Thursday, August 5, 2010

Kodiak Island,Part I

Last weekend, we took a trip to Kodiak Island. After a 13 hour tumultuous boat ride on the Pacific Ocean, we arrived in the "Emerald Isle of Alaska". Kodiak Island is most famous for being home to the "largest carnivore on planet Earth", the Kodiak Bear. However, after barely missing bears in parking lots and alongside the road this was the closest we actually got to a bear:

The real reason we came to Kodiak was research. While we've been in Alaska, I've been hard at work on my thesis paper - reading a bookcase full and making as many native connections as I can. Kodiak, the city, holds The Alutiiq Museum and the Alutiiq people are the basis of my work. Kodiak Island holds several native villages that are nearly completely populated by Alutiiq peoples.


The first two days in Kodiak were very exciting. I spent all day working with staff at The Alutiiq, studying their collections, and absorbing their knowledge. Here are a few beautiful things from the museum.

Griffin and I had planned on camping that night but the weather thought differently. Luckily, we found a cheap hostel and stayed dry for the night. While we were perusing the town of Kodiak on a nightly stroll we met a wonderful new friend, Jeff.

We had a flight chartered to take us to Ouzinkie, a native village, the next day where we were going to spend 48 hours. After some complaining, hilarious stories, and an hour of chain smoking Jeff offered to take us to Ouzinkie on his sailboat in the morning. He was a generous wonderful man that slightly resembled John Kerry.


Look I'm steering a boat through the Pacific Ocean!

More puffins than I have ever seen in one spot.

Ouzinkie is positioned in the valley to the right.

When we arrived to the tiny place that is Ouzinkie, we found that our connection was still out fishing for an undetermined amount of time. We met some nice young boys that were fishing off the dock and gave Griffin some cod eyeballs to hold.

This is our man, Herman Squartsoff, Alutiiq native of Ouzinkie. Herman took us home and showed us how to fillet a steelhead trout he had just caught. He had to run to church that evening because he is an official, so we were handed off to another lady that walked with us around town.

The Alutiiq people were basically invaded and enslaved by the Russians in the late 18th and early 19th century. I'm skipping over a few details here but the Alutiiq people are largely Russian Orthodox, a religion brought over from Ukraine, and practice to this day. Ouzinkie has one of the oldest Russian Orthodox churches in America.

Children in the community have been taught traditional Alutiiq dances as a way to stay connected to their heritage. Wearing traditional headdresses and costumes, they performed several of these dances just for Griffin and I. It was really special.

When we arrived back at the house, Herman led us into the enormous and beautiful spruce forest to gather some natural ingredients for our supper. We gathered patrushkie to season the fish and rubbed yarrow on our bodies as a mosquito repellent.

Kelo is the amazing dog walking behind Herman.

When we returned, we gathered salmon berries to make a traditional Alutiiq (debatable Yup'ik) dessert called akutaq.

Herman's song to teach children in Alutiiq on his refrigerator.

After dinner, we went on a walk to Marmot Bay (Herman's backyard as he referred to it) and marveled at the beauty of Kodiak Island.

Herman's dog provided entertainment as we talked about the plants and wildlife of the area with such an amazingly knowledgeable and connected man.

When we returned to the house, Herman showed us his traditional banya (Russian bathhouse) complete with rocks to steam and natural roots to exfoliate with.

Then, we visited his traditional dry smoke house where he smokes salmon for 4-5 days. It smelled unbelievable.


Part of the agreement in staying with Herman was that we attend church with him in the morning. We woke up early, put on our Sunday best, and walked toward the beautiful historic church for a traditional Russian Orthodox church service. It was really amazing. The church was beautiful, filled with different medieval style paintings dating from no one knew when. The service was sung completely through by Herman and a small choir in English, Slavonic, and Alutiiq. Men and women were seperated to different sides of the church and the women generally had something lace or cloth covering their heads.

Before we left Ouzinkie, Herman pulled out a secret stash of his smoked salmon! It was amazing.

We said goodbye to new friends at the "airport" (a stretch of paved road) and headed back to Kodiak Island on a tiny plane for two more days of adventure.

We'll be heading home on Monday morning. It's more bittersweet than I could explain in this blog. Tomorrow Griffin has planned some grand romantic day in Halibut Cove (think Middle Earth + Endor x amazing) including kayaking, horse ranch visiting, and the classiest of dining. I'm pretty excited about tomorrow. I'm just pretty excited about life, really. This has been the best summer I've ever had.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Grace Ridge - 1, Us - 0

Last weekend we took our first backpacking trip on the Grace Ridge Trail in Kachemak Bay State Park. The trail is open during the warmer parts of the summer months because only then has enough snow melted to make it passable.
We read that some people made the 8.8 mile hike in a day. We decided to give ourselves 2 days and nights. In hindsight it seems like complete b.s. that people made this trek in a day.

We met up with our water taxi early on Saturday morning and picked up our rental kayak, which was left at the end of our trail. We made plans to spend 2 days hiking and one day relaxing and paddling.


From the water taxi we could see what awaited us across the bay. Grace Ridge is the mountain on the right. We climbed up and over that whole thing, all 3150 feet high.

