I left the airport in Kodiak with two backpacks and no clear itinerary, resolved to figure things out as opportunity presented itself. My experiences in Kodiak over the past seven days proved to be a series of small discoveries and realizations, some pleasant, other less so, and served as yet another test of my ability to make the most of the raw material around me.
What is so special about a small fishing village on the coast of the Gulf of Alaska? What is it like to go out on a boat every day and bring back a catch for the canneries that line the harbor, and hope the price per pound is high enough to make a profit? What is it like to live six months at sea, working 16 hour days, and only getting six weeks off before you have to go back out again? What it is like to have to beat the ice off the sides of the ship with a sledge? To spend the morning in the harbor coffee shop and head back out to your boat at the dock in the afternoon? To haul in thousands of pounds of fish and hate the killing of them? To fly a six-seater Cherokee to the handful of villages around the archipelago? To go out on a research vessel and monitor species populations and muse over how climate change will or won’t affect the fishing industry? What is it like to traverse the spine of the island? To paddle the rivers, bays and creeks and bushwhack through salmonberries and devil’s club to get from one island to another? What is it like to call Kodiak home?
I planned on traveling alone, but plans don’t always work out like you imagine. Less than 15 minutes from the airport, a local pulled over in an SUV and offered me a ride into town. Upon learning I had brought a packraft, he promptly turned around and took me out to a nearby river where I could put in and float down to the beach. Then he took it upon himself to drive me to the marine supply shop, sporting goods store, and grocery so that I could pick up a PFD, food and fuel. He even ran by the visitor’s center so I could get a map, but they were closed, so he drove me out to two local state parks and showed me where I could camp. I hadn’t planned on hitchhiking, but it was hard to refuse his thoughtful, welcoming ways.
He left me at Fort Abercrombie, and I spent the evening admiring the colors of the sunset from the rocky beach on what was the first sunny day in two weeks on the island. As I set up my stove and watched the waves, I remembered other beaches, other waves, and other moments in which I ended an evening in a new place with the familiar ritual of lighting the stove and waiting for the water to boil. I watched a photographer over on the other side of the beach set up his tripod and crouch before the waves, attempting to capture the sparkle against the black rocks.
The next morning, I packed up and headed into town. The water pump wasn’t running, the camp host was absentee, and as I later learned, the state parks were still officially closed for the winter. I decided paying the park fee wasn’t worth the ease of finding a campsite, and resolved to pursue wilder campsites through the rest of the week.
Less than a couple of miles into my walk to town, a familiar maroon SUV pulled over ahead of me. The window rolled down, and the same local who had picked me up the day before smiled and offered me another ride into town, which I accepted with a smile of my own.
He dropped me off at the rental car place, and I picked up a vehicle for the remainder of the week. There aren’t many places to go out the road on the island, but I figured a car would be a more efficient way of getting around while I was here. My choice of footwear (rubber boots) meant that I wouldn’t be doing much hiking, so I focused on finding calm inland bays and coastal waters where I could try out the packraft and find a quiet campsite.
Missing my flight Sunday morning and getting re-booked for the afternoon had given me a few hours of extra research time, and I had been able to identify a local resident who had posted a few videos of his kayaking and packrafting around the island, so I sent off a message hoping that we would be able to meet up sometime during the week. This worked out in my favor, and we were able to set up a time towards the coming weekend to get together. In the meantime, I drove off towards the most attractive spot on the map– the end of the northern road out of town, which ended in Anton Larson Bay.
The road wound through Coast Guard property and up through alpine terrain, past Pyramid Mountain, which was blanketed in heavy snow, along with its surrounding neighbors. All the people I spoke with through the week complained that this had been no kind of winter at all, and that the snow levels were nowhere near normal. I had heard the same from friends and neighbors in Anchorage. Everyone hoped for more snow next year, for better snowboarding, better skiing, that the lakes would freeze up again, that the ice would again lace the edges of the bay. Alaska aches for winter to come back.
As you drive along the road, you weave in and out of cell service range, and by the time I reached the end of the pavement, I had been out of range for the last five miles or so. The bay’s quiet, protected waters glistened translucent green and blue, and with great excitement, I methodically set together the pieces of my packraft. I packed gear into the cargo tubes, inflated them, and set them inside the body of the raft, then zipped up the main compartment and inflated the rest of the boat, the seat and the backrest. I made a sling for the paddle out of a bit of paracord, and set out into the waters.
Anton Larsen Bay is dotted with small rocky islands carpeted with moss and peppered with small spruce, one of which I chose for my evening campsite. The waters are calm and clear, and harbor seals regularly poked their heads up out of the water to watch me. So shy, yet so curious. Sea otters twirled and rolled, cocking their heads at me and disappearing under the water. Sea stars splayed out myriad legs along the stony floor beneath me, and oyster eaters chattered at me from rocks close by. A light misty drizzle fell the entire afternoon and early evening, and after exploring the northwest quadrant of the bay, I pulled my packraft upon a barnacle-strewn shore after a couple of hours to make camp for the night.
