The weather map of the Lower 48 this past summer resembled flames, with red and orange hues denoting temps in the 90s and above, along with 79 wildfires raging across 17 states. In Colorado, June topped 100 degrees four times and, by August, air quality dropped to the worst in the world. The normally pure, bluebird skies of the Rocky Mountains were more polluted than Beijing. 

Haze and smoke obscured views, and the Spandex-clad, uber-athletes in Boulder retreated indoors to their dusty treadmills and Pelotons. Cities in the U.S. broke heat records, power grids, and air conditioning units. The new norm for summers in the west seemed to be a five-alarm scorcher. Red and orange. More than a warning. I could no longer pretend that the place I loved would return to itself. Fall might be okay, but the summers I remembered with lush green grass, blankets of wildflowers, and an afternoon, 4 p.m. rainstorm you could set your watch by—those were gone. 

Each day, I searched the weather map for relief—a mild climate, a place to escape the heat from May to October without leaving the country. I had been looking for years for a second home in Alaska for our family, but it took the summer of 2021 to call the “time of death” on Colorado summers, grieve them, and move on. In September, we bought a piece of land in Kodiak, and our relief was like a fever breaking. Our friends call us climate refugees, which sounds a bit apocalyptic, but might not be far from accurate. We’re privileged to afford to make a leap to an island where summer temps remain in the 50s and 60s, with the occasional 70-degree heat wave.

A multitude of concerns

Of course, blazing temps weren’t our only concern—and we realize that all locations have their share of natural disasters. So, we researched and planned and visited—and second-guessed ourselves and worried. The three times I went to Kodiak to look at the area, the tsunami alarm went off—a test of the emergency system that left me reconsidering building a home on an earthquake epicenter with tremblers as frequent as bear sightings.

An excavator met us at our lot to assure us that the ground above us wasn’t prone to mudslides. An online tsunami evacuation map showed the parcel to be out of range for waves. Still, we knew that a large tsunami could strand us on our spit of land, perhaps for days or weeks, if the single road leading out of the point washed away. We reasoned we could stockpile rations. Get a generator. Store extra water and purifying tablets. We continued to list the other pros and cons. Most of the time, Kodiak had good air quality, but occasionally, volcanic ash drifted like snow through the atmosphere. Drought wouldn’t be a problem. Wildfires tearing through the island seemed unlikely: Kodiak gets an average of 81 annual inches of rain, compared with 38 inches in the Lower 48. We thought about wind. Hurricane-force gusts rip across the Pacific. Our home would need to be built alee and to withstand storms and quakes alike. But that seemed doable. We agreed. We purchased the lot. We dreamed about cool, wet summers with orcas, bears, bald eagles, and salmon—tons of salmon.

Green coastal landscape and a black sand beach visible nearby
The view from our refuge on Kodiak Island. Photo by Michelle Theall.

Our lot sits above high, jagged cliffs overlooking Middle Bay, with no other homes in sight. A trail runs past our property down to a black sand beach, where the prints of Kodiak brown bears meander across. We found paradise, but we have no idea how to build on it. As the second largest island in the U.S. (next to Hawaii), the island has plenty of amenities. But we are immediately warned that most supplies, appliances, even cars, are bought elsewhere and arrive by barge or cargo plane, typically from Seattle. Amazon Prime “overnight delivery” might show up a week later. Our dogs won’t fly, so, if we want to bring them, we’ll need to drive from Anchorage to Homer and then take a nine-hour ferry to Kodiak. Will the ferry let our pets on board? I keep a notebook with these questions.

Building a refuge

We will have to find a reliable general contractor who lives in Kodiak in order to keep our project moving forward and to assemble local crews. Even though we own the lot, camping on it is prohibited, which means staying in a hotel every time we want to oversee progress on the build. We opt for a pre-fab kit home for the cost and ease of construction. We interview three companies, all based in the Northwest. Shipping costs of a pre-fab home to Alaska remain a budgeting question mark in my notebook. We investigate well drilling options, septic system requirements (an expensive, self-contained Lifewater System must be used to keep sewage from leaking through fractured shale and into the water), and the cost to bring electric to the property from the main road. It’s a little daunting, but we believe it will be worth it. Afterall, it seems like more than just a home—it seems like survival, a remote slice of paradise that might save us in more ways than I have pages in my notebook.

We are building a refuge—one that will be ours to share with friends and family, who want to escape from the heat of summers to a place where they might need a jacket in July. And while it may not stay that way, we hope Kodiak will remain a green spot on that red map for some time to come. 

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