October: A Glimpse of Early Alaska

Dake Schmidt

As our floatplane left the city of Kodiak behind us, I glanced back to get a better view of this place that I had so quickly learned to love. The sun glinted off the water below and boats dotted the harbor, some heading out to open water while others motored in to moor up.

The view from the city of Kodiak is incredible from this angle. Indeed the whole island is best seen from the water, where fishermen track halibut, visitors go sight seeing, and local boating enthusiasts explore the natural habitat that makes Southwest Alaska so unique.

It took nearly an hour to reach our destination–Shuyak Island State Park, where we would spend the next week sea kayaking and camping with our children. We climbed out of the Beaver and walked across a rocky beach leading to a path that disappeared into a heavy forest of high ferns and towering trees. We unloaded our gear and I sat for a few minutes taking in the view from our protected cove. Seabirds flitted to and from, and I watched as a puffin comically launched itself in a clumsy takeoff along the water’s surface before disappearing around a corner.

Puffins are one of hundreds of bird species that inhabit the Southwest region of Alaska. In fact, it could be said that the most productive birding in the state–and even the country–can be had here. Because of its vast coastline and maritime environment, Southwest Alaska attracts birds by the thousands, even the millions. On Kodiak Island, such species as the pigeon guillemot, belted kingfisher and red-breasted merganser are common, and more species winter over here than in any other region in the state. In Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, near the tip of the Aleutian Chain, one can find Lapland longspurs, snow buntings and bald eagles. And on St. Paul Island, a tiny dot of land surrounded by the Bering Sea, there are a mind-boggling 278 species of birds that either live or pass through the area.

So, what have all the birds figured out about such a vast place that we humans could appreciate?

For starters, this is a diverse and naturally unique region of Alaska. It is some of the most unspoiled land in the world. There is plentiful wildlife, lush vegetation, and geography that ranges from soft sand beaches to jagged mountains.

The people of Southwest Alaska, too, are hardy and accustomed to the wild beauty of this place. Living here for centuries has given them the tools to survive high winds, rough sea, unforgiving cold winters.

Coming to Southwest Alaska offers the fortunate visitor a rare glimpse of the “real” Alaska, beyond the tourist shops and the luxury hotels. It is simple, raw and beautiful.

Kodiak Island is the second largest island in the world (after the Big Island of Hawaii) and one of the most populated regions of Southwest. Here, visitors can learn about the history of the state’s first peoples, fish, hike, kayak, and watch wildlife – the list is endless. There is an established road system for exploring by vehicle, or hop on a boat and see the surrounding area beyond land.

Kodiak Island Convention and Visitors Bureau is just one easy call away for information in Kodiak. They offer maps, directions, traveler advice, business referrals, help with lodging, fishing, and bear viewing, shopping and recreational activities of all kinds. The service is friendly and they also offer unique Kodiak souvenirs. Call or stop in next time you’re in town. (800-789-4782)

Kodiak Chamber of Commerce hosts the best five days in May on Kodiak Island—The Kodiak Crab Festival. The festival features fabulous food, a parade, arts shows, an amusement park, races and more! Join in the festivities in 2012 for their 54th year Anniversary! (907-486-5557)

For those not visiting in May, though, there is still plenty to keep you busy in Kodiak. The Alutiiq Museum on Mission Road preserves and shares the traditions of Kodiak Island’s first settlers. The museum promotes cultural pride, and others are invited to share in the celebration of Native heritage. See ancient artifacts, discover history and learn how Alutiiq traditions continue today. (907-486-7004)

Exploring the city of Kodiak is also a great way to learn more about this fishing town that still retains its charm. Near the downtown harbor, there are gift shops, restaurants, hardware stores and a good-sized grocery store.

Outlying lodges and villages are also wonderful destinations for those who truly want a piece of wilderness. Afognak Wilderness Lodge is located in the heart of a coastal state park with a wide variety and abundance of land and marine wildlife, plus outstanding fresh and saltwater fishing. It has been one of Alaska’s favorite true-wilderness lodges since 1974. The elegant log guest cabins have indoor plumbing and electricity, yet the away-from-it-all atmosphere still makes you feel like you’ve landed in the most special place on earth. (360-799-3250)

Beyond the borders of the Kodiak Archipelago, Southwest Alaska continues to span westward, north toward Katmai and King Salmon and westward along the Aleutian and Pribilof islands. These are the most remote areas in the state, but for those who venture this far, the rewards are immeasurable.

St. Paul Island Tours offers one-of-a kind visits to this Pribilof Island, home of the Aleut Unangan people, and a place where traditions are alive. On St. Paul Island, there are 278 species of birds located in the middle of the Bering Sea. The ocean flourishes with life, including one of the most common sea mammals in the region, the northern fur seal. Along the Aleutian Chain, visitors can see an abundance of wildlife species. (877-424-5637)

Along the Aleutian Chain, visitors can see an abundance of wildlife species. For the traveler willing to venture the extra mile, take a trip to Unalaska/ Dutch Harbor. The Unalaska Convention and Visitors Bureauconsiders this place a true gem located in the heart of the Aleutians. Come see for yourself and discover unforgettable Unalaska. For your free visitors guide please contact the Unalaska CVB today. (877-581-2612)

Ounalashka Corporation is the local Native corporation in Unalaska, and owns much of the surrounding land. It is proud of the area and its diverse options for sport-fishermen, birders, hikers, photographers, kayakers, and history buffs. Travelers can obtain recreational permits for this land from the corporation. (907-581-1276)

Ounalashka Corporation Visitors Center is the place to learn more about the modern history of the Aleutian Islands. During World War II, Native residents of the Aleutian Islands were forced to leave. Interned in Southeast Alaska amid overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, their numbers were reduced by 10 percent. Ounalashka Corporation and the National Park Service tell the story through the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area and Visitors Center. One of Alaska magazine’s 10 Must-See Museums. (907-581-1276)

Other regions of Southwest Alaska that are must-sees include King Salmon, Aniak and Katmai. King Salmon and Aniak are towns that serve as good jumping-off points for outdoor adventure, especially fishing.

Branch River Air Service, on the banks of the Naknek River in King Salmon, is the company to get you where you are going. Branch River Air Service has five floatplanes available for fly-out fishing, river rafting, flight-seeing and bear viewing. Rafts are available for rent, too. The area around King Salmon is rich in fish and wildlife. Fly out to remote areas for the fishing or camping adventure of a lifetime. (907-248-3539)

In Katmai, a National Park both vast and wild, the bear population likely outnumbers that of humans. It, too, is an off-the-beaten path location for the true adventurer.

Katmai Wilderness Lodge is a nature enthusiast’s paradise and a true Alaskan adventure. The lodge features bear and wildlife viewing, photography and salt water fishing. Located in an isolated Alaskan location within the coastline of Kukak Bay, Katmai National Park, the excellent accommodations offer a true Alaskan setting with a professional staff. (800-488-8767)

Despite its vast nature, Southwest Alaska is as welcoming and warm as it gets, too. The people are friendly, the views are astounding and the location like no other place on earth. It doesn’t get any more real than experiencing life in Southwest Alaska. It’s Alaska as it was decades – even centuries –ago, the real thing.

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