Living on Kodiak Island: Sustainability, Pristine Wilderness, and the Best Cookie in Alaska

Words and photos by Johnie Gall of Dirtbag Darling and Gretchen Powers of Powers Provisions

Being a military wife isn’t easy. Neither is living on an Alaskan island where your connection to the outside world — and your Amazon Prime delivery — often depends on whether or not planes can land in whatever weather you’re having that day.

Combine both and maybe you can empathize a bit more with Gretchen Powers, a freelance photographer and filmmaker who lives on a Coast Guard base in the remote fishing village of Kodiak, Alaska. The Vermont native lives with her wife Kaleigh, an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard on a USCG Cutter SPAR (a 225-foot buoy tending vessel) and the couple’s dog, Ella. It’s not easy to manage a photography career while dealing with unpredictable schedules and inclement weather, but the rewards come tenfold: gorgeous landscapes, unique friendships, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences in what’s arguably one of the most rugged and beautiful places in the world.

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Gretchen’s been asking me to come visit her in Kodiak for the better part of a year — easier suggested than done when you live nearly 4,500 miles away in eastern Pennsylvania. But with the promise of massive bear sightings, pristine wilderness and King Crab in sight, I booked a few plane tickets and found myself scanning the lobby of the Kodiak airport for a woman I’d really only known through social media until now.

Over the next two weeks, Gretchen, Kaleigh, my husband Brandon, and I would get to know each other pretty well between rounds of cards, calf-achingly steep hikes, and more than a few whiskey drinks. Her life is vastly different than my own in obvious ways, and incredibly like it, too. When curiosity got the best of me, I sat down with Gretchen to talk living on base, what sustainability looks like in a remote region, and where to find best cookie in Alaska (spoiler alert, we both agree it’s in Kodiak).

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Johnie: Does living on base in Kodiak feel isolating or liberating right now?

Gretchen: I like to joke I live in a gated community with really intense security.  We love to host dinners and game nights, so needing to escort our non-military friends onto the base can be a bit of a nuisance, but when I’m home alone while Kaleigh is out at sea, I do appreciate the safety that living on base provides. There’s also the resources, like the exchange and the commissary, and rent comes out of Kaleigh’s housing allowance so there’s no check writing every month! We’ve also made some friends with other “Coasties” who live on base and being able to walk down the road to borrow a lawn mower or share some tacos is pretty sweet.

What challenges do both Kodiak and life as a military wife pose that allow for professional growth as a photographer and filmmaker?

I am constantly faced with a choice: Make my travel and work schedule around Kaleigh’s schedule (which changes all the time), or make my own schedule and chase stories and places that inspire me creatively? I’ve worked harder in the past year than ever before because, in my mind, there is no choice other than to accept the chaos of my “new normal” and try to create great art. I’m navigating a space where I both miss my wife and the routine of our pre-Coast-Guard lives and love the adventures I’ve found on my own.

Living in Kodiak has taught me how to get out even on the worst weather days. I love how the dramatic landscape reflects my wild roller coaster of emotions. I’ve experienced some of my highest highs and lowest lows since moving to Alaska — I’m creating art that is a true reflection of my soul.

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What are some things that are just done differently in Kodiak?

Mail only comes in when airplanes do (which isn’t every day in the winter). The barge comes in once a week with groceries and other provisions, and Amazon Prime is still free but packages can take between four days and four weeks to arrive! The pace of life on an island with one road that extends two hours from point to point (with only one stoplight) is much slower than on the mainland. I very rarely feel in a rush and plans aren’t ever really set in stone since the weather changes dramatically all the time. I don’t remember the last time I actually checked the weather for that reason.

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How has living in Kodiak changing your ideas about sustainability, conservation, and the stewardship?

Kodiak is 99-percent powered by renewable energy, which was super surprising to me since it’s so remote, but at the same time, it doesn’t have the infrastructure in place for much recycling. Moving from a city like Portland, Maine — we took out trash, recycling, compost and bottle deposits — to a place that only has the means to recycle paper products has made it a bit hard for me to swallow my environmentally-aware pride. However, I feel like I’ve started paying more attention to the amount of the trash I produce. Rather than being upset about a system that’s lacking the ability to recycle, I look for more ways to eliminate my own trash by using reusable bags and mugs, Bees Wrap, and metal or plastic straws. I bike or walk to places on base and I’m being conscious of where I source my food from. This summer, we had a small garden where we could grow a little bit of produce, and we eat lots of meat and fish that friends have harvested to reduce the amount of meat we have to buy at the store.

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First stop we should make when we visit Kodiak again?

Java Flats for a breakfast sandwich, a lavender latte, and a cookie the size of your face, then a hike up Middle Sister Mountain or Shelley Lake.

First stop you’re making when you get back to the mainland next time?

Middle Way Cafe and Moose’s Tooth Pizza in Anchorage and Trader Joe’s in the lower 48.

What Toad&Co items do you rely on most in Kodiak? I saw you wear quite a few outfits from them while we were together.

Between the two of us we have six pair of Earthworks pants. They are the most comfortable, durable, dress-up-or-down-able pair of pants for high Kodiak fashion, especially when paired with Xtratuf boots and a rain coat. I love the new skinny style, but Kaleigh prefers the regular cut — either way you can’t go wrong.  Other favorite pieces include the Marlevelous Crew Sweater, the Tangerine Falls Jacket and the Indigo Skye Flannel.

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Random facts about Kodiak you love to tell people….go.

It is the second largest Island in the US.

Kodiak Bears are the world’s largest bears.

During World War II, a bunch of forts were built because we are so close to Japan.

Alaska is only 40 miles from Russia and, no, we cannot see it from our house.

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