Falling in Love with Kodiak, Alaska

For months I had been planning my summer trip to Kodiak, Alaska and I was excited.  I told everyone I ran into that I was headed there, and without exception, they questioned me on my choice of destinations.  I was somewhat at a loss – there was no particular reason I could point to.  Somewhere over the years I must have seen pictures of the island and stored away from the knowledge that it was a beautiful place.  I knew about the bears, but I wasn’t making a trek for that reason.  I just knew something internal was telling me that I needed to go there, and so I headed to Alaska to follow my internal voice.

Aerial view of the city of Kodiak

I am so glad that I found my way to Kodiak Island.  From the original approach of the island by air to my last glimpses of it as I ascended into the fog to return to mainland Alaska I was enthralled by Kodiak’s beauty.  As I talked to the locals, I expected to hear a lot of people tell me that they were native to Kodiak.  I didn’t.  But I did hear the same story over and over again.  They came, fell in love with the island, and have been there ever since.  It was easy to see how that could happen.  It is easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

Kodiak Island is second in size to America’s largest island – Hawaii’s Big Island.  However, it far outshines all competitors in Shoreline.  There are an impressive 1,343 miles, whereas the Big Island can boast only 266.  Most of the employment on this working-class island is centered on the fishing industry.  Kodiak’s St. Paul harbor was full of fishing boats, and the large cannery in town had a large, full parking lot.  Maybe I didn’t find many natives because they weren’t walking in the city by day for me to run into.  They were working.

St. Paul Harbor – one of two harbors in the city of Kodiak

Family Travel on Kodiak Island

This was a kid-free journey for me.  I find it important to travel alone occasionally, and enjoy it immensely.

However, I couldn’t help noticing all the things my children would absolutely love about Kodiak!  The opportunities are incredible and range from easy to advanced.  They’d have an absolute blast exploring the tidal pools and could spend hours finding fossils and shells on the beaches.  When I return, I’m positive I will have my children in tow.

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The black sands of Surfers’ Beach beneath the incoming waves.

While I would think twice about bringing my children along with me to watch the bears at their current ages, I know they would love that.  Well, my thrill-seeking son would love it.  My daughter might find the danger too high to truly enjoy the experience.  They would both enjoy watching the other wildlife on the island, like the salmon runs and bald eagles.

The Weather and Other Acts of God

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Sunset on Kodiak Island

Blessed by clear blue skies, I took as many photos as my memory card would allow.  While I didn’t know anything but this beautiful weather, locals told me that I was lucky to have it during my all of my visit until the morning I left.  “Back in World War II, the Japanese flew over three times to bomb us.  Couldn’t find us with all the fog!  Never did bomb us once!” I was told laughingly by one.  (More on this in Part 2)

That sheltering fog is a double-edged sword, sometimes keeping air traffic from being able to aircraft from being able to service the island.  The ferry comes to Kodiak, but to travel that way is slow and sometimes impractical.  But, such is the price you pay for living in such a beautiful place I suppose.

Damage in 1964
Damage in 1964

Fog isn’t the only thing that Kodiak Islanders have to worry about.  Volcanoes are a part of the Alaskan landscape, and at least 6 lie directly across the Shelikof Strait on the Alaskan mainland.  The most destructive one was Novarupta in 1912.  This volcano was created during this eruption which released over 30 times as much magma as the 1980 eruption by Mount St. Helen’s.  Ash rained down on the island for three straight days, killing virtually all wildlife on the island.  There was so much ash, that strong winds can still stir up ash from that eruption and causing a haze over Kodiak a whole century later.

Alaska is also home to earthquakes, and Kodiak is no exception   Kodiak was part of the epicenter of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and was hit by the resulting tsunami.  The loss of life was low for such an event, but the damage was staggering.  This event leveled many of the waterfront businesses in the city of Kodiak and demolished several coastal villages on the island.  Yet both the people and landscape of Kodiak have bounced back from these disasters to become vibrant and beautiful. And I fell in love!

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Fields of green against Kodiak’s glorious coastline

I am not sure what happened between the 1940’s and the 1990’s, but somewhere along the way, the story of Alaska and World War II became lost to the public.  While I knew about the Japanese-American interments in California, I did not know about the forcible evacuation and internment of natives in the Aleutians.  Basically, the army cleared off some of the furthest islands.  The Aleuts that had lived there forever were moved to the Alaskan panhandle to live in squalor conditions.  Then the army moved into their homes and religious buildings, breaking and looting their personal items in the process.

The army hadn’t gotten around to imprisoning the Aleuts on Attu when the Japanese invaded that island and the small island of Kiska nearby.  The Japanese army didn’t treat them any better than the US would have treated them.  They shipped off the Aleuts from Attu to Japan to live in prison camps there, and also presumably moved into their homes and religious buildings.

