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First to Kodiak


Mark Ward

When Russian fur trader, Stephan Glotov peered through his telescope and caught the first glimpse of Kodiak through the fog, he could not have known the treasure he had “discovered.” The year was 1763, some 20 years after Vitas Bering ventured across what would later be named the Bering Strait, in search of the rumored rich fur grounds to the East. There was already widespread armed conflict throughout the Aleutian Islands between the insatiable Russian fur traders and the native Alutiiq, or Aleut people. The island, renamed “Kodiak” by the US, was originally known as Kikhtak, or Cadiack, an Aleut word roughly translating to land of our enemies. By 1781 the Alutiiq people in the area had been reduced in number from 16,000 to a mere 1,900 souls. Warring, enslavement and disease had taken its toll. By 1798, over 400,000 seals, 96,000 sea otters and 102,000 foxes would be taken by the Russian American Company, nearly decimating these species.

The years to follow would see continued pressure from the fur trade, whaling and the establishment of permanent settlements as the Russian Orthodox Church made its mark on the area. After Russian America was sold to the United States in 1867, Kodiak was chosen by the FAA for an extensive radio communications site, a US Naval base, and would later become one of the largest Coast Guard facilities in the Pacific. This historically rich island and its neighbors Afognak and Shuyak would be the destination for our annual summer family cruise.

Radiance, our First 456 and crew had teamed up with 2 other mid-‘80’s Frers-designed Beneteau First series boats: a First 42 named Indian Summer, and Katmai, a sleek First 51. We would cover some 500 miles, plying the Gulf of Alaska and the mighty Shelikoff Straits on our 2-week trip, taking us to some of the most remote and wild coastal wilderness on earth. Our best weather window would be late June through early July for sunshine, a coveted commodity in coastal Alaska sailing. June 25th found all three boats departing sunny Seward for Bulldog Cove, our real launching point. With plans to visit Geographic harbor, Katmai and Indian Summer had decided to make the 27 hour crossing from Cape Aialik to Kukak Bay, near the old village of Katmai nestled at the base of Katmai National Park. With a young crew of ages 2, 12 and 13, Radiance decided to minimize the long passages and hop down the coast, first visiting Nuka Bay, before making the crossing to Afognak and Kodiak Island. We all agreed to meet in the town of Kodiak for the 4th of July festivities.

The weather gods smiled on us as we lazily explored the remote glacier waters of Kenai Fjords National Park. The area is dotted with tidewater and hanging glaciers, islands with protected coves, rugged cliffs and waterfalls. Sea otters, whales, bald eagles and puffins entertained us as we explored pristine quiet coves. In Thunder Bay, we found ourselves removing the usual layers of polar fleece to walk on unseasonably warm beaches among fresh bear tracks in the black sand. Surprise Bay with its surrounding granite walls provided a spectacular protected anchorage as we picked our fill of blue mussels from the rocks. In our dinghy, we explored the quiet lagoon in Tonsina Bay, riding rapids of the ebb current back out to Radiance and another peaceful night at anchor. We could have easily spent our two weeks here with many glaciers and bays to be seen, but our adventure lay ahead. An early 5:30 a.m. start found us departing with the ebb. A humpback whale breached just as we rounded Gore Point; a farewell for our departure from the mainland.

In 1776, eight days after the Declaration of Independence had been signed on the opposite side of the Atlantic, His Majesty, King George III, dispatched Captain James Cook, commanding the research vessels, Discovery and Resolution to seek the Northwest Passage above the American continent. With Bering’s charts in hand, Cook explored much of the South-Central Alaska coastline, filling in the blank spots on the map of the Northern coast. The extent of Spanish and Russian claims was not yet clear, and Cook was ordered to avoid any possible conflict, specifically not to land where any other European presence was noted. Among his fellow officers were Navigator William Bligh (of later Bounty and Exxon Valdez oil-spill fame) and First Lieutenant John Gore, who had sailed with Cook on his first voyage aboard Endeavor. After exploring Prince William Sound, and heading West, Cook named Gore Point in his First Lieutenant’s honor. Following Cook's death in Hawaii, Gore commanded the expedition back to England. Stopping in China, he discovered the high prices the Chinese were willing to pay for sea otter pelts. The news soon reached England and set off a minor British "fur rush" to Alaska.

It would be 12 hours before we reached Afognak Island; home to the great Kodiak Brown Bear. Most of the crew laid low for the passage as we rode the swells on the port quarter. The wind was light and variable, but we were able to motor sail most of the time. As we approached Afognak, the swell subsided, blocked by the land mass, and the wind increased to about 12 knots giving us a lovely sail for the last 20 miles or so. Out of the low lying clouds loomed the green bluffs of Afognak Island. As the sun burst through to illuminate them, the bright green color seemed unrealistically vivid. Even after crossing the Gulf of Alaska on three deliveries to Seward, this felt like my first real landfall. On those trips, I was always arriving “home.” This was a place I had never seen and the excitement was exhilarating.

