My quest for buying a home in Alaska has become an eight-year scavenger hunt utilizing every mode of transportation—complete with getting lost, accidental trespassing, flat tires, the kindness of strangers, and frostbite. But last fall, I finally found what I was looking for. The following photo diary gives you a peek inside my journey through the places that made the final cut.
That’s right—for me, Zillow is an action verb, and I confess I am obsessed with Zillowing. If you’re unfamiliar with the web site, zillow.com allows you to view homes and lands for sale all over the country. Type in a city or state and set your parameters: acreage, price, type of view. A map pops up, showing you all the available properties based on your search details. Select a property, click on the “lot lines” feature, and a satellite aerial image appears showing you the shape and size of the lot, how close the neighbors are, even the proximity to the nearest grocery store, trash dump, or national park. This feature also shows you the estimated property values of the homes and lands surrounding the one you’re considering—so you can see if you’re getting a fair deal. I’ve lost more hours to Zillow than any social media app, clicking away at the little heart icon to save the listings I like, so I can dream about them for a while.
I started working in Alaska eight years ago as an editor, photographer, and photo tour guide. During that time, I logged thousands of miles and images into my memory cache, all the while assessing each destination as a potential place to call my own. Like the picky bruins in the children’s book Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I scrutinized every potential listing from Kaktovik to Ketchikan, and the Interior out to the Aleutians, crossing most of them off my list for unexplainable, undefinable reasons. With the good fortune to travel throughout such a vast and beautiful state, I found myself conflicted: How could I choose a home base out of so many spectacular and distinct regions? And, what was wrong with continuing to be nomadic on my forays to the Great Land?
The short answer: I have an innate desire to own a tiny piece of Alaska, not just visit her, which is ridiculous since I’ve come to believe that we’re all really just squatters on this planet. We can never truly own it. I admit, like many of our readers, I’ve romanticized that perfect cabin near the water, with unending views, my only neighbors bears, moose, and bald eagles, a place of solitude, escape, and connection with nature. With those broad parameters set, I concluded with this definitive: I would simply know it when I saw it.
Lake Clark & Katmai
My first requirement was that the place have bears. Not just rumors of bears or the occasional bear sighting, but ideally, coastal browns strolling right past my window. Unfortunately, my favorite bear areas on the coast of the Alaska Peninsula around Katmai and Lake Clark had only a few properties for sale, and they were too remote and raw for development. My company, Wild Departures, runs wildlife photo tours in those areas, so if I couldn’t live there, I’d still need a home base with quick and easy access to those national parks.
Another requirement: I needed an endless, panoramic view of mountains and water to feed my soul. Homer and surrounding towns like Anchor Point overlook Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay, with existential views of Redoubt and Iliamna’s snow-capped volcanoes. Homer also emits a bohemian, artist kind of vibe. The Spit juts into the middle of the bay, with 360-degree vistas, including whale spouts, sea otters, and numerous bald eagles. I’ve stayed in Homer in every season of the year, checking out plots of land high on the cliffs overlooking the inlet, sitting with the experience, waiting for what would feel like home. Though I never saw a bear and despite the throngs of summer tourists, this sunny nirvana spoke to me. Homer offered great restaurants, bars, shops, and adventures. It remains one of my favorite places to visit and play while in Alaska, with a view that stands above all in the Great Land.
I run bald eagle trips in Haines during the fall, when hundreds of raptors feed on the last of the salmon run. Standing on the shores of the braided Chilkat River, I’ve photographed eagles with locked talons, listened to wolves howling beyond the fog at dawn, and seen one or two good-looking bears.
The spires of the Cathedral Peaks, the backdrop en route to the eagle preserve, feel sacred. Haines remains a small, authentic Alaskan town despite the regularly scheduled cruise-ship tourists descending for day trips. After several visits, I stayed a month out the road, testing the location to see if it would stick. In the end, there were very few places for sale, and because Haines has limited road access and is hemmed in by the Inside Passage, the Canadian border, and the mountain range, most of the homes I found were clustered together.
I realized it wasn’t just a town I was looking for, but the right parcel in that town—which in a state with homesteaded properties passed down through generations, might not be available for decades. I got the feeling that once you lived in Haines, you held onto your piece of paradise with a talon-like grip.
Known for bald eagles and its Fortress of the Bear facility, Sitka checked more than a few boxes in my hunt for home. Views stretched into the Pacific, with tide pools of colorful starfish and jagged rock formations. I taught photography on a National Geographic ship out of Sitka for a month and rented a cabin overlooking a bay with a double waterfall cascading down the face of a hanging glacier.
Sitka’s deep and respected cultural history, with the Sheldon Jackson Museum and totem park, impressed upon me a depth of tradition stretching back thousands of years. During my time in Sitka, it rained a lot, but that added to an atmosphere of mystery and nuance. Plus, because of the cruise ship tourists at this port, the city provided plenty of great restaurants and breweries for shelter and libations, without ever losing its remote, edge-of-the-ocean feel.
Another Kenai Peninsula favorite, Seward, won me over. The place teems with marine wildlife, following the shores of Resurrection Bay out into the tidewater fjords. Exit Glacier, easily accessed by road and then footpath, lights up seemingly from the inside out, flowing into the Resurrection River toward town. Bald eagles and sea otters are as pervasive as the RVs. A handful of great restaurants, coffee shops, and art galleries line the few postcard-perfect streets of downtown. Beyond those selling points, Seward provides access to one of Alaska’s true, unspoiled gems: Kenai Fjords National Park. Hop a boat and watch calving glaciers, breaching orcas and humpbacks, and diving puffins within a scenic environment like no other.
I’m not sure why it took me eight years to get to Kodiak, a place with its own isolated sub-species of coastal brown bears. Afterall, the second-largest island in the U.S. is fairly easy to reach by ferry from Homer or a flight from Anchorage. It took a listing on Zillow for me to, almost on impulse, book a flight, a hotel, and a rental car during the less-than-optimal season of October in Alaska. Because of COVID, not everything was open, but Kodiak resonated with authenticity. Yes, people visited here, but it didn’t feel like a town fabricated for tourists.
I walked beaches with bear prints embossed into the sand. Bald eagles soared overhead. The views across the Pacific led to small islands with rocky cliffs. And, even in October, remnants of a green summer remained. The terrain was unlike any I’d seen elsewhere in Alaska…lumpy and diverse. That’s the only way to put it. The lot I came to see was inside a new development, which would become a gated community—a touch high-brow for Alaska, as if Oprah might one day decide to live here. The owner showed me the property on an ATV. I toured several available sites, most a bit more than two acres, each with a fairly limited building envelope. I hiked behind trees, looked over cliffs, imagined the line-of-sight to other potential homes that would be built. Mostly, I fell in love. A neighbor’s home had a huge bald eagles’ nest. Coves beneath my favorite lot had private black sand beaches where a bear did laps each morning. Sea otters, whales, and puffins would all be seen from my window, along with jaw-dropping rocky crags. I drove the island end to end, stopping at various viewpoints. I visited the Kodiak Brown Bear Center, a Native-owned lodge near Karluk. Bears. Everywhere.
Kodiak had that special something that called to me. I didn’t want to visit or fly over. I wanted to roost. I wanted endless days to explore. As I write this, I have plans to bring my family out to see the lot with hopes that they’ll love it as much as I do. For now, it’s enough for me to know that it exists, that it is waiting, and that it feels like home.