KODIAK, Alaska — As I made my way to Kodiak Island's Fossil Beach to watch surfers ride the waves, fall was in full force.
The air was crisp. Trees were painted in brilliant hues of red and yellow by a slanting sun. I reached the grassy edge of a cliff where the road stopped and footpaths plunged downward to the beach.
A dozen people in wet suits were taking their boards out onto the swells or coming ashore. An exposed reef forced waves coming from the south to break right and left.
Now and then a strong riptide would take surfers around nearby Narrow Cape, where gale-force winds stranded them along narrow beachheads. Fortunately, Kodiak has one of the largest Coast Guard bases in the U.S.
Surfing may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Kodiak, but it's emblematic of the surprises this island in southern Alaska springs on you.
Surfing is not confined to just one spot. Those who like to catch the waves also try their luck in the small settlements of Pasagshak and Mill Bay on the north side of Kodiak town. (Information and equipment are available at Scuba Do in Kodiak.)
And if there is one spot surfers, rock climbers, kayakers and hikers can be found, it's the tasting room of the Kodiak Island Brewery Co., featuring long picnic tables covered with beer and pizza as visitors, adventurers and locals discuss the day's adventures.
If surfing doesn't fit your image of Kodiak, then neither might the Kodiak Rodeo and State Fair, held on Labor Day weekend, with competing cowpokes from farms and ranches across the island.
This commercial fishing port is also a pilgrimage site for members of the Eastern Orthodox faith who come to visit the grave of St. Herman.
Montana by the sea
Kodiak is the second-largest island in the U.S. (it's part of the much larger Kodiak Archipelago), more than 100 miles long and nearly 70 miles wide. If you were to hike its length, it would take about 11 days one way.
I was drawn to Kodiak after developing an addiction to Alaska, leading me to live and work in various regions of the state.
The island proved different from the rest of Alaska, where the mountains are jagged rock and ice. Kodiak's are still sharp-peaked and covered in vegetation. The island is more like Montana by the sea than Alaska.
Usually an Alaskan region is dominated by one type of fauna: rain forests in southeast Alaska, birch and black spruce in the Alaska interior, tundra in treeless west Alaska.
In Kodiak, dark green spruce forests dominate the north, woods and grazing lands in the mid-sections beyond Pasagshak Pass, grasslands farther south and tundra in southern Kodiak.
Wildlife follows terrain: elk and deer in the north, bison in the mid-sections, mountain goats in the higher elevations, caribou herds to the south.
Throughout the island is the massive Kodiak brown bear, a cousin of the grizzly. About 3,000 inhabit the archipelago. Where is the best bear viewing? Everywhere.
In October, churchgoers in Kodiak town were stopped by state troopers. One of these giants was asleep on the church steps.
The 1.9-million-acre Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is home to much of the island's wildlife. It draws animal viewers and hunters.
On an autumnal night at Henry's Great Alaskan Restaurant in downtown Kodiak, I rubbed elbows with fly fishermen, goat hunters, duck hunters, caribou hunters and deer hunters.
Visitors to Alaska's oldest permanent European settlement will find a town that is surprisingly diverse. English, Alutiiq, Russian, Tagalog, Spanish and Aleut usage reflect its many cultures.
My landlord was Tasmanian, and the clerk at the hotel where I stayed when I first arrived was an Afrikaner.
The city's 12-cannery waterfront teems with Latino and Filipino workers. The Russian Orthodox Church maintains the white-and-green trim Holy Resurrection Cathedral and operates St. Herman's Seminary with its Yupik and Aleut students.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church operates Monk's Rock Coffeehouse and Bookstore with its eclectic array of gifts and snacks. Alutiiq dancers perform downtown in the summer.
Best time to visit
The Old Powerhouse with fresh sushi offers views of fishing boats passing nearby as well as sea lions at play.
Kodiak is peppered with excellent coffeehouses. And for the view? Try Harborside Fly-By on Mill Bay Road to watch float planes take off and land on neighboring Lilly Lake.
The best time to visit, from my perspective, may be late May for the week-long Kodiak Crab Festival, with parades, rides and endless cooked crab – and topped off with the blessing of the 800-vessel fishing fleet.
But it doesn't really matter what time of year you come here. Each season offers diverse adventures and scenery unique to the island for anyone yearning for the path less traveled.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO KODIAK, ALASKA
From LAX, Alaska offers connecting service (change of planes) to Kodiak. Restricted round-trip fares from $712, including taxes and fees.
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