How an epic hiking and packrafting trip on Kodiak Island connected us to the earth and our collective past. Internet Explorer 9 or earlier. I our vanishing night essay to the dull ache of my blistered heel, sore back, and the chilled morning air inside the tent. Once the stiffness of the night’s sleep abated, I was overcome by the weight of the silence surrounding me.
It was soon punctured, first by the crinkling sound of the sleeping bag and the air mattress insulating me from the cold ground as I shifted my body and then by the tent door flapping despite the weight of a frost coating, intermittently revealing Bjorn Dihle, my traveling partner. Wincing, I could just make out the sun cresting mountains freshly adorned in spring snow. In the distance, a handful of deer grazed on the sedges and myriad diminutive plants that comprised the tundra beneath their hooves, silhouetted by golden blades of grass, harbingers of the coming year’s abundant growing season and long Alaskan summer days. At that moment, Bjorn and I were halfway through an eight-day hiking and packrafting trek through the western reaches of Kodiak Island in the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Our plan, brewed over a couple beers a few months before, was to explore a part of our state that has held a great deal of mystique. Kodiak Island, the second largest in the United States, is best known for the main quarry of our trip, the oversized subspecies of brown bear, the Kodiak bear, that is unique to its mountains and shorelines.
The journey would take us 130 miles along the notoriously rough shoreline of Shelikof Strait, across river drainages and bays, paddling our packrafts through a series of lakes that end at Karluk Lake, which flows into its namesake river and the point of the start of our journey. The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge shares many characteristics with other wilderness areas in the United States in that it is largely untrammeled. Despite the occasional indication of human presence, the hinterlands remain much as they did when the glaciers from the last ice age began their inexorable retreat into the mountains and the ancestors of the Alutiiq people settled the island some 7,000 years ago. These places are best experienced one step, or paddle, at a time.
Capturing the wilderness connects the present with a past beyond my own. It connects us all to the earth and our collective past. I set off with Bjorn, above, crossing the tundra across a broad valley after 10 hours of hiking along the western edge of Kodiak Island near the convergence of Shelikof Strait and the Pacific Ocean. A lifelong Alaskan, Bjorn is an experienced trekker, bear guide, writer and my tent mate on the 130-mile hike and packraft of western Kodiak Island. Sitka black-tailed deer, a nonnative mammal to Kodiak Island, were first successfully introduced to the island in 1924 as were other nonnative species including reindeer, mountain goats, Roosevelt elk, beaver, red squirrel, snowshoe hare, and pine marten, between the 1920s and 1960s.
They landed on Kodiak in an effort to increase subsistence and recreational hunting opportunities. And so do some predators. Reindeer are harder to spot. We saw only one in the distance during our trip. Estimates of the size of the remaining reindeer herd vary between 50 to 200.