Narrow Cape, the beach at Burton’s buffalo ranch, is a place on Kodiak I return to often. This is, without a doubt, the end of the road – as far out into Kodiak’s wilderness that you can come by car. Indeed, before the Kodiak Launch Complex was built in the late 1990s, the road was sometimes impassable. Back then, the 45-mile trip from Kodiak to Narrow Cape could take two to three hours.
In the late 1980s, the only paved roads were in the city. “The Road,” as it is called, was only gravel, and often riddled with deep holes and large rocks that had to be carefully avoided. The trip was long and tedious, and very few people ever bothered to visit Narrow Cape.
To get to Burton’s ranch, you drive east from the city along the winding road that follows the rugged coastline, rounding three inlets, Womens, Middle and Kalsin Bay. With all the twists and turns, the distance is more than doubled, but behind every curve awaits a new awe-inspiring view. The steep mountain slopes are blanketed in plush, green vegetation, dotted with wildflowers in white, blue, red, and yellow.
Just before turning off toward Burton’s ranch, the road passes Pasagshak Bay, a cove that, in the right light, resembles a tropical sea. There are always at least one or two people fishing in the Pasagshak River, which empties into the bay. During the Silver salmon run, the riverbanks are crowded with eager fishermen from Kodiak.
After Pasagshak, the road turns up into the mountains where the buffalo graze. Twenty years ago, when the road was at its worst, it was necessary for someone to walk ahead to guide the driver past the worst of the holes and rocks. Just before reaching the ranch, the road crosses a small creek. Today there is a bridge, but when I first came out here, there were only a few logs thrown across the ravine on which to cross.
Visiting the ranch used to mean a lot of extra wear and tear on the vehicle. Several times I’ve had not one but two flat tires driving from the ranch. Once, when I was approaching Narrow Cape, we heard a loud crash followed by a nasty crunching noise under the car. Jumping out to inspect the damage, I saw that the exhaust system had caught on a huge rock. Carefully, I put the car in reverse and backed up slowly, but the exhaust pipe was torn loose. After that, the car sounded like a Formula 1 race car.
The first time I visited Burton’s ranch, I felt like I’d entered a time warp. Animals wandered freely between the rugged buildings. Horses stood, saddled and ready for use. Until the late 1990s, the horse was the primary mode of transportation on the ranch. Ranch owners Bill and Kathy Burton and their son, Buck, were living the life I’d dreamed of as a boy. The first time I met Bill, it was like reuniting with a long-lost friend. For Bill, no one was a stranger.
Bill Burton came to Kodiak from Florida in 1966, to work at Joe Beaty’s ranch by Narrow Cape, which at that time was a traditional cattle ranch. The following year, Bill and his wife, Kathy, decided to buy the ranch from Joe and stay on Kodiak.
“It was a constant struggle against the bears,” Bill explained. “Raising cattle on Kodiak is hard, they are easy prey. When I bought the ranch, bear hunting was not very regulated, and poaching was fairly common. But there are fewer cattle owners today, and shooting bears to protect livestock is no longer accepted.”
“In 1979, bears killed 127 of our cattle,” he continued. “We had to make a difficult decision – quit or try something else. We decided to stay, and the following spring, we bought 40 head of buffalo.”
Unlike cattle, buffalo retain their natural instincts and are better equipped to defend themselves against bear attacks. A bear that has once approached an angry buffalo will seldom make the same mistake again.
Exchanging cattle for buffalo proved to be a profitable venture. Not only can the animals protect themselves, but the meat is also more valuable, and the bulls are attractive trophy animals for hunters. Today the herd has grown to over 500 head and is the largest buffalo herd in the state.
The ranch is enclosed by a high mountain range that meets the ocean. There is no need for fencing and the buffalo roam freely. The road out to Pasagshak Bay is the only breach in the natural enclosure. When too many buffalo have wandered off, the Burtons gather a posse on horseback to drive the animals back over the Pasagshak River and up through the passage where the road winds along the bay. I’ve participated in a few of those drives. Sitting on horseback, driving a herd of buffalo through one of the most scenic areas on earth has been the fulfillment of all my boyhood dreams.
Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” purchase it here.
At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be showing films from my 35+ years on the island. Meet Bill Burton and many other “old timers” in the film Voices of Kodiak. See festival site for more information.