lush grasslands and no natural predators, but that doesn’t mean ranching in the Cradle of Storms is easy.
America’s westernmost ranch does not lie along the slopes of a remote mountain range, nor under a bone-bleaching desert sun, nor on a tropical beach. Instead, the massive ranch lies northwest of the contiguous United States and Hawaii, clinging to the heart of the Cradle of Storms, as locals call this region of Alaska.
Resembling a strand of emeralds set against a steely gray sea, the Aleutian Islands reach for Asia with the snowcapped peaks of dozens of volcanoes peppered by the domes of small Russian Orthodox churches.
The jagged islands separate the frigid waters of the Bering Sea from the relatively warm waters of the Pacific with its Kuroshio current. The mixing of these waters gives birth to some of the most violent storms recorded in North America, often draping this world in fog for weeks and keeping the lush grasslands of these islands green.
Wrapped in mist is the 686-square-mile Umnak Island just west of Dutch Harbor. Seventy-two miles long and 16 miles wide with a volcano of its own, the island is also the home of the nearly 200,000-acre Bering Pacific Ranches Limited with its 8,000 to 10,000 head of cattle, operated by 62-year-old Pat Harvie.
“It’s cold, miserable weather on the island,” says the native Albertan, his heavy mustache still dark despite his years. “There’s been some tough stretches.” But, he later adds, the ranch’s position at 53 degrees latitude and the warm ocean current to the south also produce favorable working weather to both the cowboys and the cattle.
For a quarter century, Harvie and his cowboys and processing crew have shared Umnak Island with the Native village of Nikolski, home to fewer than 30 residents and a wilderness lodge. There are about 10,000 reindeer, a small bison herd on the far end of the island, and a few wild horses. The Okmok volcano and other mountains in the center of Umnak Island separate the ranch from the village a little more than 40 miles away.
The ranch house, housing for cowboys, slaughterhouse, and pens were originally part of Fort Glenn, a World War II Army air base that was effectively abandoned a few years after the Japanese surrendered. The slaughter plant was built up from the concrete foundation of one of the military structures. The site is leased from the Alaska Department of Transportation, and grazing rights for the ranch are leased from Native corporations that own land on the island.
Unlike the rest of Alaska, the island has no predators.
“The cattle go wherever they want. There’s few fences on the island,” Harvie says. “Besides grass, kelp on the beaches sustains the cattle.”
During roundup and slaughter operations, the ranch hires on a cowboy crew of 10 to 15 hands, along with 20 people to work in the slaughterhouse.
“We don’t advertise for cowboys,” Harvie says. “We usually get the crew we need through word of mouth. It gets to be an interesting mix of cowboys up here.”
Cowboys who arrive soon discover their only contact with the world is through either satellite phone or by way of Coast Guard radio. There is only diesel-generated electricity, and no parts store nor a mechanic down the street or in the next town to repair things, leaving ranch hands dependent on goods arriving by boat — or the kindness of others. In 2015, a scientific team studying the local volcano shared food supplies with two ranch hands when their own food shipment from Dutch Harbor failed to arrive for weeks.
Shipping containers stacked on top of one another hold an assortment of parts and materials. For the entertainment of ranch hands, the Buoy Bar was built in a gap between containers complete with a wooden floor and pool and foosball tables.
The ranch maintains a small herd of 11 saddle horses, but the real work bringing in the cattle is done with a two-seat helicopter. With stock ranging 50 miles or more from the pens, Harvie found horses to be impractical across such distances of rough terrain. The helicopter is ideal for working the valleys, driving the animals out toward the holding pens.
When circumstances line up, the ranch becomes fully operational in the fall months, each season processing 500 to 1,000 head with 40 to 60 head per day after the cattle have been rounded into pens following a summer spent fattening up.
The real trick is getting the beef to a market. Umnak has no natural harbor. Harvie and his cowboys load pallets of frozen beef onto a landing craft, then navigate through the surf and high waves to a waiting freighter rocking from large swells offshore. The beef is then shipped to Seattle.
After the season is over, the cowboys leave the ranch to the winter caretaker, a retired Texas cowboy who does simple maintenance and looks after the facilities with his wife.
Harvie and a partner, Bruce Hubbard, started the ranch in 1992. The two were looking for a location to start their own cattle operations. They explored the area around Dawson Creek, British Columbia, where the Alaska Highway begins, and did not like the offerings there.
“We walked into the lobby in a Fort St. John hotel and found a notice that a ranch in the Aleutians was for sale,” Harvie says. The two made their way to the island and purchased three cattle herds already there, two located on Umnak and one across the straits on Unalaska.
Their gamble was to market the beef for its purity with no hormones, stimulants, or antibiotics. Unable to get financing through a bank, they put down their own money and persuaded 22 shareholders to invest in the enterprise. The State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Agriculture assisted by providing the seed loan to build the slaughter facility.
Others had tried raising livestock before on Umnak and failed. In the 1930s, Carlyle Eubank operated a sheep ranch on the island with 15,000 head and a crew of six. He shipped out 120,000 pounds of wool in 1937, but World War II would kill his market. Another ranch gave it a go in the 1960s with 5,000 head but could not turn a profit. The ranchers walked away and left the cattle behind. Many of their descendants make up the current Bering Pacific herds.
Setting up the new ranch operations has led to adventure and tragedy alike. During one roundup an aggressive horned range cow chased a cowboy into a bog and gored his horse’s hip. They stitched it up with dental floss. On another, two cowboys had to be medevaced to Anchorage after a bull tossed them around with its horns.
Alaskan pilot Lonnie Kennedy was killed in a helicopter crash in 2010 while attempting to free one of the ranch’s bulls that had become ensnared in a fishing net. The pilot tried knocking the bull down with the chopper, but its landing skid hooked the animal briefly, lifting it off the ground. The added weight caused the helicopter to pitch forward and to the right, slamming it into the ground. Kennedy sustained fatal head injuries. The crash killed the bull as well.
In 2008 when Okmok erupted for several continuous days, the ranch was evacuated periodically, once during a noontime darkness as heavy volcanic ash fell. The volcano has erupted ash a few times over the last 100 years.
Hubbard has since retired from ranch ownership, but Harvie is still making improvements to the property. He often stands by the ranch house looking out to his left across grasslands unbroken to the horizon line while on his right a blue sea stretches as far as the eye can see. Beyond that horizon, there is nobody between him and Asia. He stands at the virtual edge of the continent.
From the April 2018 issue.