Kings Of Kodiak – 2
Kodiak township still carries the air of a town on the wild edge, albeit one with modern conveniences like ATM’s, great restaurants, bars and a growing number of pleasant B&Bs to cater to the growing tourist trade. Cruise ships are starting to make this a regular stop. Just about everything is focused on the outdoors.
Kodiak Island is 3588 square miles of wilderness filled with jagged peaks, fjord like bays and deeply dished valleys left by the glacial retreat 10,000 years ago.Less than 100 miles of roads, largely unpaved, drape the Western coast, otherwise you travel by sea or air _ the floatplane is the Kodiak taxi. Either way its an adventure in itself and worth keeping your eyes peeled and your camera handy. Humpback whales and Orcas are regular, spectacular sights around the islands’ coast and grizzlies and mountain sheep dot the mountains and valleys.
There are hiking and mountain biking trails surrounding the Kodiak township, and the green summer grasses are lush with pink shooting stars, blue lupins and rose purple orchids. If you visit in the fall, it is possible to eat your fill of wild blueberries, cranberries and the salmonberry, the latter thankfully named for its color and not its taste.
Kodiak became a Russian stronghold for the sea otter trade in the mid-1700s. Both the otters and the native Alutiit people would rue the fashion of fur. The otters were hunted to near extinction for their pelts while the estimated 10,000 Alutiit were decimated by introduced disease and armed conflict, simply because they were here.
The otters have recovered faster, lounging in the abundant kelp forests surrounding Kodiak and its many, many islands. The Alutiit are slowly regaining their language, once banned by missionaries, and other elements of their culture. The Alutiit Museum and Archeological Repository in Kodiak features an important, and fascinating collection of artifacts, and displays, gathered from the 1000 archeological sites scattered throughout the islands. If you have a particularly archeological bent, it is possible to join local expeditions to help uncover the Alutiit past.
The most lasting legacy of the Russian Era remains the Russian Orthodox religion, and brilliant blue cupolas of the Holy Resurrection Church, not 100 yards from the Museum.
The Church houses the reliquary of St Herman, who was canonized here in 1970, I’m assured not just for surviving the winters and other rigors of this frontier
Kodiak has been American for more than a century but its aura as a place for fortune hunters, or those seeking to build a place apart from the “normal world”, continues to this day.
The sea is part of Kodiak’s soul. At no point on this island are you more than 15 miles from the ocean. The North Pacific is a tempestuous neighbor, part provider and part destroyer.
Four species of salmon, steelhead and dolly varden, provide an annual feast for all, swimming into various streams across Kodiak and its associated islands, then there are several species of succulent crab and shrimp and the huge, tasty halibut, which can de best described as a “car bonnet” sized flounder.
But the sea can also take away as on March 27, 1964 when a massive earthquake rocked southeast Alaska, triggering a series of tsunamis, which swept through Kodiak’s waterfront and central business district, and other low-lying settlements. Most residents were evacuated up Pillar Mountain, but returned to find the township devastated and the fishing boat Albatross tossed into the central business district.
The ocean also gave Kodiak great riches in the late 70s’s when crab became king.
Spike Walker’s book on the Alaskan king crab fishery’s heyday “Working On The Edge” is available in virtually every Alaskan airport. If you have ever stood with a salt breeze ruffling your hair and wondered what it would be like to go to sea, the book is almost worth the airfare alone. (Since this piece was written Bering Sea crabbing has become almost prime time entertainment courtesy of the Discovery Channel, even if you have watched the series try Walker’s book.)
Young people from across America came to Kodiak Island to roll the dice for the fortune of a lifetime on these wild seas, or the end of a young life. In 1980 alone the death toll was 28 crewmen, but more were willing to chance their limbs or life for a crewman’s share, running as high as $50,000 for just 15 days torrid work, earned by many that season. In 1988 alone, 42 crewmembers were lost and the toll continues. It is no co-incidence Kodiak hosts the USA’s largest Coast Guard station.
Walker’s book tells of the hustle and bustle of the Kodiak waterfront in those days and the wild nights in Kodiak’s bars, when cash-rich fishermen could buy a $175 round of drink for an entire bar, several times an evening. It also reveals the danger of the freezing “williwaw” winds sweeping down from the Artic, tearing, lifting and freezing enormous sheets of spray from the living ocean. Ships caught off guard can build thick coats of saltwater ice, ultimately thick enough to roll a ship over. And Walker’s painstaking interviews tell of the fear, tragedy, courage and aching cold of being shipwrecked in these waters.
Not even Kodiak was wild enough for Roy Randall. Roy was looking for an escape from the world in 1964 when he came across Seal Bay on Afognak Island, the eastern most island of the Kodiak Archipelago, during a bear hunt with actor Roy Rogers. Randall was a Hollywood screenwriter and gun consultant looking for his place in the world. He had grown up in the backwoods of the US South and knew his way around the outdoors but even so, it was a daunting experience. He landed permanently in Afognak in 1964, a boat depositing Randall his prefabricated hut and provisions, on the beach, and then sailing away.
“I have never felt so alone, he says now “but at the same time I have never felt so free”
His wife Shannon joined him on the island and the pair, together with their family has painstaking built a welcoming and relaxing lodge on Afognak
The long, northern summer days can be as busy as you like, viewing the abundant bird and wildlife, fishing for salmon or halibut, or hunting elk and even bear. But a special experience is to quietly paddle the secluded bays and inlets in one’s of the Randall’s kayaks, sneaking up on otters and simply enjoying the absence of man made sounds.
It’s not hard to understand why the Randall’s made their home here.