Despite the lousy weather our trail began with high spirits as we soon found some delicious blueberries.

But the blueberries couldn't hold a candle to wild salmon berries!

They looked and tasted a lot like large raspberries.


The concern of bears was very real on Grace Ridge.
Luckily, we didn't have any bear encounters, however we came across lots of proof that they were not far off.

Within the first mile of the trail is an elevation increase of 15oo feet.

It was a rough first mile, but the view was so worth it.

The clouds couldn't fully hide the beauty of the mountains.

We saw lots of Mountain Lupine. After buying a book detailing the wildflowers of Alaska, we've become much more acquainted to the ridiculously beautiful flowers that 24 hours of sunlight will bring.

After three miles of heavily wooded switchbacks we began hiking at an even steeper elevation into the alpine region of our tour. Keep in mind we have all our supplies on our backs. That's about 50 pounds each between tents, stove, food, etc.

After hiking for another mile and another thousand feet, we stopped for a scenic photo

At one point during this part of the hike we glanced down a few hundred feet to see an eagle soaring. Looking down and seeing an eagle was something new for both of us.

After the first mile into the alpine region of the hike the trail became less obvious and more 'implied.'

With nothing else in front of us but huge ridges we carried on for another hour.

Around 6pm we decided to make camp. It had been a long and tiring day and we were hungry.
We made the wise decision of hitting up the bulk dehydrated soup section at the grocery store before heading out on our journey. We made the very unwise decision of purchasing vegetarian chili instead of any one of the many other dehydrated soups available.

While resting at our camp near the summit we were able to appreciate the toughness of all the plants that were able to live in such inhospitable conditions. These flowers, no larger than the size of you pinky fingernail, were everywhere. While they appear to be pretty and dainty they are tough. Really really tough.

Soon after dinner we settled down for what we hoped would be a solid night's sleep after a demanding day. I was slowly getting comfortable in our tent when the rain started. This is nothing too unexpected. Every time we go camping it rains. It's kind of the Murphy's Law of camping.
But then the wind came. As we were literally camping in the valley of a mountain ridge, our tent was situated in a crazy wind tunnel. The rustling of gusts blowing through our tent along with the tapping of rain kept us up all night. At points it seemed like our tent was going to fly off of the mountain top. There's also some terribly unsettling feeling about sleeping 2500 feet in the air. Your whole body seems very aware that you shouldn't be there. It was not fun.


The wind and rain did not let up by the morning. This made repacking everything, which was now soaked, quite the task. Still we managed to collect our belongings and make our way through the most challenging part of the 'trail.'

As I mentioned before, the trail was more 'implied' or totally non existent once we reached the higher altitudes. This didn't really pose too much of a challenge until our map blew away, along with my St. Louis Cardinals hat. The lowest ridge towards the bottom left was were me made camp. We started our day getting over one ridge to find another larger one waiting for us. This was not the best way to start the day. The photo below is a view backwards of the "easy" ridges.

There were points where there was not much space to walk on, maybe 18 inches surrounded by two sharp declines on either side. At times it felt like I was going to be knocked over by the power of the wind. It was scary. We did not get many photos of that section of the hike. It was during this time that the 60 - 70 mph winds threw Nicki into a rock and tore the cartilage connecting her ribs to her sternum. Luckily, she didn't feel much of this until the next day.

Here I am leaning into the wind

Where's the trail?

After loosing the trail for a few unnerving hours and a few exhausting miles we spotted it over a few ridges about a mile from where we were. We zagged when we should have zigged. Oops!
As we decreased in elevation the wind stopped pushing us around so much and we found a much needed water source which we filtered.

Before the alpine region gives way to the forested area there was this:

We were soon back in familiar (not scary) territory hiking down through the trees.

I heard a rustle in the trees and before I could grab my bear spray we saw this porcupine scrambling up a tree! It was the size of an enormous pig!

Our spirits were high as we hiked the last few miles down the trail, even though everything we wore/owned was wet.

Around 6pm we made it to the trailhead and found this campsite waiting for us. We quickly made a life affirming fire and began laying out our soaked belongings.

As we were settling in for the night, we realized that we had an alarming lack of water for the next two days. It was decided that we should set out on our kayak to a water source on a different part of the island. However, Nicki thought she was much stronger than she is and tried to carry the very heavy double kayak to the water. Once she dropped it and the kayak zoomed down the beach and was carried ten to twenty feet out into the water by the tide, I ran/swam after it wearing three layers, rain boots, my glasses, and a heavy raincoat. The water voyage was delayed until the next day.

After waking from a much more pleasant sleep, we set out for the water source and made breakfast with delicious hot chocolate. Then, we were off on our kayaking journey into Sadie Cove!

Majestic Eagle

We were very lucky to be out when we were. Something about the specific tide and the weather and the location where we were turned Sadie Cove into a jellyfish party. We passed HUNDREDS of jellyfish. They were all sorts of colors and sizes. There were so many that it was difficult to not hit them with our oars!

We stopped at a cove under Grace Ridge, enjoyed some tea from a thermos, and marveled at our accomplishment the day prior. Then, we spent the rest of our afternoon walking along the beach, studying the hundreds of jellyfish that the tide had brought to shore.