Kayaking Alaska’s Kodiak Island: Part 1

It’s the second largest island in the United States and part of a group of over 100 islands that make up the Kodiak archipelago in the Gulf of Alaska in the North Pacific Ocean. As the legend goes, the first people to inhabit Kodiak Island came to this remote chunk of rock in the North Pacific in a large, two-person kayak. Even in prehistoric times, it seems the kayak has played a role in the culture and lore of this “Emerald Isle” of Alaska.

The North Pacific, off the coast of Chiniak Bay near downtown Kodiak.

The mountains were covered in rich, green velour — a verdant lushness gleaming emerald from the first rays of the north Pacific sun. From our vantage point on a small island beach six miles from shore, the morning horizon was an ultra-smooth edge of the ocean’s surface against a cloudless sky. Soft pointed peaks of the Kodiak and Afognak range seemed to float on the horizon line. It was the same view kayakers from antiquity probably enjoyed throughout the many thousands of years they have been paddling these waters.

Situated near the northern tip of the great Gulf of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean, Kodiak remains one of few “best kept secrets” in this ever-shrinking world of adventure travel opportunities. Relatively new as a hot tourism destination even in its own state, Kodiak has been attracting the independent sea kayakers for years.

Alaska’s shoreline is longer than the entire coastline of the contiguous United States. The hundreds of islands and outcroppings that rise out of the waters around Kodiak surely provide nearly a thousand miles of shoreline of that listing. And what a coastline it is.

Beaches That Rival Hawaii
Along the island’s limited 80 miles of road system alone, there are beaches that rival those of Hawaii. Paddlers have likened Kodiak’s scenic shoreline to the bays of Northern New Zealand and still others say it’s just like the fjords of Scandinavia. Kodiak is that, and more, all laid out in a rough, jagged stretch of shoreline in the north Pacific. Beaches that run for miles break up the otherwise inhospitable, unapproachable coastline — seemingly as remote as those farther out the Aleutian chain.

Paddling through the island network at the head of Anton Larsen Bay.

Right from town, an afternoon of paddling will bring kayakers to cliffs of kittiwakes and puffins. A haulout for Steller sea lions is a five-mile, open water paddle to Long Island — the epitome of coastal geology for Kodiak. Its sweeping beaches are flanked by ragged, jagged slate outcroppings, overhung with spruce trees and topped in rolling, grass-covered hills.

Fifteen miles out another short leg of gravel road lies Anton Larsen Bay. Anton is popular as a shortcut for boaters from nearby villages to connect to the city’s road system. It is also a premium put-in point for paddlers to access the wonders of the bay itself or to head out through Whale Pass and points west or to swing back to town through Ouzinkie Narrows — both multi-day routes as good as any you’ll find in Alaska.

Right from town paddlers can enjoy the closeness of Near Island and its slightly more distant neighbor, Woody Island, for short excursions. North of town, the “Ram Site” (named for an outdoor play that used to be performed each summer), offers paddlers more craggy shorelines as well as a starting point for paddles to nearby Spruce Island. The Ram site also is the shoreline for Fort Abercrombie State Park, a scenic, ocean-side campground just outside the city limits.

Remote shorelines offer unlimited camping, at least up to the mean high tide line. Native corporation property surrounds most villages and must be treated as private land. For one night, “leave no trace” camps, many beaches are available.

Kodiak’s wildlife viewing is endless. Eagles perch on high branches of trees clinging to the tops of rocky knobs. Kingfishers flit from one pinnacle of rock to the next. Occasionally a harbor seal will poke its head out of the water just beyond the surf zone. It’s not uncommon to spot a sea otter casually floating on its back feasting on a large clam raked from the bottom of a bay. The most common birds are the black-legged kittiwakes that oftentimes share their cliffside rookeries with pelagic cormorants, puffins and glaucous-winged gulls. Oystercatchers, harlequin ducks, and less frequent grebes and loons all make bird watching a major pastime for many kayakers in Kodiak.

I spent four days paddling around the east half of Isle Royale in Lake Superior and yet I saw more birds and wildlife in one afternoon kayaking in Kodiak than I did on that entire trip.

Please read more about Kodiak Island in Part 2.

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