Philip Tschersich can’t sit still. Cannot and will not. His idea of a day well spent is flying out to some remote village on Kodiak, shouldering a backpack, storming through salmonberry bushes and over alpine ridgelines, collapsing in a tent and then doing it all over again. And again. And again.
His personal hell is sitting on a beach somewhere, quietly thumbing through a book as the tide rolls in.
That urge to move has propelled Tschersich (pronounced “chair-sik”) all around the Kodiak Archipelago, from the northernmost shores of Shuyak Island to the southern reaches of Cape Trinity and nigh everywhere in between. In a place full of adventurers, his resume gleams.
He’s sea kayaked around the entire archipelago, for one. He once paddled from Shuyak to Homer, and had so much fun he did it again a few years later. He’s criss-crossed the island on foot and in a packraft: Alitak to Larsen Bay, Old Harbor to Kodiak, Old Harbor to Larsen Bay, and Kodiak all the way to Alitak.
He once skied from Old Harbor to Kodiak.
“I think he’s unique anywhere,” said Andy Schroeder, executive director of Island Trails Network and a friend of Tscherich’s. “And I certainly don’t know anyone who’s pulling off the kind of stuff he is around here.”
Not only that, he’s documented many of his trips with video cameras. They’re mostly just fancy journals to him, but he does post them online, and has become well known in Kodiak’s outdoor community because of it. But far from wanting to go elsewhere or feel satisfied with what he’s done, Tschersich says he has much more of Kodiak to explore.
“If anything, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for what this place has to offer,” he said. “As long as my body holds out, I’ll keep traipsing around and doing stuff.”
Because what’s the alternative? Sit still?
Tschersich grew up in Oregon. His parents moved to Kodiak after he graduated high school, so he started coming up during the summers while he was at Colorado College. His father, Hans, was the radiologist at the hospital for many years.
He was familiar with the outdoors growing up, heading out to camp and raft with his family from a young age. Alaska wasn’t some sort of dream for him. Things just fell into place.
One of the professors at the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center was looking for a graduate assistant for some research projects, and approached Tschersich to ask for his help.
“It was kind of a means to an end to get to stay in Kodiak and get a degree,” Tschersich said. “At almost every stage of my life, there wasn’t really a plan. It was just like ‘Oh, that seems like the path of least resistance, let’s go do that for a while.’”
Eventually, that led to a job with Alaska Fish and Game doing salmon management. For the last 10 years, however, he’s done research on shellfish and groundfish.
For example, he helps answer questions about how many black rockfish could be sustainably harvested from certain areas of the archipelago, then ferries that information along for fisheries management.
Sea kayaking was his gateway into the wilder side of Kodiak. Tschersich had never kayaked at sea before coming to Kodiak, but soon he was taking trips around Spruce Island or touring Marmot Bay.
Longer trips followed. In 1996, he paddled all the way around Afognak Island. Then, a few years later, he went all the way around the entire Kodiak Archipelago.
It was almost an accident. His father Hans wanted to go visit some set-netting friends in Uganik Bay, along the northern coast of the island. Tschersich came along.
The pair took a couple of days to work their way over. There was no talk of circumnavigation. Hans, however, had a folding kayak. Tschersich didn’t. So when it was time to head for home, Hans was able to pack his kayak into the mail plane and fly home. His son had to paddle back.
Instead of heading back the way they’d come, Tschersich decided to explore Uyak Bay, the next big bay system to the west.
He paddled through the area and restocked his food supplies at the mercantile at Larsen Bay.
“At that point, I had to make a decision,” Tschersich said.
Behind him was the shortest way home. In front was miles of uninhabited coastline, all the way down to Alitak, at which point he’d be halfway around and might as well just keep going.
There is something inside him that despises seeing the same thing twice. He likes loops, routes where he can see more things, not just both sides of the same rock or crossing a bay in the other direction. The weather was fairly good. He had food, having stocked up in Larsen Bay.
“So I figured, let’s just keep going,” Tschersich said.
