Contributing editor Lawrence Millman says he wasn"t worried when he hiked in bear country without a guide or a gun. "Humans are not a threat to a bear"s food in Kodiak," he says. "Besides, I find bears to be good company, and I think they see me as a disheveled brother, a fellow ursine clad in Gore-Tex."
A resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Millman loves northern latitudes; he has been to the Arctic or subarctic 25 times. But this was his first visit to Kodiak Island. "It was the most temperate northern destination I"ve ever visited," he says. In 25 years of writing, Millman has published ten books and written for a wide range of publications, including Smithsonian magazine and The Atlantic Monthly.
Photographer Nevada Wier says she loved Kodiak even from the air. "It"s just stunning, with emerald-green foothills, blue water, and white mountains dotted with native settlements." She says that watching bears at Frazer Lake was a rare treat: "Even on safari in Africa, you"re typically in a vehicle or behind a fence," she says. "But on Kodiak, because of the wildness of the place, you don"t feel like you"re in a zoo; you"re actually a part of the animals" world, so you feel more connected."
Based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Wier spent 20 years leading trek- king expeditions in remote regions of the world. Her photography has been published in two books, as well as in such magazines as National Geographic, Geo, Smithsonian, and Outdoor Photographer.
If you want to see Kodiak bears in optimum safety, you"ll need a guide who knows where they are and how they behave. You can either stay at a wilderness lodge or book a bear-viewing flight (around $400). Wier landed at Frazer Lake, where bears go to catch salmon. Check with the Kodiak Island Convention and Visitors Bureau (KICVB) for the best viewing spots and a list of wilderness lodges, charter operators, and guides.
The Big View
The steep two-and-a-half-mile trail up Barometer Mountain (so named because it"s only visible when the weather"s good) affords great views of Kodiak harbor and neighboring islands; for quicker satisfaction, drive to the top of Pillar Mountain. (There are walking trails at the top.) For an authentic cultural experience, visit the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository, home to one of the world"s biggest collections of Eskimo artifacts, some dating back 7,500 years; or see a native dance performance at the Kodiak Tribal Council Barabara in Kodiak city (2:30 p.m. daily in summer).
Fossil Beach, which lies literally at the end of the road in Pasagshak, is a good place to search for million-year-old relics that turn up beneath the crumbling cliffs and along the water"s edge. Migrating gray whales pass the beach in spring and fall. Nearby Narrow Cape Beach is the spot for surfers, but bring a dry suit if you plan on riding any of these frigid waves.
Whether you stay in a hotel, a bed-and- breakfast, or a wilderness lodge, there"s a good chance your host can help coordinate bear-watching, fishing, and other adventures. Millman recommends the Afognak Wilderness Lodge, which comprises several funky and remote log cabins, each with hunting-themed decor ($500 per night per adult, guides and outings included; 800-478- 6442, www.afognaklodge.com.). Wier enjoyed the good food and friendly people at Sitkalidak Lodge & Safari"s, in the native settlement of Old Harbor. (Call for the price of all-inclusive stays; 888-386- 2309, www.sitkalidak.com.) In Kodiak city, the Best Western Kodiak Inn overlooks the boat harbor ($100 to $150 per night; 888-563-4254, www.ptialaska.net/~kodiakin), and the Buskin River Inn, near the airport, has views of the river and the bald eagles that frequent it ($115 to $165 per night; 800-544-2202).
What"s to Eat
Food is somewhat expensive, but big helpings are the norm. Fresh fish is the specialty; you can enjoy it simply at funky roadhouses or with style at fine restaurants. (Locally smoked salmon is sold at the grocery store.) Road"s End, in Chiniak, is one recommended spot: "It"s a typical Alaskan roadhouse with a jukebox, stuffed animal heads, and great halibut sandwiches followed by apple pie," says Millman. "It"s like the Alaska of 75 years ago." In Kodiak city, Wier suggests Henry"s Great Alaskan Restaurant, known for its crawfish pie and decor that incorporates native objects and pioneer antiques. The Eagle"s Nest, at the Buskin River Inn, features more upscale dining and has excellent smoked salmon.
On the Road
You can arrive on the island via a one- hour flight from Anchorage or a long ferry ride from Seward or Homer. (Pack seasickness pills.) Once there, you"ll need a rental car - preferably 4WD - to get around ($50 per day). There are only 14 miles of paved roads in town; the rest are dirt and they can be rough, so be prepared to change flat tires. Floatplanes and charter boats are widely available. Keep in mind that flights around Kodiak are often cancelled due to bad weather.
Read it and Leap
Learn about people"s bear experiences in Alaska Bear Tales and More Alaska Bear Tales, by Larry Kaniut. To see bears from the comfort of your own home, visit amazon.com and order National Geographic"s video Giant Bears of Kodiak Island. The most current guidebook is Insight Guides" Alaska, by Pam Barrett; Moon Publications" Alaska-Yukon Handbook, by Don Pitcher, is also helpful.
You will find ATMs and banks in Kodiak city only.
When to Go
The best time to see bears is during the period of warmer weather between mid-June and mid-September. The long days allow plenty of time to fit everything into your schedule.