A weekend in charming Seldovia, Alaska

Seldovia, Alaska
Chainsaw carving (Artist: Derrick Stanton)

Seldovia isn’t on an island, but it might as well be—it’s practically surrounded by water, it can only be reached by plane or boat, and its single main street is lined with small businesses owned by locals, with nary a fast food joint to be found.  The minute we stepped off the boat, I felt myself relaxing into the place.  We were in the hands of the locals, and the stresses of daily life were behind us.  There was no place to be and nothing urgent to attend to.  The only thing missing was my flip flops (it was too chilly); otherwise, the trip was perfect.

Like wine and a massage

Seldovia, Alaska
Seldovia Harbor. Note the kayakers returning to the harbor

We went to Seldovia over Labor Day weekend, 2017.  The town’s tourist website describes it as a wild and “out of the ordinary” place that’s great for “curious and thrill-seeking individuals who seek adventures beyond the end of the road.” No doubt this is true; there are intense hikes in the area and plenty of opportunities for kayaking, fishing, and flight-seeing.  But we went for the opposite reason—respite.  The month of August had been incredibly hectic; work was jam-packed with clients and responsibilities, and we’d also done a lot of traveling (including north to the Arctic and back).  We didn’t know we were in need of an escape but upon arriving realized we’d found one.  Seldovia was like a massage and a glass of wine after a long week.  Ahhh.

About Seldovia

Seldovia, Alaska map
(Source: Seldovia.com)

First off, the town is gorgeous.  It sits on Seldovia Bay on the southwestern side of the Kenai Peninsula and is hemmed in by ocean, mountains, and spruce forests that stretch to the water’s edge.

Second, it’s tiny, more of a village than anything.  The population in 2016 was 276 humans and around 50 resident bald eagles.

It’s also compact; most of the town’s businesses are clustered along one road, appropriately named Main Street.  The street runs the full length of town parallel to the waterfront.  The town brags that there are no traffic lights and no big city trappings, such as “banks, auto dealers, attorneys, movie theaters, or super stores.” Businesses are limited to a few locally owned restaurants, coffee shops, and stores.  Everything is small, and everyone, friendly.

Seldovia, Alaska
The view from our room

And it has a bit of the quirkiness that you would hope to find in any small Alaskan town.  We stayed at the Seldovia Boardwalk Hotel, a 12-room inn that overlooks the harbor on one side and Main Street on the other.  Like most businesses, the hotel is locally owned, this one by Jeremiah and Angela Campbell.  It’s is obviously a small operation, and when we arrived no one was present to check us in, as the staff were occupied with the restaurant’s large lunch crowd.

At the front desk, the proprietors had left a a room key and a page of instructions for us.  At the bottom of the page, a handwritten note informed us, “This is the only key I have left for your room.  My last guest forgot to leave it at the front desk when they checked out. Please keep it safe.”  It was an actual key and not an electronic card, and the only one of its kind still in existence!  What a novelty!  Dale stuck it in his pocket and guarded it closely all weekend lest we leave the Campbells keyless upon our departure.

Seldovia, Alaska

 

Seldovia also has a slew of wood carvings scattered throughout, some of them beautiful, some of them bizarre, all of them the product of folks wielding large power tools.  Artists come to town annually for the Labor Day Weekend Chainsaw Carving Competition, which was underway while we were there, and we’ll talk more about this unique event in our next post.  The sculptures add a touch of frontier sensibility to the town.

Seldovia, Alaska
Artist: Derrick Stanton

Seldovia’s history

For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, the area now known as Seldovia has been used by various Native peoples.  Dena’ina Athabascans, Aleuts, Kodiak Koniaqs, and the Chugach people from Prince William Sound moved through and sometimes settled in the area long before the arrival of the first Europeans.

Russians first reached Alaska in the 1740’s, and they quickly began exploiting the rich population of fur-bearing animals found along Alaska’s coasts.  They didn’t do it alone, however; they also forced many Alaska Natives into servitude.  On the Kenai Peninsula, Russian traders harvested the area’s abundant sea otter populations using Alaska Native hunters, including Aleuts and Alutiiqs forcibly moved to Seldovia Bay as well as local Native populations pressed into service.  The men of these tribes had to leave their families for long periods of time, causing anguish and food shortages for those left behind.