It took him two more days to reach Low Cape, south of the Ayakulik River. The weather soured, so he carried his kayak over a narrow isthmus to Olga Bay, then paddled to Alitak. From there, he picked his way all the way around the southern side of the island, picking up provisions at villages and canneries. By the time he made it back to town, he’d been gone 21 days.
“I just kind of wandered my way around the island,” he said.
Tschersich insists this is not as crazy as it sounds. Civilization, or something like it, wasn’t ever that far away, even on Kodiak.
“As wild as Kodiak is, there’s always a cabin somewhere, there’s a float plane going overhead, there’s a boat going by,” he said. “As wild and remote as a lot of Kodiak feels, once you’ve spent a bunch of time out there it feels less wild and less remote. There’s like signs of humanity basically everywhere.”
The first time he paddled to Homer was sort of an accident as well. He’d spent a week on Marmot Island with a friend, hiking and paddling around. When the boat came to pick them up, Tschersich still had some food and didn’t really feel like leaving.
So he paddled up to Shuyak Island and spent some time with people who were fishing there. He went to the state park office and called his parents to have them buy food from Safeway and ship it to him on the next re-supply plane. A few Shuyak visitors went home and left him their food. He started looking north.
“You can see the Barrens off in the distance and you’re thinking, ‘Oh that looks doable,’ and you’re looking beyond that and it’s the Kenai Peninsula and it’s kind of hard to see but it looks doable,” Tschersich said.
As “doable” as it may have looked, the area is known for rough water. The currents are strong. Bad weather rolls through all the time. But years before, Tschersich had taken the ferry to the mainland to travel around. At 11 o’clock at night, he stepped out on the deck of the Tustumena and, to his surprise, looked out on seas that looked like a mirror.
“You could see a puffin taking off like a mile away. It was absolutely glassy,” Tschersich said. “It never even occurred to me that the weather could be that nice and calm in that location.”
That was a valuable lesson. Back on Shuyak in August, he waited four days for the right weather. When it finally arrived, paddle met water early in the morning. By one in the afternoon, he’d paddled all 25 miles to the Barren Islands, a scattering of islands halfway between Shuyak and the Kenai. Then he pulled out his radio to listen to the weather report. Fog was rolling in. So he pressed on and made landfall on the Kenai Peninsula later in the day.
“I think that’s the farthest I’ve ever paddled in a day. It was like 42 miles or something,” Tschersich said.
It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, however, that Tschersich made his first big trip over land.
Flying is the easiest way to get around Kodiak. Weather permitting, taking a boat might be the next easiest. Walking is probably the hardest. Anyone who has ever hiked anywhere on Kodiak knows about the tangled thickets of salmonberry and alders that crowd the valleys and creeks of the island. If you can get out of the sea of brush, the alpine country is somewhat more inviting, but the slopes are steep and often blanketed in snow. The rocks are jagged.
“This is a tough place to get around if you don’t have a trail. And there’s not a whole lot of trails,” Tschersich said.
He decided, nevertheless, that he wanted to hike out to Uganik from town. He poked and probed into the island, doing day hikes and overnight trips behind Bells Flats and trying to chart a course to the high alpine behind Crown Mountain and Terror Lake.
The trip, his first through the heart of the island, was brutal.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Tschersich said.
The brush was endless at times. He “swam through it for miles and miles” at some points. A snow slope above Terror Lake “scared the crap out of me,” he said. The sun was merciless in the alpine snow, both beating down and reflecting up. He got sunburned on the inside of his nose. But he made it.
“I was in pretty good shape, but I felt like every tendon in my body had, like, doubled in length just from crawling through brush for like miles and miles,” Tschersich said. “But as terrible as the experience was, it was also kind of great … I kind of felt the enormity of being in the middle of the island, and I don’t want to say it was an overwhelming sensation, but that was the first time I really felt really, really, tiny.”
The Uganik trip was one of the first where he started seriously documenting his travels. He had always taken photos, but once they were stashed away into an album somewhere, he rarely looked at them. Shooting video was a more engaging and fun medium.
