Kodiak Island sits off the southern coast of Alaska in the Kodiak Archipelago and is the home of Alaska’s largest fishing port, Kodiak, famous for its catches of king crab and salmon. Kodiak is also the main city and one of seven communities on the island. The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge takes up almost two-thirds of the island and protects the Kodiak bear, all six species of Pacific salmon and 250 species of birds.
This wonderful place also offers an endless supply of history, culture, abundant wildlife and scenic beauty and, of course, the famous Kodiak brown bear. The Kodiak brown bear is often considered the largest terrestrial carnivore and, due to the abundance of fish, it can reach a weight of 1,400 pounds. Of course, there are other dangerous animals in Alaska, with the polar bear at the top of that list followed by moose, grizzly bear, wolves, black bears, walrus, wolverines and Stellar sea lions, many of which I saw during my visit there.
I ventured once again to Alaska, and specifically to Kodiak Island, for the chance to photograph this vast array of wildlife and especially the bears, which I love.
I stayed at the Best Western Kodiak Inn & Convention Center before meeting up with the others and moving overland to our eventual destination of Uganik Bay. These first few days were spent exploring the town and the harbor, where I was greeted by a view of endless fishing boats, some of which you may have seen on TV’s “Deadliest Catch”, but at that time, the season had not begun.
One of the most surprising moments for me in Kodiak was meeting and watching Oscar, the wild sea otter. A well-known visitor to the harbor, Oscar was named by the residents. I spent many hours sitting on the dock with Oscar as he went through his daily bath routines and it was the most rewarding hours spent each day. Every morning and late afternoon, I would be at the harbor looking out for Oscar, where he knew he was safe from predators and could easily land some fish.
Kodiak Island was first explored in 1763 by a Russian fur trader and settled in 1784. The historic Three Saints Bay and nearby present-day village of Old Harbor join other attractions in Kodiak, including the charming Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church, the Kodiak Island Brewing Company, The Baranov Museum, St. Herman’s Chapel, Fossil Beach, Kodiak Military History Museum and Kodiak Laboratory Aquarium & Touch Tank.
My coffee began my walks and usually mid-afternoon always found me at Monk’s, which is part of the mission of the local church and has great food and coffee, religious artifacts and local artworks. Hana’s, featuring Japanese cuisine, was my dinner spot and if you ever find yourself in Kodiak, be sure to visit both Hana’s and Monk’s -- you won’t be sorry.
After a few days, I met up with the others in the group and we were off to Uganik Bay by a short, scenic float plane ride that landed in one of the most stunning places I have ever seen. We flew over rugged mountains, grassy green meadows and beaver ponds - the blue water of this glacial-fed lake settles between towering, cliff-faced mountains and is surrounded by rich, green cottonwood trees.
Settled among the hills, Quartz Creek Lodge is owned by Dave and Pam Pingree. Dave arrived on Kodiak Island from Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1980 and met Pam, who was born and raised on Kodiak Island. They married soon thereafter. More than a decade and five children later, they moved to Uganik Bay where they found the perfect place for sale. After one year of clearing the land and erecting buildings, the doors of Quartz Creek Lodge were opened and, in Pam’s words, it’s their “own slice of heaven.”
The rich waters of Uganik Bay are full of fish such as bottom-dwelling halibut and thousands of salmon. You may also get to see the salmon shark as they sun themselves after catching their meal, as well as a pod of orcas, or fin and humpback whales, whose spray announces their presence. Our first day out on the boat, we saw a humpback whale and it was such an amazing experience - they came up and went back down for quite some distance before coming back to the surface. When they went back under water, the spot where they had been became a huge circle of calm.
Along with our pro, Shayne McQuire, and her husband, Danny, I was joined by a retired firefighter from Chicago and a photographer from Hong Kong. Every day we would be up early, have breakfast, don our gear and waders, pack our camera equipment in special packs to keep them dry and head out with our guide, Aaron Pingree. We would leave in a small fast boat to an area where the bears were known. Due to a drought that hit Kodiak months earlier, we were unable to get up the river, so we would be taken in groups of two and three by Aaron on a skiff suited for lower waters. Once all together on shore, we would seek out the wildlife and I can tell you, carrying 60 pounds of camera gear along with tripods, weighed down further by waders that are attached to boots and walking miles along the shore or going across a raging stream among dead and dying salmon, climbing over mossy rocks and trying not to be swept away was quite the experience. I am truly grateful for the great support of our amazing Alaskan man, Aaron, and would do it all again in a heartbeat. This was, without a doubt, one of the best trips I’d ever experienced.
We saw the beautiful Kodiak bears, all females with their cubs and always from a distance, although on one particular day, we were watching downriver when Shayne quietly told us to slowly turn and not make a noise. Behind and somewhat close to us was a mother bear with two cubs, who we did not want to startle. We didn’t move, stayed quiet and in a circular type line that offered them no threat.
Another great moment for me happened one morning while waiting for the others to arrive. I noticed the bushes behind me moving - something was scurrying around, moving extremely quickly and, for the life of me, I couldn’t get a clear view of whatever it was. Suddenly, from the undergrowth, a very beautiful ermine in his summer coat appeared, took one look at me and disappeared. He/she did return, but only for seconds. The next day, I saw it again managed to get a couple of shots before its disappearing act. I had never seen an ermine. They are very small but fierce animals, and can take your hand off before you realized it’s missing.
Our daily journeys on the water had us meeting up with sea otters training their new pups. Most cubs would be on their mothers’ belly and at the first sign of danger, she would throw the cub up and then dive in after him/her only to surface some distance away, always with a watchful eye on our boat.
Other days were spent with large colonies of seals who seemed to be constantly arguing. If someone got in the way and disturbed the male, it got noisy and seals would be jumping into the water all around us. Their antics had us laughing.
We saw from afar silver and red foxes, and deer with their fawns. Eagles were also a major part of the scenery and seemed to be on every bend. Other beautiful birds seen were the oystercatcher, kingfisher, mallards and puffins, to name a few.
Time spent at Quartz Creek Lodge was immersed in serene beauty and peace. Pam and her daughter, Faith, cooked our meals at breakfast and dinner. Lunch was always taken with us and our dinners were fit for royalty -- king crab fresh from the pods, halibut, salmon, crab cakes, and fresh baked bread followed by fabulous desserts. I came home with Pam’s cookbook and some great hand-painted coasters that Faith made.
Quartz Creek Lodge offers everything for those wanting the great outdoors. Wildlife viewing and photography, fishing, hunting, and fly-out river float trips are just some of the activities offered.
River fishing in the Uganik River is one of Kodiak’s best and is done by boat and/or hiking in June through October. In September, they offer exclusive fly-out fishing trips, rafting and fishing through the upper half of the river and fishing for silver salmon at the river mouth. Fly and spin fishing gear is provided, fishing lessons are available for those non-fishermen and they honor the practice of catch and release on all rainbow and Dolly Varden trout. You can catch red, pink, chum and silver salmon, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char all within 30 minutes of the lodge. Halibut, ling cod and bottom fish are also part of the fishing experience.
For more information on Quartz Creek Lodge, please visit their website, QuartzCreekLodge.com.
To see all my photos from this trip, please go to my website, www.leighlofgren.com.
This article and photos by Leigh Lofgren appeared in our November/December 2020 issue of Lakelife.