As in many other Native Alaskan communities, Russian Orthodox Missionaries also came to Seldovia, working to convert indigenous peoples to the Orthodox faith.  In many cases, the priests also took the time to learn about the culture and traditions of the Natives with whom they were working.  In the Seldovia area, the Native and Orthodox traditions eventually blended together, and religious holidays and celebrations are still celebrated in the community.

Seldovia, Alaska, St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church
St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1891 under the supervision of itinerant priests, who traversed a huge area of southern Alaska—traveling as far away as the Aleutian Islands—via bidarkas and kayaks. The chapel is used intermittently, such as on Russian Orthodox holidays and for weddings and funerals. The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

The U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867 did little to change the Seldovia area.  Europeans, Americans, and Native peoples continued to move to Seldovia Bay, attracted by its rich resources and year-round ice-free bay.  For much of the first half of the 20th century, Seldovia was a thriving community and an important commerce center.  A commercial dock built in 1926 allowed large, ocean-going steamers to dock here, and that, combined with the construction of railroads, made Seldovia a vital shipping hub.

Canneries were Seldovia’s longest-lasting and most significant economic enterprise.  A herring boom in the 1920s-1930s brought workers from Europe and America who settled down and stayed even after the industry collapsed in the 1930s.  After that, salmon, halibut, and crab fisheries continued to make Seldovia prosperous.

In addition to fishing and canneries, more than 50 fox farms were established on the Kenai Peninsula, and many of them used Seldovia as a supply point. Mining and logging industries have also supported Seldovia across the years.

The original town was built along the waterfront, and high tides impeded residents’ ability to move from one end of town to the other.  In 1931, the town built a wooden boardwalk along the waterfront, with businesses and homes placed atop pilings, thus making it possible to traverse the town no matter the tide level.

Then came the earthquake.  As with many Alaskan coastal towns, the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 had a devastating impact on Seldovia, changing it forever. The ground dropped four feet, and water flooded the boardwalk and buildings at high tide, making life miserable and, ultimately, unsustainable. Not long after, amidst much sadness and controversy, most of the boardwalk was torn down and the town rebuilt on higher ground.

Seldovia, Alaska
A remnant of the boardwalk

More than just the damage to its infrastructure, Seldovia’s cannery industry was decimated, and the town lost its status as the main hub for commercial fishing on Kachemak Bay.  That distinction now went to nearby Homer; business shifted there after the Sterling Highway, which connects Homer to Anchorage, was constructed.  It’s hard to compete when you’re not on the road system.

It took a decade for Seldovia to recover, and it never regained its status as an important commercial center.  It’s now a sleepy fishing village and a popular destination for visitors seeking a place that’s off the beaten path.

What to do in Seldovia

Seldovia is compact and easily experienced on foot.  That being said, the town’s webpage lists several taxi services, and you can also bring your car on the state ferry (see below).

We took the self-guided walking tour:

2012-Chamber-brochure-MAP-web-910x1024
Seldovia Chamber of Commerce

We walked Main Street, explored the boardwalk (which is now mostly shops), and strolled through a quiet neighborhood along the Seldovia Slough.

Seldovia, Alaska
City park decorated with wood carvings
Seldovia, Alaska
View of Seldovia Slough from a spot on the boardwalk
Seldovia, Alaska
One of the boardwalk shops as seen from a hillside garden
Seldovia, Alaska
The garden

 

Seldovia, Alaska
The Seldovia Slough

Seldovia, Alaska

 

Seldovia, Alaska

 

Seldovia, Alaska

We also went to the Seldovia Museum & Visitor Center, which explores the history and rich array of cultures that have shaped the area.  Admission is free but donations welcome.

Seldovia, Alaska

 

Seldovia, Alaska Museum
“Tools of the Maritime Trade” display, Seldovia Museum

Seldovia, Alaska Museum

 

Seldovia, Alaska Museum
Beautiful reproduction of an Aleut-style hunting visor, made in 1993 by Andrew Gronholdt

On our last morning in Seldovia, we dragged ourselves away from the comforts of Main Street and hiked the Otterbahn Trail, an easy, 1.2-mile (one way) trek to Outside Beach, on Kachemak Bay.  It was a beautiful walk through undeveloped rainforest and a wonderful way to end our time in Seldovia.

Seldovia, Alaska, Otterbahn Trail
Hiking the Otterbahn Trail on a cool Labor Day morning
Outside Beach

Of course there are other things to do, and here’s a link to some suggestions: 101 Things to Do in Seldovia.

