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Alaska local makes edge of the world feel more like home

Oct. 5, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The current seven-Coastie crew at Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, Alaska, poses with Commandant Adm. Bob Papp (third from right) during Papp's August visit.
The current seven-Coastie crew at Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, Alaska, poses with Commandant Adm. Bob Papp (third from right) during Papp's August visit. ()
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Commandant Adm. Bob Papp visits with Mary Lekanoff, better known as 'Coast Guard Mary,' in August in Unalaska, Alaska. (PA2 Annie R.B. Ellis/Coast Guard)

Welcome to Unalaska

A brief guide to a remote Alaskan city, home of a seven-person Coast Guard marine safety detachment:
■ 4,376 residents, as of the 2010 census.
■ Home to the Makushin Volcano, which last erupted in 1995.
■ Average summer temperature of 52 degrees, with average winter temperature dropping to 31.5 degrees. Annual snowfall, according to the Western Regional Climate Center: 92.3 inches.
■ The local crabbing fleet is featured on the Discovery Channel show “Deadliest Catch.” One of the frequently asked questions addressed on the city’s website

The Coast Guard marine safety detachment at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, is one of the most remote assignments in the service — or any service. A seven-member crew mans the station on a tiny island in the Aleutian chain for a year at a time.

But the Coasties at Dutch Harbor have a lucky charm to make the stay more bearable, and her name is Mary Lekanoff — aka “Coast Guard Mary.”

Lekanoff, 62, was born and raised in Unalaska, the 4,000-person town near Dutch Harbor. She started meeting the Coast Guardsmen who’d come through the port on the cutter Storis in 1973, mostly down at the now-closed, legendary local haunt Elbow Room, she told Navy Times.

“Then I started meeting the guys that are stationed here,” she said. “So I would come in the office and say hi to them, talk with them, bake for them.”

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Morrissey said that when the Coast Guard established a permanent MSD in 1997, Lekanoff began helping new crews transition to their tours. Dutch Harbor is a one-year, restricted duty tour, so members spend the time in a remote area with a small crew and without their families.

The station is attached to Coast Guard Sector Anchorage in District 17. Morrissey said the detachment deals mostly with machinery or personnel casualties related to the Alaska fishing industry and ships heading across the Pacific between North America and Asia.

Lekanoff generally stops by when the new crews show up in July, with some homemade jam and alodicks — a kind of fried dough eaten for generations by the island’s natives.

“She’ll bring those in one day and just sit down and chat with us, middle of the day,” Morrissey said.

The MSD also throws a weekly crew dinner, where the members take turns cooking something they grew up eating, or something they miss from home. Mary is a regular invitee, but she also takes her turn doing the cooking.

“It’s kind of the little things that aren’t necessarily work-related, but it’s more on the morale of the crew,” Morrissey said.

Morrissey, who is on his second tour at Dutch Harbor, added that Lekanoff can also help crew members looking to make the most of their free time on the island.

The detachment has a gym facility with a basketball court, he said, but other than that, there’s not much else: No movie theater, only 39 miles of roads on the island — seven of them paved, according to the City of Unalaska. Even the Internet connection, which Morrissey described as dial-up speed, can only provide so much entertainment.

“We have one guy who is a gamer who has a difficult time gaming,” he said. “He’s just given it up for the year because it’s such a slow speed.”

So instead, the crew spends time with each other and enjoying the great Alaskan outdoors.

“It kind of forces people who aren’t outdoor people to become outdoor people, or you’ll just be spending your time off in your apartment,” he said.

Go-to guide

Lekanoff has a wealth of local knowledge — where to pick the best berries, where to go fishing, or who might be able to squeeze you onto an Alaska Airlines flight to the mainland at the last minute.

“I’ve asked her questions about a little bit of everything,” Marine Science Technician 1st Class Jamie Testa said.

Lekanoff is a retired store clerk who raised her family on the island but now lives alone. Bringing treats to the station or getting a phone call from the crew is as much about her morale as the Coasties’, she said.

“When they call me, they’re inviting me over for dinner or something, and that’s really nice,” she said. “And I’ve had some that would come over and visit me when my family’s out of town and watch movies with me at my house.”

She’s a one-woman operation now, but back before the permanent Dutch Harbor station, Lekanoff would open her home to the visiting cutter crew members.

“I’ve spoken to her daughter about stories. Other than just meeting some of the Coasties coming off of these ships before the unit was here, people would come over for holiday meals, or if they needed a place to rest or get away from the ship for a while,” Testa said. “So her kids were doing this growing up.”

In fact, Lekanoff’s daughter is former Storekeeper 3rd Class Diane Love, who spent eight years with the Coast Guard before settling in Valdez, Alaska, with her husband, also a former Coastie.

“We both pretty much just take care of one another, is how I look at it,” Lekanoff said of the Dutch Harbor crew. “They just fill in a void at times in my life. They’re just like a family to me.”

When the crews leave at the end of their tours, Lekanoff said she often keeps in touch by phone, email or text. And when the new rotation comes in next summer, she’ll be right there, jam and alodicks in hand.

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