The end product from the Uganik trip was more of a slideshow. A kayak trip around Afognak incorporated more video. He made compilation videos of him snowboarding or cycling.
But it got more serious on the land trips that followed. For the next one, he flew to Alitak and hiked over to Larsen Bay. The south end of the island is not so brush-choked, so that wasn’t quite so difficult. Then it was Old Harbor back to Kodiak, which had its tricky moments, like wading through salmonberry swarms at the head of Kiluda Bay, but was otherwise not so bad.
All the while, Tschersich was filming. He’d set up a camera in a cool-looking spot, walk past it, then go back and grab the camera. He shot bears trundling through valleys and goats scaling cliffs. The videos, he said, served as a richer sort of journal, with sounds and wind and movement.
“It’s honestly for my own consumption … I like to go back and watch my own videos. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but that becomes your memory of your own experience,” Tschersich said.
Still, he posts them to a Vimeo page, where a few have racked up more than 10,000 views. He could probably have 100,000 followers on Instagram if he wanted, but he hates social media. The videos are for him. To the extent they are for others, it’s only to show what is, in theory, possible.
Finishing the legs between Alitak and Larsen Bay and Old Harbor to Kodiak left the leg of Old Harbor to Larsen Bay as “the next logical thing to do” because that would mean he’d hiked the whole length of the island in segments.
That trip stands out to Tschersich for two reasons. One, it’s one of the most beautiful trips he’s done on the island. Two, he’s never doing it again.
It might seem, to some, that what Tschersich does is reckless. He breaks two of the cardinal rules in the outdoors bible — don’t go out alone, and stay on the trail — on just about every trip he takes.
What he does is dangerous and not recommended to anyone reading this. His appetite for risk is certainly higher than average. But that’s not the main ingredient in his success. Much more important is his ability to plan. And even on the trips he doesn’t plan, like the trip to Homer, he thinks about risk and reward all the time.
Weather is the biggest factor. Bad weather on Kodiak is part of life, but when you are Philip Tschersich and want to hike more than 50 miles across the interior of Kodiak, weather is everything.
His job allows him to be flexible. He’s in the field a lot, and that time is locked in. The other time is more open, if he wants to leave and do a trip when the weather is nice. This is not something everyone has the luxury of doing.
“That’s probably the thing working most in my favor. I can be really picky about when I do my trips,” Tschersich said.
He hasn’t yet had to scrap plans. He just moves it up a week until it’s nice outside.
Others in Kodiak’s outdoor community admire his ability to gauge risk and know his limits.
“He’s a very careful planner. He’s opportunistic. He looks and almost builds the whole thing around a weather window. So he’s very careful in choosing his weather,” Schroeder said.
“He is very good at what he does and he does not push the envelope, so to speak, within his own abilities,” said Patrick Saltonstall, archaeologist at the Alutiiq Museum and a longtime adventure companion. “He knows his limits and knows exactly what he’s capable of.”
If things did ever get bad, Tschersich carries a satellite locater on all his trips, though he says he’s never gotten close to pushing the button to call for help.
But long before he starts looking for good weather, Tschersich learns as much as possible about where he’s going.
Google Earth is a good starting point. That can tell him about terrain and vegetation. He gets snow news from a website called Sentinel Hub Playground, which broadcasts daily satellite images of just about everywhere on Earth. That can tell him what kind of gear he will need.
If he’s going to be traveling near the coastline, he’ll visit a website called ShoreZone. After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decided it would be helpful to have a complete archive of Alaska’s coasts in the event of another disaster.
Somewhat remarkably, researchers flew around the entirety of Alaska’s coastline, at low tide, and filmed and photographed what it looked like. ShoreZone holds that archive, so anyone can virtually explore any coast in Alaska. That’s helpful if you want to visit, camp or hike off certain beaches on Kodiak, as Tschersich does.
No amount of research, however, could prepare him for the difficulty that the Old Harbor to Larsen Bay traverse posed. Near a place called Low Pass, a gap that crosses the mountains that run down the spine of the island, Tschersich ran across a boulder field. Mountains had coughed up rocks that blanketed the ground in front of him.
