Historic Woody Island
by Nathan Lambert
Dense spruce forests covered in moss. Overrun salmon berry bushes. A
deer licking the early morning dew. Tall waving grasses. Fields full of wild iris, lupine,
and forget-me-nots. A low gliding bald eagle. Churning ocean shores. A meadow with
buttercups in bloom. Five freshwater lakes full of trout, beaver, and lily pads. Woody
Island is a true outdoor paradise.
Quickly following several more vertebrae emerged and soon an entire backbone was exposed. Several counselors gathered with increased interest. This certainly wasn't another deer who met his fate during the past winter. The situation had grown to pandemonium. Boys were thrashing violently at the sand trying to unearth their discovery and the girls (and most of the adults) were visibly upset at the situation of looking directly at an early Woody Island ancestor. Frightened with good reason when the skull surfaced, everyone backed away and the campers were able to see close up a piece of living history. A local archeologist was called and came over to the island with a Kodiak police officer. The skeleton was identified as an early inhabitant of Woody who probably died between 70 and 150 years ago. What was this person's life like here on Woody Island and what sort of things did he do? Were they similar to the same sort of activities that still occur today on the island and at Camp Woody? The campers had perked a sudden interest in the early people that had explored the shores of Woody Island.
Every young adventurer's dream is to explore and stay on a deserted island. Motivated by such classics as Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Treasure Island, it is no wonder that such great excitement of discovery lies down every trail and behind every branch. Woody Island is a few short miles outside of the Kodiak harbor and usually visible from most vantage points in the town, but still brings special adventure for young campers because of its exciting past and the absence of other people currently residing on the island.
This two by four mile island has two permanent hermits living on it and two summer homes. The remainder of the thirteen mile circumference island is free to explore and full of clues from the past. People from the earliest settlements in North America landed on Woody Island, life resurged in the late 1800s with a Baptist Orphanage and a small town on the island, and it also has served as a staging ground for military communication during World War II. Now, all that's left is a small Christian summer camp run by the American Baptists providing a place of spiritual and social development for the youth of Kodiak Island.
Driven by the pelt of the sea otter, early Russians moved eastward toward Alaska along the Aleutians. By 1763, Glottof had had reached Kodiak Island. Then in 1784, Shelikof established the first colony on the island in Three Saints Bay. As this fever for more pelts continued Alexander Baranof moved the colony to its present site of Kodiak in 1792. Two quiet miles across from Kodiak, the Russians established an agricultural colony amongst the native villages on Woody Island (officially designated Wood Island by the U.S. Post Office Dept. in 1894). Although not much is known about the early native villages, many evidences of such inhabitants have been found dating back hundreds of years. The 1964 earthquake and following tidal waves have provided us with recent archeological proof of such ancient villages.
Adding to the agricultural colony in 1852 the American Russian Commercial Company established an ice industry on Woody Island. A group of San Francisco businessmen found a profitable way to provide ice to the people in California during the gold rush. They established this ice industry on Woody Island by damming up Lake Tanignak and increasing its acreage substantially. The clear and thick ice served very well for the ice industry. The first iron rails and horses in Alaska were brought to Woody Island to help haul ice and run the horse-powered saw which cut the ice into blocks. The first road in Alaska was built around the island to exercise the horses and the first field of oats was planted for feed.
The American Russian Commercial Company built several ice houses on the island as well as a sawmill that was not for the usual purpose of making lumber, but for the making of sawdust in which to pack the ice. This unique industry went on for several years before the artificial ice machine eventually took over under very odd circumstances. The ice machine was expensive in its early stages and Alaskan ice would have been much cheaper. However, the representatives of the ice machine manufactures were anxious to get their product moving and so paid the American Russian Commercial Company to not send the ice. To make sure that the deal was kept, ice was still cut and stored each winter on Woody Island just to melt in summer. By 1872, the ice machines were economically more productive and so the American Russian Commercial Company ended its work on Woody Island. The ice industry definitely changed the history of Woody Island as well as changing the role Alaska was to play with the United States.
