Travel around the U.S.: Kodiak Island, Alaska

Kodiak – the island where bears live and the city where Russian American heritage is preserved

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Oleg Gore reprinted from September 9, 2015, 21:27 0 ratings, 2317 views Discuss (0)

Arrival on Kodiak Island

Kodiak Island, 190 miles from Homer if sailing along the Alaskan coast, is really beautiful, covered in dark green fir trees with patches of light green meadows and slopes. It’s early June, and streaks of snow are still white on the peaks. It’s not for nothing that Kodiak is called the Emerald Isle of Alaska. Its treeless portions remind one of Ireland or Scotland.

Kodiak Wharf in the morning fog

Besides being home to the largest Coast Guard station in the United States (featured on the reality show Deadliest Catch) and a U.S. Navy Seals training camp, Kodiak is also a major guardian of Russian American heritage, becoming so after 1867, when the United States bought 586,412 square miles of Alaska from Czarist Russia, paying $7.2 million for what was then sometimes called “Seward’s Folly.”

The terms of the deal were negotiated by then Secretary of State William Henry Seward. In today’s money it amounts to about $110 million, though some say as much as $17 billion when recalculated relative to the size of the American economy then and now.

A small cove for small ships and boats

The city of Kodiak is home to the oldest Russian building in North America – and the oldest building in Alaska – the fur warehouse (store) of the Russian-American Company, built in 1808. The building now houses the Baranov Museum, named in honor of that longtime company executive.

The Baranov Museum in the former fur warehouse

The Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1898, with its two handsome blue domes, is a major landmark in Kodiak.

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Russian Orthodox Church.

The Aleuts, a people of the Yupik Nations of the Bering Sea, have lived here for 7,500 years and were perfectly at home in this harsh environment, getting what they needed for food and clothing by hunting animals of the land and sea, until Russian traders and furbearers arrived in 1784.

Then they were effectively enslaved by the Russian-American Company, which held their women and children hostage, forcing the men to hunt sea otters, the kalan, for a pittance.

Signs of nightlife in the town.

They numbered about 9,000 when the Russians arrived. A few decades later only 1,900 remained. The rest were victims of hard work and European diseases such as smallpox.

The kalan were on the verge of extinction, too, in no small measure, due to the even more predatory shooting of them by the Americans after the purchase of Alaska.

Another small cove for boats and boats

The Aleuts also had a very bad time under the Americans, missionaries forbade them to speak their own language, their children, under the pretext of ‘Americanization’, were taken away and sent to special schools. Today they are trying to revive their language and culture. About 15 percent of the 14,000 or so islanders have Aleut blood in their veins.

The island is about 110 miles long, 60 miles wide, heavily rugged with bays and fjords. We have more than eight hours here before our excellent vessel, the Tustumena, continues her voyage westward to the Aleutian Islands.

The shore near town.

For $75, I booked a four-hour tour of the island, but the lady guide, aka the driver, can’t start until 10:00, so I have two hours to kill somewhere, and all the cafes are closed. One says “open,” and I take a seat only to hear that it’s “closed” here, too. But the guy gives me a cup of tea and refuses to take money – unlike every other street vendor I’ve met on my Alaska trip so far.

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The only problem is that from the TV on full blast, a nonstop stream of silly chatter from the insufferable Wolf Blitzer pours out. Oy vey! I could barely get the free tea dispenser to change the channel.

Another view of the shore.

Meanwhile, the good weather follows me. When we docked at 7:45, it was very gray and overcast, with the tops of the hills hidden in clouds. Now, at 10:00, the clouds have parted, the sky is blue-blue, and the sun is shining brightly, golden on the tops of the firs.

From the 1,400-foot high Mt. Pillar there is a superb view of the city, the peaks, the sea, and the islands. But, alas, strong winds prompted man to build a wind farm on the ridge – putting several spinning windmills with turbines.

View from Mount Pillar

Kadiak is best known for its bears, the Kadiaks the largest of the grizzly bears, the males weighing 600 to 900 pounds. The largest weigh up to 1,500 pounds and reach 10 feet in length. Many generations of bears have lived on the island undisturbed and have evolved into a distinct species. There are now approximately 3,500 of them.

The reason for the stability of the population is thought to be that bear hunting is only allowed outside of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. But why some idiots want to kill this magnificent creature and spread its pelt on the floor or on a wall is beyond me.

Seaplanes in Kodiak.

My guide, the lady, however, says that this is a better death than what awaits old bears, whose lifespan reaches 30 years. When they become old and weak and their teeth are not so sharp, the young bears attack them and drive them away from their best pastures and hunting grounds. Eventually they starve to death.

The best time to see bears is on the coast, in July to August, during the salmon spawning season, but my lady guide saw a mother with two cubs a few days ago, they crossed the road right in front of her car.

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We are traveling about 30 miles south of town, but no one has been seen today. Nothing to worry about, though. Those bears I saw on Katmai were probably Kodiak bears that crossed the strait.

We see a huge 15-year-old eagle’s nest, with an eaglet sitting on a nearby branch guarding her eaglets. She may have two or three chicks, but most often only one survives because he or she, in a struggle for food, pushes the others out of the nest.

The principal predators of the earth and sky don’t often face each other, simply because an eagle can’t carry off a bear cub, let alone a bear weighing more than 600 pounds.

But a lady guide once saw a bear kill two eagles. He found and guarded the carcass of a huge whale washed ashore, feeding on it all day long. One day, two hungry eagles flew too close and that night the bear added game “a la eagle” to his whale “steak.”

Nest and eagle close-up

She looked at the fuel gauge and, what a surprise, found that she had forgotten to fill up. So we return before reaching the Alaska Space Launch Facility* used to launch military satellites into polar orbit, a government enterprise known to its critics as the Alaska Space Pork.

*Kodiak Launch Complex (KLC), is an American commercial space launch facility located on the island of the same name off the coast of Alaska.

To the south of the city.

A “tsunami siren” began to howl. But again, nothing to worry about; it’s just a regular test of the warning system, held Wednesdays at 2 p.m. – a reminder of the biggest earthquake in North American history, which occurred in 1964. The magnitude 9.2 earthquake triggered a series of tsunamis that wiped out the town of Kodiak.

You are warned. The sign reads: Tsunami Hazard Zone, in case of an earthquake, go to an elevated place or go inland.

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