You can come down Mill Bay Road in Kodiak, on a clear winter morning, and Chiniak Bay will open before you, the ocean stretching away to the east, a hard dark blue, and the mountains south across the bay standing their icy shoulders against a west wind. It will be like the first day on earth, everything new and clean and so very big and you will know you have arrived somewhere special, that you are in the right place at the right time.
I arrived in Alaska in the mid-1970s, ran out of money in Kodiak and went fishing because that was what there was to do. I stayed because living here was romantic and exotic and dangerous and bigger than anything I had previously imagined. I was young of course, but there are days when all of that is still true and I am not alone in Kodiak in knowing that and appreciating it.
Kodiak is an island - the second biggest island in the United States, after Hawaii’s Big Island. The mountains, ocean and the weather that comes from the ocean define it physically but in other ways too. There are 3,500 brown bears on the island, which live off the salmon that choke the rivers every summer and the continental shelf around the island swarms with millions of fish and crab. Every March, a pod of killer whales arrives in the harbor to hunt stellar sea lions while people stand on Near Island Channel Bridge and gawk. There are days in July when the processing plants in town put a million salmon a day into cans and freezer boxes, but because the island is a singularly pristine habitat the size of Connecticut, and because most of it is a national wildlife refuge with no potential for much human infrastructure, there is no reason to believe there will not be millions of salmon in those streams a hundred Julys from now.
When the weather is fine, Kodiak is a spectacular place. But even when it is windy and cold, and the scenery lost in the fog, and maybe especially so then, the mountains, beaches and sea retain their great impersonal dominion over human perceptions and affairs. Beyond the small busy town, beyond the end of the 40 miles of road, a magical wildness reigns. Even in town, the winter wind can roll Dumpsters down the street.
1.) Kodiak Small Boat Harbor
There are actually two harbors: the downtown St. Paul Harbor, for smaller boats, and St. Herman Harbor on Near Island, just across the Near Island Channel Bridge, where the Bering Sea crab boats tie up in the off season. Kodiak Maritime Museum has installed a series of interpretive panels on the Shelikof Street side of St. Paul Harbor that explain the different kinds of boats, the fish they harvest and the gear used to catch them. Like anyone, fishermen love to talk about what they do, and if you show the slightest interest you might be invited to come aboard, have a cup of coffee and get a tour of their boat while they tell you they think they have the best job in the world.
2.) Baranov Museum
The Baranov Museum is located at 101 Marine Way, across the street from the Alaska Marine Highway office on the Near Island Channel. Housed in the oldest building in Alaska, the white clapboard-sided museum was built as a warehouse for sea otter pelts in 1808 by the Russian-American Company. The original log walls are still visible inside, complete with axe marks and moss chinking. The museum houses a vast collection of Kodiak-related photographs, a unique collection of Russian tools, coins and maps, and whaling implements from the bad old days when American whalers hunted in Kodiak waters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 2008, an archeological dig on the lawn next to the building unearthed Alutiiq stone tools, Russian coins, and more recent American items.
3.) Alutiiq Museum
At 215 Mission Rd., right up the street from the Baranov Museum, the Alutiiq Museum is a repository for thousands of stone tools, as well as grass baskets and facemasks wrought by the original occupants of the Kodiak Archipelago. Recent archeological work has shown that Kodiak was first inhabited about 7,500 years ago by seafaring people related to the Yupik and Inupiaq people of western and northern Alaska. They made a fine living hunting sea mammals and fishing for salmon.
4.) Alaska Marine Highway
You either fly to Kodiak or take the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Homer, on the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula. The 12-hour ferry ride on either the Tustemena or the Kennicott is one of the world’s greatest scenic voyages. Passing by the volcanos on the Alaska Peninsula and the vast bird colonies of the Barren Islands, the ferry also stops at Ouzinkie, Port Lions and Old Harbor, which are all roadless villages on Kodiak Island. Once a month the ferry goes all the way to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands – a four-day round trip. Adventurous travelers can roll out their sleeping bags for free in an enclosed solarium on the top deck but there are staterooms too, which led some kids I know in Kodiak to ask, “Why fly when you can take a hotel to Homer?”
5.) Drive out the road to Pasagshak Bay
While most of Kodiak Island is roadless wilderness, you can drive on a pretty nice paved road 40 miles to Pasagshak Bay and nearby Fossil Beach. Locals drive “out the road” for barbecues, beachcombing and whale watching, and to watch an increasing number of dry-suited surfers. The road passes along a dramatic coastline, and on the way back you can stop at the Kalsin Bay Inn for a burger and a beer. There’s also a commercial rocket launching facility out there, whose large white buildings can seem otherworldly when you first see them over a rise.
6.) Kodiak Island Brewing Company
The quality of life in Kodiak made a quantum leap when local home-brewer Ben Millstein opened Kodiak Island Brewing Company a few years ago. The brewery features great, fresh, locally produced beer. Patrons are limited by state brewery law to two pints per customer on the premises, but Ben sells his beer to go in small growlers, medium “pigs” and full sized kegs. Until now the brewery has been down past the boat harbor on cannery row, but is set to move to a new location at the main intersection downtown.
7.) Get way out of town
Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses about 70 percent of the island, maintains nine remote recreation cabins that allow visitors to experience the island’s wilderness in rustic comfort. Located in various places around the archipelago, they come with bunk beds and liquid fuel stoves. You have to bring your own bedding, fuel and food. After you reserve your cabin, you can fly there safely and reliably with any of these very experienced local flying services: Andrew Airways, Island Air Service or Sea Hawk Air.
8.) Kodiak Fishermen’s Memorial
Located in front of the Harbormaster’s Office, next to the downtown boat harbor, the memorial is a site special to many in Kodiak. Each May, during the town’s annual Crab Festival, the rides stop, the midway shuts down and residents gather around the memorial while the names of Kodiak fishermen lost at sea over the previous year are read aloud. A Coast Guard color guard dips their flags and plays “Taps,” a ship’s bell is rung for each name and the Russian Orthodox Holy Resurrection Cathedral rings its bells in response. For a while in the 1970s and 1980s, before more stringent safety regulations went into effect, there were years when several dozen men and women fishing out of Kodiak died at sea. It’s better now but the names and the dates remain, lined up in little brass plaques on the stone, and fishermen still lose their lives at sea.