There are at least two things that residents of Page generally don’t need to bring along on a trip to Walmart: rain pants and bear spray. But on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where my wife Thandar and I spent 18 months before moving to Page earlier this year, they were necessary accessories for most shopping excursions.
We were told before we arrived in Kodiak that winters there were milder than the rest of Alaska, but we would need to live with steady rain, which falls on the island at an average rate of 81 inches per year (compared to the national average of 38.1 inches). Strong winds frequently blow from the Gulf of Alaska, rendering umbrellas useless, so most residents don’t bother to own one. Instead, waterproof pants, Xtratuf boots and hooded rain jackets are the norm.
As for bear spray, Kodiak bears – a subspecies of grizzly that can weigh up to 1,500 pounds – are not averse to wandering into town to un-bearproof the bearproof trash cans. They can be encountered just about anywhere. One of the articles I wrote for Kodiak Daily Mirror concerned a local Willie Nelson lookalike who, while trail running at the edge of town, rounded a blind corner, surprised a bear, and ended up in a bloody heap on the ground, flesh shredded and bones broken by claws and fangs. He later said he wouldn’t have survived had he not been carrying bear spray to fend off the animal’s second charge.
Occasional maulings aside, most longtime residents see these potential dangers as cause for celebration. The locals love their bears, and Kodiak-based Facebook groups are plastered with giddy reports of ursine sightings, often accompanied by photos or videos. When “problem” bears are shot by police, there’s a loud, angry outcry against poor wildlife management policies.
The excessive rainfall, meanwhile, brings beauty and abundance: Kodiak’s nickname is “Alaska’s Emerald Island,” a nod to the lush greenery and wildflowers that blanket the island every summer. Thandar and I learned how to forage in the forest for fiddlehead ferns, which we fried in butter with garlic and ate as a side dish nearly every day through June. In mid-summer we picked enough salmonberries to cook a year’s supply of fruit jam, while late summer brought edible fireweed and bushes loaded with blueberries.
Rivers and streams are filled with bear-fattening salmon, and fishing – along with limited bear hunting – are the main draws for visitors from off island. But whereas Page is keen to see tourists come through town, many Kodiakans take pride in the island’s remoteness and lack of appeal for the average traveler. Longtime residents might boast about the beauty of the island, and then add, “If the weather was better, we’d be overrun by people from the lower 48. We’re lucky they stay away.”
There is something to be said for the simplicity of the Kodiak lifestyle. We never bothered to buy a car while on the island, which has only 60 miles of paved roads. I could walk to work in five minutes, and Walmart and Safeway were only 20 minutes away on foot. Within a 3-mile radius of our apartment, we could climb from sea level to the 1,300-foot peak of Pillar Mountain, explore a network of trails on Russian Ridge, walk across a bridge to Near Island and its two forested parks, or comb rocky Mission and Mill Bay beaches for sea glass.
The hiking trails wound through forests shaded by towering, moss-hung Sitka spruce trees and across coastal meadows speckled by galaxies of purple lupine, chocolate lilies and woolly geraniums. Wildlife was all around us: We could sit at the beach and watch sea otters, sea lions and orcas play in the surf. Bald eagles were so common that some locals referred to them as “dumpster chickens” due to their habit of raiding unsecured trash. I rarely finished a bike ride without seeing at least one Sitka black-tailed deer along the road, and it was not uncommon during walks to spot red foxes stealthily observing us from the undergrowth.
And, of course, there were the bears. On hikes, we made noise to let them know we were coming. We sang made-up songs about fiddlehead ferns and, as the locals did, developed a habit of frequently shouting “hey bear!” into the thick forest ahead of us.
But amid this natural bounty, Thandar and I never did learn to love the rain or the frigid wind that drove it in off the ocean.
There were other inconveniences as well, like the 18-plus hours of daily darkness in the depths of winter. And twice during our stay, offshore earthquakes triggered nighttime tsunami warnings. As the sirens wailed like banshees in the darkness, we – along with the town’s 6,000 other residents – were encouraged by authorities to scramble for higher ground until the threat had passed. (Several small monuments around town served as reminders that in 1964, Kodiak had been decimated by the 9.2-magnitude Good Friday Earthquake, the most powerful seismic convulsion ever recorded in North America.)
Kodiak’s shaky economy – abetted, no doubt, by the lack of tourists – also ensured that it maintained a rugged, backwater character – great fodder, I thought, for a John Steinbeck novel. But for me and Thandar, it felt strange to settle in a region of the United States that boasted fewer amenities or conveniences than places we had lived in Southeast Asia, including Rangoon, Burma, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia – located in two of the poorest countries on the planet.
Since arriving in Page, I’ve heard a few comments about the city’s remoteness. During my multiple phone interviews for the editor position at Lake Powell Chronicle, I was reminded several times that Page is “in the middle of nowhere.”
But the city has grown up in what seems to me to be a fine location: surrounded by spectacular and varied desert landscapes, but not so remote that it’s inaccessible to tourists. The two-hour drive to Flagstaff is fairly convenient compared to the turbulent, puddle-jumper flights from Kodiak to Anchorage, necessary for simple errands like seeing a dentist but often delayed or canceled because of hazardous weather conditions.
In Page, some things are the same as Kodiak: I can still walk to work in less than 10 minutes, and Thandar and I can reach at least one hiking destination – the Rimview Trail – on foot from our home. But we’ve given up the rain pants and bear spray for shopping trips, and we finally did break down and buy a car, to better explore the abundant beauty that surrounds Manson Mesa for miles in every direction.