Alaska's Aleutian Islands & the Marine Highway

One of the things I love about RVing is the way you can change your route at the drop of a hat. Because we carry our home with us, Steve and I can head off on side trips any time we want. And we learned in a hurry that it pays to listen to other campers at RV parks and campgrounds along the way -- they're full of good tips on where to go and what to do.

This month we're taking an extended version of one of those side trips. After we spent July on the Kenai Peninsula, enjoying some of the best fishing and wildlife we've ever seen, we decided to head north to Alaska's amazing Aleutian Island chain. We started by visiting Kodiak, an island I was excited to see because it's so famous for its bears. And we saw so many bears there!

We took the ferry from the mainland to Kodiak Island, then to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge that covers about two-thirds of the island. And wow, is that a terrific place to see bears. We saw them hunting and eating, ambling around, and just sunning themselves, twitching their noses at the air. This is also an amazing place to go bird-watching. While Steve did some more fishing, I kept my binoculars pointed at the beach and the trees, watching the bald eagles soar above us, chasing off crows and calling out to their young.

It's a good thing we had a picnic lunch and plenty of snacks with us, because we spent a long time out on the trails, taking photos of bears. After a good night's sleep in the RV, we headed back to the town of Kodiak. Kodiak is a fun place to explore. Aside from cozy restaurants, we found galleries filled with art and baskets made by the Alutiiq people, descendants of the island's original inhabitants.

The Russian influence is also strong here. In the late 1700s, this was the capital of Russian America, as you can see by the ornate Russian Orthodox Church. We took a tour of the Baranov Museum and saw where they used to store the furs before they were shipped back to Russia. Even in the heart of summer, it's fun to imagine what it was like to live here year round in a time before TVs and cell phones.

It turns out that we’re just one month too late for the Alaska Renaissance Festival and the Solstice Celebration. But if we stay long enough into August, we can catch the Annual Silver Salmon Fishing Derby, which Steve is pretty excited about. In the meantime, we’re heading southwest to the Kenai Peninsula, because that’s where our friends told us to go for absolutely fantastic fishing. Kenai is 137 miles from Anchorage, and that’s considered nearby in this mammoth of a state!

From Kodiak, we took a ferry to Unalaska and Dutch Harbor and started exploring the Aleutian Archipelago in earnest.

The Aleutians are just amazing. This chain of islands stretches 1,000 miles away from the Alaskan mainland. 1,000 miles! I can't stop thinking about the early explorers, sailing from island to island, trading with the native peoples and looking for solid land. There are still active volcanoes in the Aleutians, and more rugged, rocky coastlines than you can count.

You'd think an island chain would be hard to explore in an RV, but Alaska makes it easy—at least in the summer. There are regular ferries from Unalaska to all the major ports, and a massive bridge connects Unalaska Island to Amaknak Island, where Dutch Harbor is located. Even with all the mountains and curving coastlines, it's easy to get around.

Unalaska shows its history on three levels—the very old native cultures, the Russian influence of the 1700s, and the World War II sites. Sally and I explored some Aleut villages together, learning about what it was like to live off the bounty of the sea in this harsh, northern climate. Even for Minnesotans like us, Alaskan winters count as downright cold!

Next, we toured the original Russian-American Company's fur trading building for a different take on "living off the sea". Then we split up for a day, and Sally went to see the oldest Russian church in the country while I went to Fort Schwatka and learned about the 19-day World War II battle our troops fought against the Japanese here in May 1943.

We had a great dinner that night of grilled salmon and Sally's homemade ice cream (she makes it in two coffee cans that we kick around the RV until it's all mixed up). The next day we went to Sitka Spruce Park and saw the six trees that were planted by the Russians in 1805. We hiked out to Uniktali Bay, watching for birds the whole way. Dramatic peaks like Mount Ballyhoo shot up like they were rising straight out of the ocean. Just breathtaking. If I had my way, I don't think we'd ever leave Alaska.
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