A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Fairbanks: -18°/-10°/Mostly cloudy
On and off the road system, Alaska is dotted with cities, towns and villages that give the state its real character.
Luck struck around 6:30 a.m. Sunday -- less than nine hours before the end of the 10-day Slam'n Salm'n derby -- when Robert Hayes hooked a 40.97-pound king salmon that made him the winner.
Summer solstice marked the beginning of the warm season last week, but two Anchorage fly-fishermen discovered Monday morning that winter still lingers deep in the Chugach Mountains.
The Kasilof beach is cool and calm at 10 a.m. on Monday as Yolanda Thomas emerges from her family-sized tent for a morning of dipnetting on the shore of the Kasilof River.
Fishing, whale-watching and Alutiiq history
At 3,588 square miles, Kodiak Island is the second-largest island in the United States, after the Big Island of Hawaii. And that's only counting the island itself. Combine it with all of the other islands that make up the Kodiak archipelago and the place grows to more than 6,500 square miles.
That's a lot of land to cover.
From her office at the Kodiak Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, executive director Janet Buckingham is trying to see to it that more and more visitors come here to view that land. For a truly Alaska experience, she said, there is no better place to venture.
"We believe that people want to visit Kodiak because it offers an authentic Alaskan experience as opposed to a more gentrified tourist destination," she said. "It has not substantially changed over the years. Commercial fishing is still the backbone of our economy and gives the town a unique character that may have been lost in other Alaska destinations."
Evidence of this authenticity can be seen throughout the town and outlying areas. Kodiak has maintained its working-man feel while still offering plenty of amenities to the visitor. It's not uncommon to see commercial fishermen swabbing the decks of their fishing vessels or repairing their nets, but it's also not difficult to find a hotel or bed and breakfast that can meet your every need.
Hardware stores are next to gift shops and the visitor center can accommodate cannery workers or cruise ship passengers. It's a place with no pretensions, comfortable the moment you step off the plane or boat.
In other words, Buckingham said, what you see is what you get.
"Kodiak (is) the real Alaska," she said. "Everyone else says it, but frankly, we are it. I know it is a cliché, but doggone it, we are the authentic Alaska. We are still pure. Nothing has changed to accommodate tourism (obviously there are some drawbacks to that, but overall it keeps the town real). Every shop is unique and owned locally. There are few 'trinket and T-shirt' shops. There are crab pots sitting everywhere. Fishermen working on the piers. And friendly, friendly people who are ready to drop what they are doing and talk to you about the town they love so much."
Of course, fishing has a huge presence in Kodiak, where the diversity of the region supports fishing for salmon and halibut as well as other commercial species. For recreational anglers, this is one of the draws, as is bear viewing, since Kodiak is home to one of the highest concentrations of brown bears on the planet.
But Buckingham said tourism is shifting just a bit, opening up new avenues of recreation and exploration for visitors to this area.
"More and more people are interested in ecotourism such as hiking, bicycling, kayaking, beachcombing and wildlife viewing," she said. "Kodiak offers world-class whale watching with several species of whales including gray, humpback, sei, orca and fin whales."
Most of the whales first show up in springtime and often hang around until early October, she said, with the exception of the orcas.
"(They) generally make their appearance in late winter as they cruise the channel looking for sea lions that might make a tasty meal," she said.
Because Kodiak's climate is dominated by a strong marine influence -- which means it often rains or is foggy -- the landscape benefits from all that moisture. In the summer, the island turns a rich, multicolored green, with the mountainsides bursting in wildflowers and plants shooting up taller than a grown man.
While Buckingham said her favorite time of year is autumn, when the landscape turns shockingly golden with the changing season, most people prefer summer.
"Summer is everyone's favorite time because the temperature's warm and the mountains turn green," she said. "There are shades of green here that are simply not found anywhere else on Earth -- certainly way more shades of green than you would find in your crayon box. Kodiak really comes alive in the summer, not just with people, but wildflowers -- and let's not forget the return of the comical puffin."
Kodiak also is a place rich in history, dating thousands of years to the Alutiiq Natives who first called the place home. There also is a rich Russian Orthodox influence, as seen throughout town in some of the oldest buildings in Alaska.
"The Alutiiq Museum ... celebrates our Native cultures," Buckingham said. "Here visitors can find Alutiiq artifacts, art, workshops and in-depth information about our Native American heritage.
"The Baranov Museum is housed in the oldest building in Alaska and the earliest documented log structure on the West Coast of the United States."
The building originally was constructed as a warehouse to store fur seal and sea otter furs harvested by the Russian American Co.
Other museums worth visiting include the Military History Museum at Fort Abercrombie State Park, which documents the military presence in Kodiak during World War II, and the Kodiak Island Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, which opened in 2007 and serves as a natural-history destination for those wishing to learn more about the region's flora and fauna.
"(It) houses wonderful interactive displays that especially appeal to families," Buckingham said. "Visitors can learn about all the wildlife that inhabits the island; children can hear a baby bear heartbeat and a variety of bird calls as well as learn about the life cycle of the salmon."
Also popular, she said, is the Kodiak Maritime Museum, which consists of a series of interpretive panels spaced throughout St. Paul Harbor, informing visitors about the commercial fishing industry, types of vessels, fish life cycles, marine mammals and more.
While tourism is growing slowly, Buckingham said she doubts Kodiak will ever lose its identity. She can't see it ever becoming a tourist trap with blinking neon lights.
"Tourism has remained essentially steady over the past few years, but we have seen a tripling of the number of cruise ships that call on Kodiak," she said. "While that sounds scary to some people, we are still only talking about 24 ships a year and we can only host one ship at a time. What we hear from folks on board ships is that they like Kodiak because it is so different from other ports of call. They are excited to discover it is a quiet little fishing village; it stands out from other ports in Alaska."
Outdoor and adventure travel writer Melissa DeVaughn can be reached at www.melissadevaughn.com.