One of the great things about traveling Alaska by land is the willingness of other travelers to start sentences with “I found this great little…” or “You should definitely check out…”
Not that you really need an influx of this kind of information — here in the Last Frontier there are not all that many roads to choose from — but it’s still reassuring to know that what’s on your radar has the thumbs-up from independent sources. And so, by chatting to strangers, we cemented our plan to spend the next couple of days in Homer, before making our way back up to Soldotna for the salmon run and Hobo Jim.
Map Credit: www.kenaipeninsulabba.com/
In truth I was a little worried that Homer would disappoint — simply by falling short of my unfairly lofty expectations. For one thing, it had come up several times in print while I was researching Alaska, and always in glowingly favourable tones, often peppered with a hint of “Homer is awesome, but don’t tell anyone about it or it’ll become overrun with tourists”. For another, everyone I’d spoken to in Seward had either just come from there and loved it, or was on their way there and excited about it. Finally, when I stumbled across a New York Times article that described the outer reaches of Homer as “too rough and too weird to be a tourist trap”, nothing could have kept me away from it.
Making note of several places on the way down the Kenai Peninsula (for soon we would be back this way), we drove on toward the end of the land mass, finally rounding the top of a hill and seeing Homer stretched out before us. It’s quite something. In the far distance, across the fjord, out of the ocean there arises a chain of enormous mountains, snowcapped, many of them cradling massive glaciers — all of which are, sadly, in a rapid retreat. On the near side of the fjord, the quaint and small town of Homer with its library and school and gas stations and restaurants nestles quietly into the hillside. Beyond Homer — unfortunately we never made it that far — are a series of small Russian villages and their Russian Orthodox churches, and people in traditional Russian clothing (a few of which we did see strolling around Homer). And, stretching out for five miles into the ocean, a gravely, sandy, pebbly outcrop of land — the Homer Spit.
Setting up camp down on the Homer Spit was an option, which we investigated as we drove down through this weird wonderland, but after feeling the power of the wind coursing through the channel we decided to look for somewhere a little less likely to see our tent kited off to Hawaii moments after we’d pitched it. So we journeyed back to the mainland, up onto the hillside. The campsite we eventually found was awesome, but don’t tell anyone about it or it’ll get overrun with tourists.
Paying It Forward, And Now Needing To Do So Again
At the site next to us, a retired man from Minnesota, who divides his time between Alaska and Canada, was having trouble putting up his tent on his own. We helped him out. It was a tent he’d bought in the 1960s and used once, then packed away for all these decades. So it was equal parts fascinating — seeing how cumbersome and heavy tents were back in those days, and difficult — it took the three of us at least half an hour to figure out. That done, we’d not only paid forward the breakfast our friend Marc had bought us in Seward, but we’d also made a new friend, Mick.
Mick is an avid fisherman, a fountain of knowledge on all things Kenai, generous with his guidance and his things. On the evening of the day we’d helped with his tent, he brought over a few local Alaskan beers and we drank together at our campfire as we talked for hours about nearly everything, but mostly fishing. He was kind enough to give me a setup (swivel, leader, weights, hook) he’s used in the past with success on the Russian River to try out on the Kenai River when we went back up that way. This is just how it is in Alaska.
The Homer Spit
Before we would make that journey back north, however, it was time to re-visit the Homer Spit. I had to make sure that what we’d seen down there before, while looking for a place to sleep, was real, and not some hypnagogic flash of rabbit-hole fancy. I am happy to report that it was, indeed, very real. And, just as the New York Times writer had put it, rough and weird. Magically so. It was everything I hoped it would be and more.
The scraggly land mass, all that’s left of a moraine set down by a long-since melted glacier, looks like it’s about to be swept over by a high tide at any moment. It never rises very far above sea level — a few feet at most — but this hasn’t deterred people from building on it. What’s really odd about this is why. Alaska has another 34,000 miles of shoreline at its disposal, yet for some reason, out here in the cold and the wind and the oftentimes rain, a small enclave of weirdness thrives. People actually live here. I can’t think of another country — in fact I can’t think of another part of this country — where a piece of beach like this would be anything other than left alone, an anomaly that people look at from a distance and say, “huh” before carrying on with their day. Not here. Not in Alaska. In Alaska, they built a tarred road that extends out from the peninsula, all the way to the end of the spit, where it terminates at a place called “Land’s End” in case anyone gets there and isn’t quite sure.
Along the way to Land’s End, abutting the road on both sides, are wooden boardwalks raised up on stilts, lined with halibut fishing charter after restaurant after souvenir craft store after halibut fishing charter.
Out here, in the driven icy ocean mists, you really are in the middle of nowhere; you truly are, as they say in Alaska, on the Last Frontier. You’re in a land of crab harvesters and halibut fishermen who risk their lives in rough seas daily to ply their trade. It’s a land of people who can tie knots in their sleep; who grow up playing in real boats on a real ocean, learning to read its impetuous moods from an early age.
It’s not all testosterone and dead fish, however. A place this beautiful and this strange, simultaneously so charmingly agreeable, and yet so climactically boisterous as to make you feel unwelcome, is bound to attract its fair share of artists, drifters and hippies. Thankfully, it has.
Directly behind a fish-cleaning station (read: large outdoor concrete table supporting either a huddled bunch of fishermen removing the guts, heads, and tails from their catch; or a flock of screaming seagulls descending in a blitzkrieg to devour said removed fish parts — or both), there looms this bastion of artistry where daily live theatre is performed. Believe me, it’s a strange sight to see out here in Fishing Charter Land, where the smells and the sounds in the air bring to mind anything but thespian board-treading. It seems so out of place here on the Homer Spit, yet, somehow, it fits in perfectly.
Look closely and you’ll see that a bald eagle did me the kindness of coming to rest on top of that pole for a brief moment as I was about to take the picture. It posed for a quick close-up too, before soaring off again into the vast Alaskan sky.
In the cool of the evening we went down to the sprawling, empty beach, listening to the wind, breathing in Alaska, contemplating our next move — back up the Kenai Peninsula in search of salmon.