Tuesday 24 September 2013

I Left my Heart in Kodiak

Kodiak, Alaska will forever now be known as the emerald isle that broke open my heart.

Here's how it happened.

I have had the great good fortune in my life to travel.  A lot.  To very special places. 
Both personally and professionally, whether as an Inflight-Safety-Professional (read: flight attendant), international active travel guide or film festival emcee, I have experienced some of the most exciting, gorgeous places on earth.  And along the way I have met wonderful, gracious, fascinating people.

But Alaskans are a different breed. 
I would go so far as to say a better breed.

(Easy, people!  I love you all!  It's just that as a whole,
Alaskans are somehow...better )

Perhaps it's due to the sometimes harsh conditions in which they live.  Maybe it's their isolation.  Or most likely, it's their immersion in wilderness.  After all, Walt Whitman did say, and I agree, that:

"Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air,
and to eat and sleep with the earth."

An excerpt from Song of the Open Road, published in 1856

Whatever the cause, my experience with the people of Alaska was with uniformly capable, self-reliant and kind beings.  Top this with the hospitality and generosity gene they carry that far exceeds anything I've seen in my adventures thus far.  Did I mention that they're also all ridiculously good-looking? 

(My new age hippie home friends would approve of the number of bearded men in America's largest state - are you reading this Paula?)

I touched down in Anchorage.  I was picked up from my hotel by Mike, an avid naturalist, writer and lover of life.  He reads Terry Tempest Williams and runs folk music shows.  We are clearly kindred spirits. We drove toward Seward along the blue fringes of Turnagain arm, home to the second highest tides in the world next to the Bay of Fundy. Within an hour I had seen a pod of Belugas, a flock of Dall Sheep and a moose. The place is wild.

I spent the evening with an enthusiastic crowd of adventure film junkies and emerged to a gorgeous moon outlined in the cold sky.  There was a full size image of it in the paper the following morning, and the headlines read:

"Harvest Moon Rises Over Anchorage"


"Scientists Report Advancing Glaciers"

Now THAT is my kind of news.  THIS is my kind of place.

I took off from Anchorage as the sun rose over Denali.

Denali Sunrise

We approached Kodiak.
Whew.  I need to catch my breath.

Surfers' Beach, Kodiak Alaska

It's like Hawaii.  Or paradise.  Or something.  The wildness and rugged beauty are like nothing else.
And again, its people are what put it over the top.

It seemed that we came up to the short runway very quickly, our Dash 8 bucking and lurching as we approached.  It was the most exciting landing I've ever experienced (and as you may note by the aforementioned 'Inflight-Safety-Professional' line - I have experienced many landings in my lifetime).

Now here's where it gets good. 
I was met at the airport by my local host (and new Alaska best friend) Sara.
I learned later that it's a Kodiak custom to never let anyone land in or leave their airport unaccompanied.  After years of landing lonely in new places after dark, this completely warms my heart.  This custom alone is enough to make me move to the place.  Sara didn't stop there.  She warmly welcomed me to the mystical, cloud-shrouded island and took me out for a coffee.  We ordered Brevés which, for the uninitiated, involve cream rather than milk and are essentially liquid heaven. 

And as if that weren't enough, we then drove up Pillar Mountain to look over rugged beauty of Kodiak.  Spinning wind turbines decorate the summit like giant pinwheels.  The place is powered by hydro and wind - 95% renewable energy. Hello, Heaven!

Kodiak is powered by 95% renewable energy - hydro & wind, the perfect pairing


Shortly after arrival I looked at a map of the island and noticed Erskine Mountain.  That's my maternal grandmother's maiden name.  No wonder I feel so at home here.  I'm practically from the place!

Clearly, my ancestors in the Erskine family had been here before

I spent the rest of the day bathing in the generosity of strangers.  Strangers who fast became friends.  We ate giant cookies, went to the beach, got up high and with real curiosity, got to know one another.  I learned some of the local lingo - like 'termination dust' - the first snow on the peaks that indicates the end of summer.  And I even tried out a buoy swing with my sweet and creative new friend Abbey.

Abbey teaches me the finer points of buoy swinging

I slept at Cliff House B&B - but that in no way describes my experience.
In truth, I was welcomed into the home of Marty and Marion - and nourished with kindness, great conversation and cookies fresh from the oven.  I felt completely held and at home.

