…continued from the Glacier Discovery Packraft
Kodiak, the emerald isle of Alaska, is a lush, enchanting, and ragged island in the middle of a vast grey ocean. It is part of an archipelago south of mainland Alaska, remaining largely remote and unchanged other than a ring of coastal villages and fishing towns. There is one highway system on the northeast side of it that goes for 56 miles of rugged coastline, rendering the rest inaccessible except by boat or plane. I flew in from Anchorage for the weekend with my bike to see what this road was made of.
It was raining when we landed that afternoon with clouds of fog covering the steep mountains above the town. A cab dropped me off at the U-haul, and I noticed right away that this area doesn’t have the same wave of tourism in the summer as the mainland coast. It felt like a real, honest as shit fishing town. I’m going to like it here.
I loaded my bike box into a U-haul van, drove to a campground, set up camp after the rain backed off, and went back into town for supplies. But first, I needed a drink. The Kodiak Island Brewing Company looked and felt like an old saloon. And I bet if they ever read this, they’ll probably argue that they are a saloon. With a sawhorse bar and benches, the smell of old wood and brewing malts, and country music in the speakers, I thought that all it was missing was a layer of sawdust on the floor.
I got a big glass of something good and malty and talked to a few locals. To my left, people were talking about some guy they knew who caught a 100lb halibut yesterday. I figured a lot of fishing stories probably get back here.
After dinner, I went to the town Walmart to get supplies. But there was one important thing I needed to do first to truly feel like I experienced the ultimate. Several years ago, I read on a travel website that they have a bear in the Kodiak Island Walmart. And it wasn’t enough for me to see it in Google Images. I needed to find this bear in person, alive, for myself, and gaze upon its frothy glory. Once and for all, this would be the apex of all that was Kodiak to me. Everything else could have failed, and I would still be the winner. Traveler, give me a badge and a golden star, they do indeed have a bear at the Kodiak Island Walmart.
I left with my weekend supplies, proud of myself and all that I have accomplished.
Later that evening, the clouds lifted and all was clear, save the breaking fog on the mountaintops. I got on my bike and started for Anton Larson Bay, an inlet just over a mountain pass to the north. I made a steady, gradual climb uphill for 5 miles before hitting gravel at the base of the pass. My road bike is tough, but I’ve suffered enough dirty bastard roads to know that it wasn’t worth it. I coasted back down to camp and hoped for better luck tomorrow. But not without a quick side trip to Womens Bay. Because, why not, it’s nice out.
I set out again the next day, aiming to reach Fossil Beach, 40 miles and several ridge crossings south. Let’s see if I have the patience for 80 miles today. A blanket of stratus clouds had already enveloped the mountains again, promising to make this ride altogether more challenging. I rode back over the first hill to Womens Bay, crossed a flat river valley and made my first steep ascent up the other side. This seemed to be the pattern for the entire ride. Flat, wide river valleys punctuated by steep coastal ridges, winding rollercoasters, and unpredictable topography. Somewhere in the middle of it, fog and rain hit, limiting visibility to 50 yards. Waterproof gear, my ass.
After a couple hours of steady rain and steep climbing, I got to the Old River Inn, a lodge situated at the only road junction on the highway. I made it at noon, just in time for their restaurant opening. Some guy saw me and said, “Nice day for a ride, huh?” Yeah, it’s a real cracker jack of a day.
When I came back out, I was faced with a decision. I had 16 miles to go over one last big mountain pass to Fossil Beach, awesome though it may be, was more than I wanted to do in this shit weather. Should I head back? I weighed it, remembering other trips where I got focused and kept going, and it turned out to be the right thing. In this case, the clouds made my decision for me. To the south, they started to break and lighten the forests. Got it. Keep going.
The ride from there to Pasagshak Bay on the other side is 8 miles, and the meat of it is very steep. I pushed uphill for 30 minutes before breaking out of the tree line for a minute, and then plunging into maddening descent. Soon, I was back at sea level, passing horses and cattle ranches along the south shore. I’ll be damned if they have ranches out here.
I thought I was done climbing. No, there was more. Fossil Beach was on the other side of another ridge, and I had to clear another hard switchback at the start. For fuck’s sake. After that, the road went steeply up and down creek crossings, wearing me out. I saw the cliffs going out to Fossil Beach ahead, amidst gales of misty rain and the roar of the ocean. I had to climb yet again to get uphill from the shore, started, and at about halfway up I decided all at once, no. The glimpse of it looked amazing, but I don’t regret my decision. My imagination will do the rest. I turned back.
I got to my limit as I climbed back over the pass towards the highway junction and the lodge. I still had 30 miles of relentless climbing to go before I could dry off at camp and get to sleep.
When I stopped for food at the restaurant general store, I was getting out my wallet when a golden retriever came up to me, wagging her tail. I always like it when a dog comes out of nowhere and wants to be my friend. I didn’t know her name, so I named her Daisy. I came back out with a bag of Cheetos and a soda and sat by the entrance ramp to eat. When she heard it, she does what any dog does when they hear the rustle of plastic. She ran up to beg for people food.
I didn’t know this dog, and didn’t want to be some random jerk outside giving her food, so I kept eating. Sorry, Daisy, those are the rules. I tried to tell her this, and she just got more excited. At one point she went down the ramp, found a rock, and started nudging it with her nose. What the world is she doing? She picked it up, carried back, and dropped it right in front of me, and said with her eyes “Look what I brought you! Can I have a treat?” She’s definitely got the whole cute begging thing down. Sorry dog, you got spirit, but rules are rules. I’m sure it’s not easy being a dog outside of a lodge restaurant, but from the look of her, I’m sure they spoil her pretty well. I wished her farewell and got back on the road.
I rode across a flat valley for 3 miles before reaching the first of two big ridge systems between me and my tent. This one started at a 10% grade. As soon as I looked at it, I thought, fuck you. 20 minutes later, I was at the top, legs burning from a steady cycle on high cadence. It felt just like my gym back home. Once I made it, I had an epiphany. That for all of my bitching, so much of my grief can be dealt with by just eating more throughout the day. I wasn’t getting exhausted so often for reaching my hypothetical limit, but because I just needed more fuel.
I made it through the next few hours with renewed strength and good pace. The last few miles to camp were in a complete downpour. Let’s do this, you wild, ragged island.
Next morning, I tried to check in my luggage at the airport, only to find out that I couldn’t do it until 3 that afternoon. With the extra time, I drove up to Fort Abercrombie, a now decommissioned naval base and historic landmark north of the town. Many of its bunkers are still intact and it has a scenic trail system along the shoreline.
My favorite spot was along the rocky coast of Miller Point. I came out to one of the overlooks and look who I found on a spire thirty feet away.
I had just enough time for two pictures before he fired off an eagle turd. I started laughing, it spooked him and he flew off.
Soon, I was flying back across the Cook Inlet to Anchorage to start a work week, then bigger things on the mainland. But I wouldn’t say that I saw very much of Kodiak that weekend. Not even close.
If you like friendly Alaskan fishing towns, check out Kodiak, get a stouty beer, and try to stay dry. And you might even meet a friendly dog or two.
This story concludes on the Harding Icefield.