Like much of Alaska, Kodiak Island looks uninhabited, a lonely outpost off the Katmai Coast.
Thick forests of spruce climb to snowy peaks. There are dozens of shingle beaches, water crashing on shores framed by high cliffs and the white branches of skeletal driftwood. Though Hawaii's "Big Island" claims the title of America's largest, Kodiak Island, coming in second, feels particularly vast and untamed.
In 9293 square kilometres there are fewer than 12,000 people, clustered in seven remote communities. All but one of these require a boat or float plane for access. The rest of the island is a vast blind spot of wilderness, unoccupied except for several thousand of one of the world's largest bears.
I am sitting on the deck of the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry, having taken the overnight passage from Homer, on the Alaskan coast. As people lean over railings, searching for signs of life on the island through binoculars, I prepare myself by scrolling through the saved web pages of "Be Bear Aware," a useful digest of survival strategies.
"If contact is made," it explains, "drop to the ground and play dead. Lie on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck, and use your elbows and toes to avoid being rolled over. If the bear does roll you over, keep rolling until you land back on your stomach. Remain still and try not to struggle or scream."
Despite the horrifying subtext of these instructions, I find it difficult to be alarmed by the prospect of a bear encounter here. Years of Pavlovian conditioning mean, as with many children, I was taught to associate the figure of the bear with security and comfort.
In 1902, the US President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt went hunting in Mississippi. Wanting to ensure their leader was successful, Roosevelt's aides used hounds to track a black bear, which they then clubbed and tied to a tree. Roosevelt, to his credit, would have no part of it. Though expected to shoot the bear, he waved away the act as "unsportsmanlike" - a pardon that electrified the nation, particularly because of a political cartoon that depicted the bear as tiny and doe-eyed. A toy-maker saw this cartoon and crafted "Teddy's bear" in response; the rest is history.
Less well known is that Roosevelt, with his fateful wave, essentially destroyed human-bear relations forever. Instead of wise caution when facing a wild animal, many people now see the bear as a cuddly forest friend. As the ferry docks in Kodiak Town my head is filled, against all better judgment, with images of a giant teddy bear turning me over and over like a tootsie roll.
Partly established to combat such woeful misunderstanding, a visitors' centre by the dock explains the reasoning behind the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. In a marked difference from national parks, which are intended for the enjoyment and education of the public, a wildlife refuge seeks to maintain the habitat of an animal; visitors are a secondary concern.
This means, for example, no comprehensive road network with lookouts and interpretative rangers. While Kodiak Town offers a modest scribble of highways on the island's eastern side, they terminate before approaching the refuge in the west.
Established in 1941, the refuge protects bears and salmon in a reserve that covers more than two-thirds of the island. Male kodiak bears can grow to three metres and 600 kilograms. So profuse is their supply of protein-rich salmon that in Kodiak's Karluk Bay the density is 220 bears per 2.6 square kilometres. A walk around the visitor's centre makes the situation very clear: there may be a stuffed bear in the town bank comically dressed as Santa every Christmas, but on this island bears are no laughing matter. There are a great many of them, they are extremely big and approaching one in the wild is a high-risk activity.
So, of course, I head into the wild to see the bears. Under most circumstances this would be an act of outrageous stupidity, but I'm joining Steele Davis on a Spirit of Alaska Wilderness Adventure. In other words: I'm placing my life in the hands of a man who carries a .44 Magnum handgun when kayaking.
After a short tour of Kodiak Town - the island's largest settlement, though little more than a fishing village - I board a mail cargo plane and fly to meet him in Larsen Bay. From that bay we float down Uyak Bay, a dramatic fiord that almost bisects Kodiak completely. Davis lives partway along the coast in a dilapidated cannery abandoned since 1983. He also owns cabins on nearby Amook Island, built next to the remnants of an ancient indigenous village. These facts he throws out casually: there is an otter; there is a deer; there is my ancient indigenous village. For Davis there is nothing unusual about having a market on your property still stocked with olives and jockey shorts from the late 1970s.
"Is my coffee table made from an anti-tank missile case?" I ask.
"I found it out back," Davis says.
Remarkably, Davis has turned this surreal tableau into an exhilarating guest experience involving hiking, kayaking, wildlife viewing and world-class fishing. After dinner I wander through old factories on the edge of the forest. In the midnight sun bald eagles skirt the bay. Davis has taken a unique corner of the Alaskan wilderness and made it accessible; the result is a strange melange of relaxation and hallucination.
I haven't fished for 10 years: on my first attempt, casting a test line, I hook a halibut so big (28 kilograms) it snaps the gaff in half as Davis attempts to secure it to the side of his boat. After this, I'm intoxicated. Kodiak is the sort of place where the impossible is not just possible, but highly likely.
Though one could fish indefinitely if desired, Davis is up for anything you could imagine. At my first mention of tracking bears we're loaded into kayaks and floating down the fiord. I have been researching for days, reading every warning pamphlet and guide to interacting with the local fauna but, in the heat of pursuit, all advice drains away and everything comes to rest on my expert leader.
"Everyone scoffs at it, but I carry armour-piercing bullets," Davis says. "I ain't never shot one and I don't plan on it, but they have a hard head."
After pulling up on a shingle beach we enter the forest along a well-trod path which, I quickly realise, is not well-trod because of human traffic. Thick vegetation impedes our feet. Davis leads the way, crushing branches, crouching occasionally to scan the grassy fields down the bank with his binoculars.
Though there is a bear in the distance, it appears to be resting, a small brown face in a sea of green. We wait for some sign of activity but after a while it becomes clear the bear is content to remain where it is. Rain has started to fall and Davis calls off the search, directing me back to the kayaks. After that - perhaps while I'm lost in thought, revising fantasies of heroic close encounters - everything goes slightly awry: a bear is sitting at the kayaks, lifejacket in its jaws.
Davis directs me to halt immediately. The bear looks up, surprised by strange new intruders, then stands and stares us down as he continues to devour the very things that are supposed to protect us against the harsh environment.
In retrospect I wonder: would I have dropped to the ground and played dead if it decided to charge? Would I have had the strength of mind to clasp my hands behind my neck, digging elbows into the dirt to stop the bear from rolling me over? Could I have remained silent or would I have screamed? Davis starts a slow waltz, talking down the bear with friendly words and gentle discouragement. Though beautiful, the bear is terrifyingly large. My heart is pumping furiously. And all I know is that, contrary to my musings on the ferry, there is nothing teddy bear-ish about the teeth marks or the creature that made them, now retreating slowly into the shadows of the Kodiak forest.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
Touring there Spirit of Alaska Wilderness Adventures, near Larsen Bay, has trips customised to suit individual interests, run bu Steele Davis, a US Coast Guard-licensed captain and certified kayak instructor. Three-day tours cost from $US1550 ($NZ2036) a person, including float-plane round trip. See spiritofalaska.com.
Staying there Kodiak's A Captain's Quarters B&B, nearly five kilometres from town, has suites from $US179 ($NZ222) a night for two people. See acaptainsquarters.com.
Information on Kodiak's remote public-use cabins in the refuge is available at the visitor's centre; phone +1 (888) 408 3514.
While there There are dozens of fishing charters available from Kodiak Town, including Kodiak Island Charters. See kodiakislandcharters.com.
Kodiak Town has several museums, including the Alutiiq Museum, charting the history of the island's indigenous people. See alutiiqmuseum.org.
- Sydney Morning Herald