Now here's what I've noticed about this place.  I feel different here.  People make time.  For all those little acts that make a person feel connected, cared for and human.  From sharing a fresh carrot from the garden to offering their help and to really listening.  This strikes a particular chord with me given my recent contemplative pilgrimage to Alberta's tar sands and my work to quiet my mind.  This quiet is alive in Kodiak, and the people who shared their island with me are doing all those things that make the difference.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the special organization that invited me to the island in the first place.  They are the Island Trails Network - hellooooooo! Could they be any more INCREDIBLE? This tiny and committed organization is one of the most efficient, well-managed and aspirational non-profits I've seen (and working with the grants program of The Alberta Ecotrust Foundation, I've been fortunate to see many phenomenal non-profit groups in action).  This team works from dawn til dusk building and restoring trails to encourage active engagement in the magical landscape of their islands.  They connect community members through events and opportunities for outdoor activity and they clear the beaches of tons of marine debris each year (much of it from Japan).  They do all this with a vigor, a passion and an energy that exceeds that of even the most youthful Jack Russell Terrier.  Their superstar team smiles while they work hard and they make it look fun.  Most remarkable of all, they are universally liked on the island.  And you and I both know (especially if you live in Alberta!) that this is not always the case for environmental groups.  Island Trails and their champions are truly making a positive difference to the people, places and other sentient beings on their small slice of earth.  And the ripple effect they're creating is more like a tsunami.  Now that's what I call good work.

Island Trails' youngest team member taking a snack break.  Notice his Alaska uniform: Carharrt coveralls and plaid flannel

My personal take on the people I met in Alaska is that for the most part, the folks that crossed my path actually choose to live there.  Many have come from far away to be there.  They pay attention to how beautiful it is every day.  And what broke my heart wide open was the true caring and kindness that everyone showed me.  From the man sitting next to me on the plane, to my local hosts who I now joyfully consider friends, people gave freely of themselves, their home and their time.  .  Nobody is a stranger.   I have been touched.  And I don't think I'll ever be the same.  I now walk home from the wild.  With an open heart.

Kodiak Sunrise Photo Credit: Sara Mooers

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break....I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness


  1. Goodness. You, m'dear, are welcome back any time. So glad the island stole your heart like it has so many others. I grew up here and recently moved back because, as you said, "the wildness and rugged beauty are like nothing else and...its people are what put it over the top."

    You rocked the show, by the way. Would have loved to stick around and introduced myself afterwards but, alas, I had other duties to attend to. Perhaps next year :) Hope your adventures, misadventures and everything in between are beyond wonderful as you journey on. Thanks for sharing Radical Reels with us!

    1. You are too kind!
      Thanks for reading my blog - and I am so grateful to read your response.
      No WONDER you had to move home to Kodiak!!!
      Thanks for coming to Radical Reels - I am really happy that you enjoyed the show and only sorry that I didn't get to meet you. Come visit in Banff sometime :)
      All my very best,

  2. FYI Heather, the tree the buoy swing hung from and is pictured above blew down, along with the swing that we all loved and enjoyed, 90 minutes after RR was over that night, 22 September. Thanks for the enthusiastic review of Kodiak. You may have been the last to use the swing ..... oh well, at least no one was hurt, no vehicles were smushed, and no apartment roofs pierced. Thanks for visiting ....

    1. So sad about the tree and buoy swing - I'm really grateful nobody was hurt...
      And well, it is EASY to be enthusiastic about Kodiak - it is paradise. Thanks for writing!
      Enjoy every day in Kodiak - you're very lucky to live there :)

  3. Aah, Heather, you've been bitten, as I was, 8 years ago when I arrived in Alaska by northbound ferry out of Bellingham, WA. I, too, am a wanderer but find myself returning time and again to Alaska and specifically, Kodiak Island, where the best of Alaska is represented in its natural, wild, expansive beauty and its down to earth folks. I'm....

    Back on the Ferry Saturday Kodiak Bound Barb

    1. Hi Barb,
      Yes, I've been bitten!
      Thanks for sharing - I can absolutely see your addiction to Alaska - and as a gypsy soul myself, I have to say that it feels so incredible to stumble upon a sense of home....
      Have a wonderful journey - and thanks for your words!

  4. So Glad you stopped by the bike shop on your way through, was very nice to meet you. I was sorry to have missed the show, tree fell down in my mom's yard with all the wind gusts that night. Heard the show was great though. Safe travels!

    -Jeremiah (58 Degrees North)

    1. Jeremiah-
      Awesome to hear from you - and I loved your store!
      So sorry about your mom's tree - I hope there wasn't too much damage...
      And hey - I was thinking, this would be pretty much the perfect thing for you to bring to Kodiak if you ever wanted PEDAL POWER! And who better to make it happen than 58 Degrees North??! Check it out: http://vimeo.com/48077121
      I'll come help make it happen :)

  5. Of all the things I've read about Kodiak I think you summed it up the best. Alaska and Kodiak will steal your heart and never let it go. I left the island 3 years ago for family reasons and not a day goes by I don't think about it and the wonderful people there. I count among my greatest blessings that I was able to be a founding board member and the first president of ITN. There is not a greater organization or group of people to be found. Everyone from the volunteers to the executive director impact the lives of people on the island and other places simply for the greater good. The are truly the best and I'm glad you had to experience of being touched by such wonderful people and such an amazing place.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing!
      And thank you for being instrumental in bringing ITN to life - what a fabulous organization!
      I feel blessed to have touched down in Kodiak...
      Take great care !