But the rocks have been there long enough that a layer of soil has accumulated on top of them, thick enough to support plant life.
“It’s basically salmonberries up to your eyeballs or over your head, but growing over boulders and so you’re possibly falling down between boulders and you’re totally blind. You can’t see your feet at all,” he said. “The danger of breaking your leg or injuring yourself, I just thought it was an unacceptable risk.”
He made it through, but isn’t heading back to that part of the island anytime soon. Steep slopes, too, he deems too risky. He won’t climb Koniag, the highest peak on the island, with its glaciers and crevasses.
“Parts of this island I will not set foot on, because I find it utterly terrifying,” he said.
The amount of planning and this mindset mean there have only been a few times, in all his travels, when Tschersich has felt like his life was in danger. Both were in a sea kayak.
One was paddling around the Kenai Peninsula when he got caught in some bad weather north of Nuka Island on the west side of the peninsula.
The other was on his trip all the way around Kodiak. He was camped in Lazy Bay on the far end of the island, waiting for good weather to paddle around Cape Trinity, the southernmost point on Kodiak, and head up the southern coastline.
Good weather arrived, after a storm blew through. He got restless and pushed off through Alitak Bay to get around Trinity. The good weather didn’t last. As he approached the cape, swells built. But as he turned toward land, the swells changed into huge curling waves hammering the rocky shoreline.
When the waves hit the rock walls of the cape, they’d reflect back out at angles to the incoming waves. Incoming waves met those reflected waves, causing some to rise and some to fall, all unpredictably. He’d never been in a sea that violent, that strange.
He fought his way out and eventually made landfall, but the experience stuck with him.
“I’m sure I was within a whisker of dying,” he said.
It’s been years since he did a big sea kayaking trip. The strain on his body is too intense, plus he’s taken up packrafting on inland rivers or in calmer waters closer to shore. It’s not the only thing that’s changed over the years.
When he first moved to Kodiak, Tschersich remembers looking at the mountains around town and thinking how wild and remote and distant they all seemed. Thirty years and dozens of trips criss-crossing the Emerald Isle later, they seem a little less so.
As he’s gone farther and farther afield, the island feels smaller and smaller.
“After the dozenth time you’ve been up a mountain, it seems familiar and not so wild anymore and very accessible. But the next mountain seems like that’s where wilderness starts, over there. And then you go visit there a bunch of times,” he said.
Today, there are only a few places where Tschersich said he feels small. Shuyak Island is one. Being deep, deep in the heart of the island is another.
“There’s sort of an immensity to it, there’s a poignancy to being out there,” he said. “But a lot of the rest of the island doesn’t feel so wild and unknown. It’s so much of the terra incognita that it was when I first started going out there.”
He’s also been a big part of taming parts of the island for others. When he first moved here, there wasn’t even a trail up North Sister. Hikers were rare. This year, 1,200 people signed up for the Adjust Your Altitude challenge to climb seven peaks on the road system. That hiking would be considerably less pleasant if not for Tschersich and others who worked clearing the trails of vegetation.
He was a long-serving president of Island Trails Network. Every summer, alongside the stunning trips across the island, he does the sweaty work of hauling a brush cutter up and down trails around the island, slicing through salmonberry bushes.
Tschersich will be 50 in a few months. He can, ever so slightly, feel his body slowing down. He does not plan on stopping. But his mode of travel might change.
Sometimes he thinks about Mike Sirofchuk and Stacey Studebaker, two local folks who are equally passionate about the outdoors but take a slower approach.
“They’re the ones who will go out and set up a base camp, and they’ll read and go out and collect plants and do some botany and do some ornithology. They’re very science-oriented but also backcountry savvy. And they’re good at going to a place and exploring it thoroughly,” he said. “Someday I’d like to train myself to slow down and enjoy a place longer and not get to camp and immediately be stir crazy.”
So who knows, maybe he will find himself on a beach someday, reading a book. But not anytime soon.
“Maybe it’s just habitual, but the experience I’m used to is moving, not stopping,” Tschersich said.