KODIAK, Alaska - Most people arrive at this small fishing town in the north Pacific - population about 6,200 - via the state ferry or a short plane ride from Anchorage. But Ralph Perez did neither.
Perez, 53, of San Pedro, and four others cruised into Kodiak's St. Herman Harbor on their Sea-Doo personal watercrafts last week. The coastal fog that had otherwise shrouded the town all day seemingly lifted when they arrived, only to creep back in once they docked. It was a small historical moment in which the five became quite possibly the first to arrive on the small, one-man watercrafts.
Perez and four Alaskans - John Lang, Peter Bucinsky, Gina Poths and Ron Paye - came to Kodiak as part of the "paving the way" trial run tour of The Alaskan Wet Dog Race, a proposed 2,000-mile personal watercraft race seven years in the making from Anchorage south to Kodiak Island, west to part the Aleutians and back east, skirting the north side of the Alaska Peninsula eventually to Anchorage.
Wet Dog's architects hope to someday make the race a kind of Iditarod of the sea, with as many as 500 teams, a $25,000 entry fee and $2 million for first place.
Following Perez and crew is a small boat with some extra supplies, the Memory Maker, and a documentary film crew. Even Martin Buser, the four-time Iditarod champion, joined the route for part of the way.
But stretches of the open ocean - recently made infamous by the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" series about fishing life in the Bering Sea - among other things, make the race exceedingly difficult. Not only do the crew have to carry mountains of extra gear and gas, but the racers plan to call on some towns far smaller than Kodiak, villages of predominantly Alaska Natives that have populations of less than 100, no store and only an airstrip.
Perez, however, is no stranger to watercraft races or racing in general. While living in Washington state, he used to do intensive dirt biking. A switch to the water was relatively easy for him.
"A lot of people make the transition from dirt bikes to Jet Skis. It kind of blends itself well," he said, adding that each feels different but with water racing "you don't come home with broken bones and bruised up. That's how I used to come home all the time."
Though he's only been using Sea-Doos for three years, Perez has participated in a Dana Point to Avalon race and won first place in the amateur division. He said his competitive desire helped push him to get two new craft after his first one only lasted him a month when he first started.
"I wanted to keep going further and further," Perez said. "Other people were going faster than me, so a month later I sold them and got a fast one. I didn't want anybody to pass me ... in my age, I was beating 20-, 30-year-old guys. That felt pretty good."
The Cuba-born, Miami-raised retired Army lieutenant colonel is also a member of the SoCal Watercraft Club. A veteran of the Air Force and Army Reserve, Perez now works for the postal inspection service and is 19 months short of retirement. He calls his job a mix "between a hazmat team and a bomb squad" as he and other members do dangerous mail investigations.
But his trip along coastal Alaska is his first true exposure to the 49th state. Before, he had only briefly been to Anchorage for business. Now he is seeing some of the state's more remote regions, which few Alaskans and even fewer tourists ever see.
He got involved with Wet Dog after seeing its Web site, WetDogRace.com.
"My guys back home were pretty skeptical, so you can see that I'm the only one who's not Alaskan that's up here," he said.
But that has had its advantages, he said. "There are a lot of things they take for granted.
"The scenery is almost like taking in a oxygen rejuvenation, because out there, the senses - everything, you can just smell it - it's so good. Out in the middle of the ocean when we're flying out there, you can smell the pine forest when we're out coming across the land. It feels like it's cleaning you out."
Perez, in his 2008 Sea-Doo GTX 155, and the four Alaskans in their Sea-Doos stay three to five miles offshore to keep clear of protected wildlife areas.
Still, in the Last Frontier, seeing wildlife is inevitable. So far Perez and crew have seen sea otters, sea lions, whales blowing through their blowholes and herds of puffins. Their moose-sighting count was at 13 Monday.
But the ocean itself has assuredly been a challenge so far.
On their way to Kodiak from Port William, Perez said the waves caused him the most chagrin.
"I'm thinking, `Oh, my God! These are huge waves!' We're dropping down two-story, one-story waves. You just can't see the other end," Perez said.
While in Port William, an abandoned cannery north of Kodiak on Shuyak Island, they met the town's population of 3: a 71-year-old man named Dick Holta and his two dogs. Creeping into the area late at night felt like something from a horror movie, Perez said, because they were unsure if someone would appear out of nowhere with a shotgun and a go-away attitude.
But the hospitality turned out to be completely the opposite with Holta, who invited everyone in. Perez said the hospitality of Alaska has amazing: They've been able to leave their gear, valued in the thousands, unattended yet safe. A few have met them with open arms (and free beer and spaghetti) and a genuine interest in their tour.
"There has not been one person that I can say who did not end up going above and beyond," Perez said. "One of the things that we've been saying, which is in joking - and it's kind of an internal thing over here - we've been saying we've been sucking people up in our vortex."
Perez said even some bad things - like their Sea-Doos getting beached in the sand overnight by tides, faulty engines or water leaks - have turned out OK.
"Every event that we've had that the average person might think is bad, everything here has turned into a positive," he said. "There hasn't been one event, no matter it's the freezing pouring rain that we got, whether it's a breakdown that we got or not being able to get in a certain port."
The highlight of the trip thus far?
"What's almost bringing tears to your eyes is feeling like you're almost a damn movie star when you pull into a town like this. You got people lobbying like it's a major event. In a way it will be, one day."