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of a sea otter munching mussels, and as I unzipped my tent and peered out at the water all around me, surrounding my miniature island on an island, under a quiet, down-grey sky, I felt like the little prince on his tiny planet, tending his one splendid rose.
I packed up, made my way off the island, and took the raft down the length of the bay, following the shoreline south and then north until the waters opened up to choppier waves and big boats. I carefully followed the coastline, around one large privately owned island in the middle of the bay, until I found a little inlet and paddled southwest back to where I had parked my car. The tide was much lower than it had been when I had set out the day before, and I was glad for my rubber boots as I pulled the raft back up the beach. It only took a few minutes to get the packraft rolled up and put back into its drybag, and I set back off down the road.
I drove south to Pasagshak Point, Surfer’s Beach and the strange, lonely black coast near Fossil Beach. Open-range bison and cattle crossed the road, and I figured this would be a fairly safe place to avoid bears, since they had their pick of cattle. I walked the beach, watched a couple of surfers attempt the waves, and played fetch with their dog, who paced nervously up and down the shore, watching them and barking in a worried, loyal sort of way.
That night, dreading storms I saw off shore, I slept in the car, and spent the morning exploring Kelsin Bay, but I was so tired after a relatively sleepless night that I had to pull ashore and walk back to the car. Apparently I had parked on land owned by the local Native corporation, because someone had investigated my car and left a Leisnoi brochure on the windshield. I had meant to pick up a permit earlier, and decided I would tackle that once I got back into town.
That night I made camp at a place called White Sands, out at the other end of the road, towards Monashka Bay. The fisherman I who had offered me rides had left a voicemail just checking in on me, and I returned his call to let him know I had found a few good places to camp and successfully found places to packraft. We agreed to meet up again in the week, as he wanted to send me home with some fish. The next two days were rainy, and I spent the first day at the harborside coffeehouse, uploading photographs, and culling through writing projects. The next day I picked up a permit and headed out to Cape Chiniak, the final point of the island’s road system which I hadn’t yet explored. The final ten miles of this road were pockmarked with pot holes, over which I drove gingerly, and as I passed through the tiny community of Chiniak, the landscape opened up to expose vast acres of spruce which had been clear-cut by logging. Wrecked, ripped, wasted trunks gaped yellow and bare, and the ground was studded with the irregular flat surface of cut trees, some yellow and new, others iron-grey with time. I later learned in a coffeehouse conversation with another local that the Lesnoi corporation had been selling off their spruce forests to China for a few years now, and had decided that it was economically undesirable to reseed the deforested acres. At a dockyard near town, hundreds of rough-cut logs waited to be loaded into an enormous cargo ship bound for Hong Kong.
Though it was windy and a little rainy, I spent some time paddling through Lake Chiniak out by the Cape, and after crossing to one side, I packed up the raft into the backpack and explored the rest of the beach on foot, musing on leftover WWII debris which left its mark on the landscape: rusted out engines buried in the sand, old bunkers pock-marked with grafitti, and huge old gun mounts filled with water.
My time in Kodiak ended on a low-key, gentle note of welcoming conversations and a paddling excursion around the islands near the town harbor, despite snow flurries. My contact offered to let me use one of his dry suits, and we took both our packrafts out to the dock on Near Island, where we were able to paddle past a local colony of sea lions which have made their home on a floating dock in the harbor. We made out way out into the open water between the islands, and it felt fantastic to be out on the cold, swelling waves, with the open ocean out to the east and the surf crashing on the rocks to the west of us. We hauled the packrafts up onto the shore and portaged over a short span of land before dropping back down into the calmer water on the southern side of the island, protected from the wind. Gently paddling along, discussing the Kodiak fishing industry, the canneries, and the lifestyle of the modern fisherman in the Gulf of Alaska, we returned back to where we had begun.
On my last night, I spent time in conversation at the Kodiak Island Brewery, talking with fishermen, dockworkers and their friends. I listened to the people around me and watched them interact. The place was open with wooden floors, long bar tables where people leaned on elbows and laughed and talked. Armchairs and sofas faced each other, where groups of friends gathered at the end of the day. A couple of toddlers wobbled around the room, teetering from one foot to the other. The restrooms were labeled “Inboard” for ladies and “Outboard” for men. The brewery served seven or eight beers on tap which were brewed on site, and closed regularly at 7pm, due to the particulars of their liquor license.. Customers walked around with taster snifters, larger goblets, or tall pints. The atmosphere was relaxed, the room had a soft light, and it was nice to hear the people’s voices around me. Predictably, I picked a Belgian ale, while my friend sipped a barley wine and strung out story after story.
This morning I arrived at the airport with a wetlock box full of frozen salmon, cod and halibut, an unexpected gift. My backpack was filled with a packraft which had seen all sorts of weather and various waterways. My head was full of conversations, memories, routes and questions, and as I watched the snowfall which later led to the cancellation of my flight, I didn’t mind the coming waiting hours, because I wanted to linger a little longer. I felt like I could understand a little better why some people chose to call Kodiak home.