Our accommodations

Seldovia, Alaska

As I mentioned above, we stayed at the Seldovia Boardwalk Hotel. We had originally opted for a room facing Main Street as it was cheaper than one with a waterfront view, but the hotel had a cancellation, and the proprietor asked if we wanted to move across the hall.  Heck yeah!  The room was comfortable and offered wonderful views of the harbor and bay. We saw a variety of birds, including, belted kingfishers, which we recognized by their distinctive, raucous calls.

Seldovia, Alaska
Our hotel as seen from the boat

Food

Not surprisingly, there are only a handful of restaurants in town, and by the beginning of September a few of them had already closed for the season. Fortunately, we still had some terrific meals, most of them at our hotel’s cafe.  The menu was small but the food was absolutely delicious.  We also had a decent meal at the Linwood Bar and Grill, and this is also where we bought our to-go beer.  The Crabpot Grocery, located on Main Street across from our hotel and no bigger than a convenience store, had snacks and staples but would be closing for the winter in a few days’ time.  On our last day, we hung out at the Tide Pool Cafe while waiting for our boat.  The proprietors were incredibly friendly, and they informed us that they would be closing up shop in just a few hours and heading to warmer climes for the winter.  A few places, such as the Boardwalk Hotel and Grill, do stay open year round, but Seldovia’s amenities diminish significantly at summer’s end.

And because it was the end of the tourist season, restaurants were out of random things: my sandwich at the Linwood Grill came sans avocado because there were no more avocados to be had, and the Boardwalk Grill had run out of jelly for my toast.  But that just added to the imperfect charm of the place.

Getting there

Seldovia can only be reached by air or water, and most transport operations are based in Homer.  Several businesses offer air taxi and charter services, and there are multiple options for reaching Seldovia by boat.  First, there’s the Alaska Marine Highway System, and the Alaska State Ferry route between Homer and Seldovia—17 nautical miles across Kachemak Bay—has been designated a Scenic Byway because of the beautiful scenery and rich marine ecosystem.  One can also take the Seldovia Bay Ferry or catch a ride on one of the tour boats that offer daily trips during the summer.

We opted for the latter, taking the Seldovia Wildlife Tour with Rainbow Tours out of Homer.  It’s seven hours round trip, but we split the tour into two, taking the boat to Seldovia on Saturday and then returning on Labor Day, their final tour of the season.  The trip across the bay was spectacular both coming and going and deserves its own post, which we’ll share soon.

~~~~~

We enjoyed our weekend in Seldovia immensely.  Labor Day is the last day of the tourist season, so the vibe in town was an interesting combination of in-the-moment relaxation and a bittersweet awareness that summer was waning.  Winter in Alaska is always nearby, ready to curl up at your feet like a long-slumbering cat, and at no time was that more clear than on a cool and overcast September weekend in a remote Alaskan village.

On Monday afternoon we said goodbye to Seldovia, and summer, hopping on the boat and heading home.  As we crossed Kachemak Bay we saw something that surprised the captain—humpback whales, creatures of the Alaskan summer that should’ve already started the long trip south.  They put on a glorious show for us, breaching over and over again, and we’ll share that moment with you soon.


Resources:
  • Seldovia Gazette, titled like a newspaper but mostly a resource for visitors.  It offered the best information about travel options, amenities, and events.
  • The Seldovia Chamber of Commerce website also offers visitor information.
  • While there we saw references to both the town of Seldovia and to Seldovia Village, and this was confusing until we learned that the latter actually refers to the local Alaska Native people.  The various Native groups that have lived here over the centuries gradually merged into a single people, the Seldovia Village Tribe, which is still very active in the community today, and their website provided me with some useful information, especially about the history of the area.
Random details about Soldovia:
  • Despite its remoteness, the town has cell service and high-speed internet.
  • More about the Boardwalk Hotel: it had free wifi and a community microwave and refrigerator in the hallway outside of the rooms. The restaurant is open 7 days a week for breakfast & lunch and Friday & Saturday evenings during the summer .
  • Like most Gulf of Alaska coastal towns, Seldovia has frequent rain and, in the winter, snow.  Average summer temperatures range between 40° to 65° F and average winter temps are 20° to 30° F.  You can find an in-depth look at Seldovia’s weather here.