Identified in 1892 as one of the nation's first conservation areas, Afognak Island was originally designated as a reserve for its outstanding wildlife and salmon habitat value. This coastal forest system, unique to the Kodiak Archipelago, contains only one tree species: the Sitka spruce. Though there are some cabins scattered over the island, it remains very much an unspoiled wilderness area. As we anchored in Seal Bay the sun went below the hills and we feasted on Bar-B-Q ribs, corn-on-the-cob, garlic bread and good wine in celebration. Whenever cruising with kids, we always try to get to shore each night. So, grabbing the 12-guage and marshmallows, we headed to the beach. While gathering firewood, I wandered just behind the tree-line to find a fairly open mossy forest floor under the tall Sitka spruce trees. Cut through the underbrush was a wide “freeway sized” game trail. Looking down, I noticed a completely intact Sitka Black Tail deer hoof that had clearly gone through the digestive plumbing of a Kodiak Brown Bear! The S’mores were good, but we stayed close to the beach and to the fire. I felt grateful to be sleeping onboard Radiance some 200 yards off the beach that night.

The next morning, we sailed around Tolstoi Point to time our passage inside Marmot Island. As the bottom shoaled near the entrance, the water built to a steep chop from large standing waves spawned by the strong ebb current. We motor sailed down the passage with SOG reading 11 knots. At Pillar Cape, we were escorted at close range into the entrance of Izhut Bay by mother and calf finback whales. The towering rugged rocks that mark the entrance provide a natural breakwater to the large waves being hurled against them from 2000 miles of open water in the Gulf of Alaska. We anchored in a small bight on the southwestern shore of the bay and were invited to tour the hatchery around the bend by a local man in an open skiff. Next morning, my son and I explored the shallow lagoon with the skiff and made friends with a curious fox on the beach. A successful fisherman, the fox was eating small bright silvery fish at the waters edge. Danny tossed him some of his granola bar and they became instant best friends. The fox followed us like an obedient dog until we left. After pulling anchor, we decided to visit the Kitoi Bay Hatchery. The staff was very accommodating and gave us the grand tour of the facility, explaining the history of the place and its importance to the local salmon fishing industry. We followed each life cycle stage through the small facility and the kids marveled at the millions of salmon fry swirling in the bins. Kitoi Bay was set up as one of the first salmon hatcheries in the area and one of the original hatchery buildings still stands after surviving the tsunami generated from the 1964 Alaska earthquake. It remains a thriving hatchery today. After bidding farewell, we headed out of Kitoi Bay; just as we rounded the point, on a small beach, we spotted our elusive four footed friends - a huge sow and 2 Kodiak Brown Bear cubs. Ghosting by them, we watched in awe as the cubs frolicked on the beach in their own environment while mother kept a watchful eye. Even at a distance, her size was impressive against the tall Sitka spruce. Upon seeing us, she darted just beyond the high tide line and stood up on her hind legs, sniffing the air, before calling her cubs to join her. Savoring the moment, we watched them disappear into the brush.

Five hours later, we sailed through the fog into Monashka Bay on Kodiak Island. Picking our anchorage from the chart and watching the depth sounder, we approached the eastern shore of the bay and were stunned to see a car drive by as modern houses came into view on the bluff. We had been immersed into the coastal wilderness for a week and we were not ready to accept that we had nearly reached our destination and civilization was in plain view. We motored further into the bay, out of site of the houses and anchored off the remains of a shipwreck far up on the beach. Used by the Navy, Santiago was beached here in 1941 because the soft iron riveted hull had started leaking. The 250 foot ship had been a three-masted schooner with teak decks and steam winches and is said to have been President Coolidge's yacht in 1929. In the dimming light, the kids were quick to explore the wreck while we enjoyed a quiet moment.

The next morning found us once again in thick fog and assigning a radar-watch, we picked our way through the rocks and shoals approaching Spruce Island. The radio was full of chatter from commercial fishing boats trying to identify one another on the radar screens. It was reassuring to have the approaching blips on the screen momentarily appear out of the fog as we steered our way up the channel on instruments alone. It was here that, in 1860 the Russian barkentine Kadi’ak struck a reef, badly damaging the hull. She was bound for San Francisco under the command of Captain Illarion Ivanovich Arkhimandritov with a cargo of construction timber and 365 tons of ice. The buoyancy of the cargo kept the ship afloat long enough for all hands to escape and the ship finally sank several days later directly in front of the Russian Orthodox chapel with just one mast and a yard above the water, forming a perfect cross. The wife of Governor Voevodskii had asked Arkhimandritov to hold a “Te Deum,” or hymn of praise in the chapel on Spruce Island near the place where Father Herman was buried. He had not done so, and some believed this resulted in the ultimate demise of the ship. The Russian Orthodox Church later canonized Saint Herman, the only Orthodox Saint to be named from America.