During the busy 1800s. Woody Island had a larger population than Kodiak. This was partly due to the fact that several companies came through Woody during this time in search of the sea otter pelt. Besides the sea otter and ice industries, the Baptist Mission Orphanage became one of the central players of Woody history. The mission was established on Woody Island in 1893 as a response to the community asking for a school (similar jointly supported mission and public schools had been established by the Baptists in nearby Kodiak and Afognak. The Baptists felt that a school as well as a mission for the many homeless and abandoned children in the area was necessary.
And so, under the direction of Professor Roscoe the Mission Orphanage opened its doors to the local children giving them education and raising them to be useful citizens. Within the next twenty years the mission built and expanded their facilities to include the main building with girls quarters and dining room, a boys dormitory, office building, barn, carpenter shop, cannery, and silo. In 1925, the main building was burned by fire, immediately rebuilt, and burned again in 1937. After trying to manage in temporary facilities the mission eventually relocated to its present site on Mission Rd. in Kodiak. Although no longer on Woody Island, the Baptist Mission is still serving the needs of children in the Kodiak area over a hundred years later.
In 1911, the navy built a wireless station on Woody Island consisting of two masts 225 feet high and 400 feet apart. The wireless building was struck by lightning during the volcanic eruption of 1912 and burned down. It was rebuilt and modernized in 1914 to include a range of 1000 miles under favorable conditions. The new masts were anchored in large cement blocks under the ground this time. It is interesting to note that after the earthquake and subsequent tidal activity in 1964, all of the earth had been completely washed away from one of these huge blocks (and this block now serves as hole number five on the Camp Woody Frisbee® golf course.) The radiomen who worked at the station through the years all played into the history of the island and many of their families are still in Kodiak today.
In 1941 Woody Island and the entire Aleutian Island Chain faced an ominous future as World War II loomed into view. For a short time Army personnel set up and ran a sawmill on Woody Island to produce lumber for the building needs of the armed forces. Lumber was rare in Alaska and it was thought that several of the surrounding islands would work well as sawmills. So, after cutting 4.5 million feet of lumber on Woody from March to November 1942, the Army lumber crew moved its operations to Afognak Island.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) greatly added to Woody history for nearly thirty years beginning in 1941. During the war years this communication station played a very strategic role in helping American ships and planes in their fight against the Japanese. World War II and the Japanese came very close to Kodiak and Woody Island during this tense time. The FAA station was first manned by a meager staff of technicians who all stayed in very close dormitory quarters. During the war the number of FAA personnel on Woody Island grew to forty. To make living arrangements more livable a number of couples solved the privacy problem by moving across the island into old Navy buildings.
These people became very creative with their decorating; finding a use for everything they had from barrels to buoys. As many as seven to nine aircraft communicators were needed at a time to furnish the weather and other aeronautical data to pilots twenty-four hours a day. The war demanded that everyone work seven days a week to make repairs to the teletypes, transmitters, radio receivers, boats, and trucks that brought the supplies and equipment to the island. More quarters were greatly needed and, in 1948, a large Navy building on west Woody was converted into seven apartment units. By 1949, two more apartment buildings with five units each were built and once again Woody was home to a small community. The badly needed school was finally built on east Woody in 1951. An enrollment of 27 and a second teacher was enough reason for an addition to the school house in 1957.
Transportation became quite a trick for Woody residents living on the island both then and now. As Yule Chaffin recounts from the FAA days, 'The transportation to and from Kodiak was once or twice a week-maybe. People rode the two-mile stretch of rough road from east Woody to the west dock on flat-beds and in the back of military surplus trucks. The rain, sleet, and snow made the ride both in the vehicles and boats both rough and dangerous at times. Transferring from a rocking boat, and climbing a fifteen-foot ladder at low tide during high winds and storms, was no easy feat.' This fifteen foot ladder and winch system functioned as the primary method of loading and unloading the boat to Kodiak, the Fedair IV.