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Remnants of guns in Fort Abercrombie, now an Alaskan State Park.

Kodiak Island became very important to the defense of the mainland.  The area previously known as Miller Point became Fort Abercrombie in 1941 and Kodiak served as the Alaska Defense Command for the entire Alaska campaign from October 1942 through March 1943.

Kodiak became a major staging area for North Pacific operations during World War II. The population of the tiny village soared to more than 25,000. A submarine base and air station were constructed at Women’s Bay and an army outpost was established near the Buskin River. Bunkers and gun emplacements were built at Chiniak, Long Island, and Fort Abercrombie. –  World War II in Kodiak

After Pearl Harbor, an attack on Kodiak seemed not only plausible but imminent.  Residents and serviceman scanned the skies constantly for signs of Japanese aircraft.  But they never came.  The guns at Fort Abercrombie were fired often in drills but were never shot at an enemy.

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World War II Bunker in Fort Abercrombie

After World War II, the army quickly abandoned the fort and the bunkers were forgotten.  They became overgrown and the forest reclaimed the land.  For a while, homeless people took up camp there before the state “evicted” them in the 1980’s to clean up the area and create the park.  Local youth still liked it as a hangout.  A local handyman I ran into told me his friends used to raid the bunkers at Fort Abercrombie and drink the beer they found there.  He was around my age, so that would put the beer at least 40 years old.

I didn’t find any beer when I started exploring Fort Abercrombie, but what I did find was enthralling.  Bunkers covered with the softest moss I’d ever encountered.  Gun mounts still pointed out at the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean.  Footprints of buildings that hadn’t been built as sturdy as the bunkers and had been reclaimed by the forest.

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Serene lake in Fort Abercrombie

Fort Abercrombie was my first destination after arriving on the island.  I took a trail around a peaceful lake out to Miller Point.  I sat out at that glorious point for at least an hour, watching the waves crash against the rocks below.  I consciously made the decision to slow down and take it all in so that I could replay the scene in my mind in the years to come.  But  I couldn’t help but imagine the servicemen’s state of mind as they sat at the same place I did sixty years earlier.  Sure you were in a beautiful paradise, but it could all go to hell in an instant.

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Miller Point in Fort Abercrombie from the air.

Russian Influences on Kodiak Island

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Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church in Kodiak

Kodiak’s place in World War II is not the only history evident on the island.  One of the first things I saw was a Russian Orthodox church and a Russian Orthodox Seminary next door, left by Russian trappers and traders from the 17 and 1800’s.

When Russia landed, they encountered the native population of Alutiiq (which anthropologists classify as Eskimo).  They established the first Russian permanent settlement in Alaska here in Kodiak, led by Russian fur traders.  Like interactions with Native Americans in the mainland, this meeting of the cultures was not without bloodshed, but intermarriage was common and helped the Russian Orthodox church spread on the island.

Kodiak is Looking to the Future

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Windmills on the island of Kodiak

One of the first things I noticed on the island was the large windmills on Pillar Mountain. The cost for importing anything to an island in Alaska is large so there must have been expensive to bring these in. It is forward thinking of the Islanders to bring in a renewable resource like this. In the first year of operation, the windmills saved $3 million in diesel costs.

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Kodiak Spaceport Launch Complex

The second day on the island, I found out that Kodiak was home to spaceport. Not just any spaceport, but the nation’s first commercial spaceport. If you know me, you know that wild horses couldn’t keep me from checking it out! I didn’t see any workers while I was there, so all I really got to do was take a look from the fence.

Here’s a live launch at Kodiak. Liftoff is at 1:53.

Reflections on Kodiak

I loved my time there. I could definitely see myself spending summer after summer there. I loved the isolation, but that same isolation would be limiting. There are only 100 miles of road on Kodiak, and not all of it is connected. Getting to other villages on the island, like Old Harbor, require a boat or a plane ride. Getting to mainland Alaska requires the same, or a slow trip on the ferry. I think the harsh winters would feel stifling on an island I couldn’t easily stray from. Overall, I look forward to returning to this beautiful island paradise, and this time I’ll be sharing the experience with my children.

Is it any wonder why Kodiak has my heart?

Places and People to Check Out on Kodiak Island

DeeAnn’s Kodiak Tour Company is a great way to get around the island and learn about the uniqueness of the place. I highly recommend working with her!

Andrews Airways can help you with a once in a lifetime bear viewing. Whether you are seeing the famous Kodiak bears in season, or flying over to Katmai to see brown bears like I did, Andrews is a great tour company.

The small Baranov Museum, housed in a former fur warehouse in Kodiak, was a great place to learn more about the Russian era in Kodiak’s history.

Kodiak Brewing Company is a hub of the community.

Alutiiq Museum is a small museum that can enlighten you on the history of the native Eskimo population on Kodiak.

Historical 1964 photo was a creative commons find. All other photography is mine.