As we approached St, Paul harbor, the chapel on the hill with its bell tower, copper cupola and distinctive 3-bar cross loomed through the fog, a historical welcome to Kodiak.

The St. Paul harbor is home to a large commercial fishing fleet, but sailboats are rare and usually indicate visitors from afar. We were met at the dock by fellow sailor Don Parker and welcomed to Kodiak by a dinner invitation. Such is the hospitality of sailors and those who inhabit this land. Looking around the harbor, I did not find Katmai or Indian Summer. We had been the first to arrive. The next few days would see the weather clear to glorious bright sunshine. We enjoyed the local color of the 4th of July parade, soap-box-derby, and festivities and shared a wonderful harbor view of the midnight fireworks display that night. The lush green on the hills above the town of Kodiak showed why it’s also known as Alaska’s Emerald Isle. The Laundromat, grocery store, hardware store and marine electronics repair shop were all within easy walking distance of the harbor and the harbormaster made us feel quite welcome. We enjoyed multiple visits to the Kodiak Brewing Company, which faces the St. Paul Harbor, visited the Russian Orthodox Church and Monks Book Store, an eclectic collection of used books and Russian Orthodox gifts. The proprietors were dressed in costume as they served traditional Russian Tea and Wedding Cookies to the local cruise ship guests. My daughter reveled in the new source of inexpensive books and replenished her collection for the trip home. Among the gifts were numerous and beautiful plaques of Russian Orthodox Saints. After learning that all of the local fishing fleet, believers or not, have onboard, a plaque of St. Nicolas, “master over the seas,” to protect their boats, we picked out a small one for Radiance and promptly mounted it near the mast. With the number of lives lost at sea each year among the fishing fleet, it sounded like good idea.

The morning had come for us to leave as I overheard Katmai on the VHF inquiring with the harbormaster about a slip. After changing the oil and topping up water and fuel, I met them and Indian Summer on the docks with a cold beer and we shared our stories in the warm summer sun. Our time frame was limited and we had to depart to ensure enough time to explore the rest of Kodiak before heading north.

The day brought a beautiful sail to the village of Ouzinki, founded in the 1800’s by the Russian American Company as a retirement community and was also home to Saint Herman. The pillars of the old dock facility were visible, but the bay shoals up dramatically and was beyond the reach of our 8 foot draft. We anchored instead just across the swiftly moving channel and were greeted by 2 gentlemen in a large skiff who handed us a bag with 3 large fresh halibut roasts and 2 fresh silver salmon filets, before speeding off. That night we enjoyed fresh halibut, fresh air and fresh beer from Kodiak. The next day took us through Whale Passage and into Kupreanof Strait where hundreds of huge finback whales were feeding. The finback is second only to the blue whale in size and weight. We marveled as they cruised all around our boat, gorging themselves on krill and schooling fish in the rich and frigid water. Our 2-year old daughter took to standing on one of the cabin top winches, holding onto the dodger handrail and calling “whale, whale” into the wind. For 2 days, we enjoyed fantastic downwind sailing up the mighty Shelikof Straits. Named in honor of Gregory Shelikof, the 1780’s Russian manager of the Alaskan territory, these straits are noted for some of the nastiest marine weather in the area as wind and tide are funneled between the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak archipelago. However, for us they would provide only warm downwind sailing and remain only a sleeping giant for our passage.

Our last night in the Kodiak Archipelago would take us to Carry Inlet on the northern end of the low-lying Shuyak Island. Even though the island is only 11 by 12 miles, this state park contains more sheltered interior waterways than anywhere in the whole Kodiak Archipelago. For this reason, it is one of the most sought-after sea kayaking destinations in the world. Back in the remoteness of this island, we were graced with another beautiful midnight sunset and savored this, the last of our Kodiak anchorages. In the morning, we would depart for the mainland; pass the Barren Islands and retrace our tracks to Seward.

While the Russian, Stephan Glotov had indeed “discovered” a jewel, there were legends dating back several hundred years among Asian countries of rich fur grounds to the East indicating possible prior expeditions. Then again, the ancestors of the Alutiiq had preceded them all by about 2000 years…and we were first to discover the jewel for ourselves.

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