Above: Fishing boats crowd in the harbor on Kodiak Island, one of the country’s busiest fishing ports.
Below: The front entrance to the Russian Orthodox church. Kristen Kemmerling-Travel Alaska photos
The island is 30 miles off the coast of Alaska, and the only way to reach it is by sea or air. The Alaska Marine Highway System’s ferry Tustumena, commonly called Tusty, travels to Kodiak from Homer. Two airlines make the hour-long flight from Anchorage to Kodiak four to eight times a day, depending on the season. Travelers are advised to bring rain gear, extra clothes and extra patience; storms can whip up quickly and halt transportation.
The lay of the land
The island, the second largest in the country (the Big Island of Hawaii is first), is 100 miles long, 60 miles wide and has less than 100 miles of road. The mountainous northern part of Kodiak is covered with trees, the south contains grasses and tundra, and much of its shore is surf-swept and inhospitable. The sheltered areas of the coastline can be explored by sea kayak.
Some anthropologists believe Asiatic people made their way here at the end of the last ice age. Archaeologists believe the ancestors of the Alutiiq, the Alaskan people indigenous to the archipelago, settled on Kodiak Island some 7,000 years ago.
The Alutiiq way of life changed when Russian fur traders hunted their way to Kodiak Island after discovering sea otter pelts brought more money than sable. The Russian colonization of the island had a tragic effect on the Alutiiq. Many were enslaved and forced to hunt otter. Uprisings were quickly quelled through brutality. After two generations of Russian rule, 80 percent of the native people were gone, either from violence or European diseases for which they had no resistance.
Life for the Alutiiq improved after the United States bought Alaska in 1867; the American fur traders preferred to do their own work. After hunting the otter into near extinction, the Americans began other industries, and salmon fishing and canning became the primary source of income for islanders. Western culture soon dominated, and the Alutiiqs became Americanized.
Ring of fire
In addition to challenges brought by man, Kodiak Island residents also faced trials brought by nature. In 1912, Mount Novarupta on the Alaskan Peninsula erupted, sending a cloud of ash over the archipelago; almost 2 feet fell on the city of Kodiak. The ash clogged rivers and streams, the salmon fishing industry was destroyed and buildings collapsed under the ash’s weight. But the city was rebuilt, and the fish and game returned with time.
Another disaster hit the island as a result of the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964. The strongest quake in recorded U.S. history created a tsunami, which destroyed Kodiak’s business district, waterfront and much of its fishing fleet. Again, the city rebounded, this time with new canneries and better boats.
One more catastrophe was in store, this time man-made. On March 27, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, dumping 11 million gallons of crude oil into the water. The oil made its way south, reaching Kodiak’s beaches in mid-April. Salmon fishing was suspended due to oil-contaminated fish. Once again the city, and the salmon industry, came back.
About 13,000 people inhabit the island-roughly 6,000 in the city, 4,000 on the U.S. Coast Guard base, and the remaining are scattered among the six Alutiiq villages and other small communities. The city of Kodiak is one of the top U.S. fishing ports and is home to more than 700 vessels.
Visitors can learn more about the archipelago’s native people at the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository. It uses exhibits, classes and archaeological programs to show visitors the language, history and art of the Alutiiq. Native islanders are working to keep the old ways alive, including the Alutiiq language, which few can speak fluently.
Reminders of the island’s role in World War II can be found at the Kodiak Military History Museum, located in a restored ammunition bunker at Fort Abercrombie. Built by Navy SeaBees in 1943, the fort was a coastal defense installation. Once the bunker stored projectiles for the guns; today it houses exhibits of World War II memorabilia.
The Baranov Museum/Kodiak Historical Society and the blue onion domes of Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church are signs of the island’s Russian colonization. The latter is in the 1808 Erskine House, the oldest Russian building in Alaska, and has artifacts from the Russian era, territorial days, World War II and more.
Like most of Alaska, Kodiak Island is made for those who like the rugged outdoors. Recreational opportunities include fishing, hunting, kayaking, rafting, hiking, camping and bird watching. While most of these activities can be enjoyed along the road system, for those who want a truly remote wilderness experience, the best place on the island to enjoy such activities is the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge’s 1.9 million acres encompass two-thirds of the island and contain rivers, streams, lakes, hundreds of miles of shoreline, estuaries, marshes, bogs, salt flats, tundra and meadows. A short list of flora includes willows, wild parsnips, salmonberry bushes, wildflowers and fireweed.
More than 250 bird species live in or visit the refuge. There are hundreds of nesting pairs of bald eagles, and more than 1 million seabirds spend the winter here.
All five kinds of Pacific salmon (chinook, sockeye, coho, chum and pink) spawn in refuge waters. After maturing in the ocean, the returning salmon provide Kodiak’s fishing boats and canneries with business and supply meals for the star of the island-the Kodiak bear.
Bigger than the average bear
Just as a puma is called a cougar or mountain lion depending on where it is, the brown bear has different names depending on geography. Those found inland and in mountainous areas are called grizzlies; those found anywhere else are called brown bears; and those found on the island are called Kodiaks.
Thousands of years of isolation have kept the Kodiaks’ makeup unique. Their social structure is more diverse than other bears’, their bones are bigger and the abundance of food–they consume 80 to 90 pounds a day make them the largest of the brown bears. Male Kodiaks can grow 10 feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds.
Though a few thousand of the huge beasts roam Kodiak Island, visitors rarely see one when walking around town or hiking well-used trails. The bears like solitude and stay away from populated areas. To increase the odds of seeing a Kodiak, explorers should contact one of the several air charters or lodges that offer daytrips or weekly tours. The professional guides know where to find the beasts and how to safely watch them.
Things to know
The average high temperature on Kodiak is 46.8, almost balmy compared to Nome and Fairbanks. However, fog, wind and rain (60 inches annually) can make sudden unwelcome appearances and turn a pleasant hike into a life-threatening one. Local outfitters can provide advice, accommodations and equipment for a backcountry trip.
The wildlife refuge has detailed information on how to behave in bear country and how to practice minimum impact hiking and camping. Visitors are advised to dress in layers, bring rain gear, and wear waterproof shoes or hiking boots. Remember, this is the Last Frontier-a large wardrobe isn’t required, just a large sense of adventure.
Tamra Willett-Johnson is a freelance writer living in Nebraska and a former resident of Alaska.