The top berth on the Tustumena ferry was heavenly, the slow steady hum of the engine room two floors below was like a rocking cradle, gentling vibrating me to sleep. We awoke rested, alert.
Coffee first, then oatmeal, using the water heater we brought with us. While we slept, the ferry had moved away from the Alaska range and south toward Kodiak, an eleven-hour sail from Homer. Islands dotted the horizon on the right and left.
Nearly all the ferry passengers disembarked in Kodiak; many live there. Long before the Russians made Kodiak the capital of Russia-America in the late 18th-century, the Alutiiq people lived on the island for seven thousand years. The Russians exploited the hunting skills of the native peoples, forcing them to hunt sea otters that were in high demand for their soft fur.
At the height of the Russia-America Company’s operation in the early 1800s, there were more than 60 Alutiiq villages in the Kodiak archipelago, with an estimated population of 13,000 people. Today some 1,800 Alutiiq people remain. (Learn more about the Alutiiq people here.)
The Americans bought Kodiak and the rest of Alaska from the Russians in 1867 and over the next century built up the commercial fishing industry and installed defensive military posts. The city of Kodiak is thriving when compared with other coastal communities along the strait.
A rental car was waiting for us at the terminal, the keys left in an unlocked 1999 Subaru with a full tank of gas. We left town immediately, heading west to Java Flats, a coffee house, for a hearty breakfast sandwich we had heard about.
Along the way we passed the airport and the coast guard with its small jet and helicopters for sea and mountain rescue.
On the drive back into town we pulled over to explore something you don’t see very often in Alaska, a strand of sand beach. A young family wading in the water in bathing suits delighted in the bright sun shine. Despite the 50-degree air temperature, they felt like it was summertime — and we did, too!
On the far side of town we climbed a hill to Fort Abercrombie where we walked the forested ruins. The gun turrets and ammunition bunker had been installed in 1941 shortly before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and seized two of the Aleutian Islands. For the next three years, the fort was an important observation post on the North Pacific front. The naval base at the foot of Fort of Fort Abercrombie is today a major U.S. Coast Guard installation.
From atop Fort Abercrombie you could look for miles across the ocean, the silence broken by the calls of the bald eagles and gulls.
After tromping past the ruins of the gun batteries, we jumped back in our car and drove to a mountain that rose on the edge of town. From atop Pyramid Mountain we could look down into Kodiak harbor and south to the Wildlife Preserve where visitors can hunt, hike, fish or study wildlife. Looking away from the coastline, we saw a mix of Sitka spruce, alder and tundra, all a brilliant green.
Back in town, we stopped in an Orthodox Russian cemetery, where the gravestones bore mostly Russian names. The blue onion-domed church was closed. The church took root in much of coastal Alaska after church leaders followed Russian traders to the region where they became advocates of the native Alutiiq people. The church won the allegiance of many of the native people who survived the harsh treatment by traders to put their fate and their faith in the Orthodox faith.
Since the formation of the Kodiak Area Native Association in 1966, efforts to rebuild the shattered Alutiiq culture have resulted in a resurgence of the language and a focus on revitalizing traditions. A new Alutiiq museum showcases the elaborate tools and tactics they developed to hunt whales, sea otter, seals and fish on the water, and bear, fowl and other mammals on land. That afternoon we saw ancient hooks and spears, as well as rain gear sewn from seals intestines, a time-consuming job.
Next door, the oldest wooden building in Kodiak, originally a warehouse to store the rich furs culled by the Unaganax, dates to 1808. It houses the Kodiak History Museum where you can get a close-up look at the building’s massive wood beams packed with sea moss to keep out the cold.
The ferry was scheduled to depart at 5 pm and we scurried to order Thai food to take back on board. We spread out our meal in the ferry’s common room and had licked the plates clean before the low wail of the ferry’s whistle told us we were underway.
Heading out past several large private residences that commanded harbor views, the water sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. A whale did somersaults in the ocean beside us as we edged northwest through a narrow channel between Kodiak and Spruce islands. The green mountains provided a perfect contrast to the deep blue sea.
A sailor stood under the polished brass bell of the Tustumena, alert for any sudden changes in our path. Ahead, a band of white grew larger on the horizon.
Within an hour a white band of fog encircled the ferry and we could no longer see where we were. It was dark, we were tired and the Shelikof Strait awaited us the next day.
Click the story for Day 2 to learn why the residents of Chignik line up to visit the ferry when it is in dock.
All photos by the author.
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