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October 31, 2006 > A winery in Alaska?

A winery in Alaska?

by Arnie Becker

Most cruise ships don't stop in Kodiak and for fairly good reasons. There is not much here to inspire a long visit. The total population is about 13,700 scattered over a chain of islands. It is home to the largest US Coast Guard Base in the United States. For hunters and anglers this is a paradise for Kodiak Brown bear, salmon, halibut, king crab, Dungeness crab, and other seafood. Kodiak is a beautiful and very scenic island, or would be if you could see anything through the rain and drizzle. If one wanted to get away from it all, this would be the ideal place because there are no mobile phone services, limited Internet access and no road access to the rest of Alaska.

Our first visit was to the Kodiak Winery. There were 42 of us on the bus and we all wondered where the grapes came from- were they imported from California, France, or Chile? We found out that they make wine out of various kinds of berries, rhubarb, and other fruits grown in the short but intense summer. The berries and rhubarb are picked locally and made into wine for sale and shipped all over the world (order online at

We visited the Wilderness Area headquarters and visitor center where we saw a brief video on Kodiak, the Kodiak Brown bear, and life on the island. We saw a mother with two half-grown cubs on display. These huge bears can grow to 1500 pounds and stand nine feet tall.

Later on, we boarded our ship and headed into open waters to the Gulf of Alaska and into the Bering Straight. The sky was dark and cloudy, the wind was picking up and the barometer was falling. By the next morning, winds were up to 50 to 60 mph and the seas were rough with swells of 25 to 30 feet. There was heavy spray coming off the bow as we cut through the water. Suddenly, there was a loud banging as we rode up and over the waves along with a sideways motion that the stabilizers did not quite compensate for. The crew started draining the swimming pools and roped off the outer deck areas. We heard things breaking and passengers were advised not to go outside. Glasses, bottles, and merchandise in the stores were thrown off the shelves. Barf bags suddenly appeared attached to the ashtrays in the hallways for passengers to grab if needed on short notice.  By later afternoon, the swells were down to 15 feet and the winds down to 25 knots. Just listening to fellow passengers, we learned that this crossing was worse than crossing the North Atlantic in the dead of winter.

Our next stops were Russia, Siberia and the Kamchatka Peninsula. We arrived in Kamchatka at dawn and by 8 a.m. had dropped anchor. From here we were going to be tendered in using the tenders (lifeboats) from the ship. The conditions under which we could disembark and go ashore kept changing as the Russians made it more and more restrictive. No food of any kind could go ashore. You could only take $200 in cash or equivalent and once you went ashore you could not come back to the ship for lunch and go back ashore. One stamp in each direction only. We had signed up for a tour of the town and the historical museum so upon landing we were herded into our bus for the trip around town. Only five or six cruise ships come in during any 12-month period.

For those who are not familiar with Kamchatka it is one of the most eastern parts of Russia and is considered part of Siberia. It is close to Japan and Aleutian Islands. For many years this place was off limits not only to tourists but also to Russian citizens because it was a major military base during the cold war. Temperature ranges from 55 to 60 degrees in the summer to 0 degrees in the winter.

The museum we visited was interesting and had many displays of native peoples before the white man came and displays of what the early settlers wore as children going to school and working adults. Many of the signs in the museum were in both Russian and English attesting to the catering for tourists.

Our visit to the Russian Orthodox Church made for a great photo opportunity. The building is old and in need of repair but inside it is warm and cozy with lots of art. My wife bought and lit a candle for peace in honor of our friend's son Andrew who is serving in Iraq for the third time.

On our drive around town it was obvious that there is a sizeable indigent population. Apartment buildings were in disrepair, broken windows, boards coming off, and patched roofs. In the winter the temperature falls to minus 4 degrees. Washing machines are rare and most of the laundry is done by hand and hung out the window to dry. Lying all over town are car pieces from axel assemblies, to doors, to engines parts. Many of the yards had large, shaggy dogs. In contrast, as we drove near the various Saturday markets, there were many nicely dressed women like you might find in New York or London or Paris while the men did not seem so well dressed or as well off. Most of the many cars were made in Japan with some Korean and a few Russian.

One thing is clear. If one wanted to, they could eat 24 hours of every day and for the most part stay in one restaurant. The buffet serves early breakfast, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight buffet. The variety of food is unending. From French, Italian, German, to American, English, Polish and Greek. The desserts are wonderful and ever changing.

Next stop- Japan and China. Stay tuned.

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