Throughout the remaining years of the FAA, Darrell F. Chaffin (the manager of operations on the island and later the entire area) continued to make Woody a more attractive place to live. Later both a Remote Controlled Air-Ground facility and a Vortac site were built on the island and eventually needed less and less technicians. These two facilities are still in use today and are maintained by periodic visits from Kodiak. In the late 1960s / early 1970s the State moved its Navy headquarters to Adak and the Coast Guard took over the current base just outside Kodiak. About this same time the FAA moved all of its personnel off the island and in 1979 most of the FAA complex burned to the ground.
When in the 1950s the FAA expended facilities on the east side of Woody Island, the Baptist mission became active on the island once again. Through lots of hard work, they were able to fix up and put the old Navy and Army buildings to good use. Each summer since then, the American Baptist Church has sponsored a non-denominational camp on the island. They have added several more cabins to the facilities since then and are surrounded with a rich living history all around them. Not only does the fun and beauty call to young campers, but the past also plays its part at Camp Woody.
Today Camp Woody offers a place for young campers to come and experience one of the most quaint camp experiences available. They live and interact with the nature and history all around them on hikes, through games, or just meandering along tide pools.
The experience begins by meeting and loading the gear onto skiffs down at the Kodiak City harbor. I've always found it interesting that normal luggage is called 'gear' once you get to any somewhat remote Alaskan location. Somewhere in the process the kids are all loaded into available fishing boats or boat skiffs and ferried across two miles of the Pacific Ocean. Puffins, otters, and occasional whales are sites that these Alaskans are all too well accustomed to.
There is always fun and fellowship to be had on this island. On the way into camp from the dock you can either drive or walk through the largest meadow and the historic site of the town on Woody Island. This meadow has a lagoon on one side formed by the earthquake in 1964, the mighty spruce forest on another side and the still mightier Pacific Ocean on the other two. The meadow that once housed the native village now serves as a kick ball field in between old foundations from the school house, Orthodox church, and the ice storage building. The dock, left from the military and World War II, is also a great attraction and fun to explore. The remaining items in the meadow include a few wispy trees that are home to Bald Eagles and the sand dunes that the campers love to jump and play on.
Each mealtime the campers clamor down to the dining hall which also served as navy and army barracks during World War II. This time campers eat around a warm stove talking and sharing with friends about the adventures from the day and participating in all of the traditional camp dining hall activities. One of the favorite activities each afternoon is canoeing on the historical Lake Tanignak just a few hundred feet from the dining hall. This is a popular activity because it gives the campers a chance to paddle out on their own and work together. Swimmers also swim out to a floating dock and have a great time enjoying the water. Whether canoeing in peaceful stillness watching bald eagles fly overhead or in the midst of a heated splash war with another canoe campers have learned to always be weary of submerged stumps cut from the ice industry days.
An evening game time provides a place for organized recreation and romp time. With space to spare and creative leaders, Camp Woody seems to always be having exciting great adventure games into the Alaskan twilight. Games that include saving a stranded princess on a 'island' from enemy pirates, sneaking up on enemy forts in four-way capture the flag, helping a teammate over the wall to complete the obstacle course, or even exchanging 'furs' to other traders for pieces of the pirate map.
As each day draws to a close the evening worship time is held in the chapel. This is a special time of singing and learning. Often a local pastor or priest is brought over to give a special evening message to campers. This small building that now sits on stilts (that were once used as pilings in the dock), was moved on rollers a mile and a half from the FAA communication station.
As night finally rolls around the last lingering hints of twilight still sit on top of the Three Sisters. This is Alaska and during the summer it never gets dark enough for children to declare bedtime on their own, but by means of sheer exhaustion cabin fires are lit, devotions are read, and bedtime prayers said. For now, just dreams of another exciting and adventurous day must suffice the night through until morning.
Camp Woody provides up to 49 campers per week an opportunity to
learn, grow, and discover in one of the most pristine places on the globe. A full week of
games, hikes, canoes, and food is the dream of every youngster trying to escape parents
and the humdrum of summer.