Exploring Kachemak Bay with the Alaskan Center for Coastal Studies: Part One

                On the southwestern edge of the Kenai Peninsula is the small fishing town of Homer, Alaska. We had heard that it was a good jumping off point for expeditions into the national parks on the opposite side of Cook Inlet, so one day we drove down to see what we could scrounge up. If we could cross over to Lake Clark or Katmai, we stood a good chance of seeing the world-famous gatherings of brown bears that make all the highlight reels of Alaska.

The Sterling Highway, which hugs the western coast of Kenai, gives lots of great views of the snow-covered mountains on the other side of the Inlet. Along the way, we saw a moose crossing the road and more bald eagles than we could count. But even with the views and wildlife, the highway became a bland stretch of road after the first trip. It reminded me of staying on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It doesn’t take more than one drive past the same miniature golf courses and t-shirt shops to dull the mind.

Our first visit to Homer was a bust. We visited a little nature center in the mountains called Earl Wynn and had a nice walk among the spruce trees on a boardwalk. We spotted birds and had fun watching a pair of Canada Jays fighting in the treetops, but it was pretty tame. Down at the shore, along the spit, which is a long strip of gravel and sand that juts out into the sea, we tried multiple tour companies that offered expeditions across the Inlet. None of them could do it for less than a thousand bucks. I’m sorry, but I’m not paying more than I paid to fly to Alaska to jump across a puddle in Alaska. We walked along the beach a little and saw some sea otters out in the water, but otherwise there wasn’t much for us on Homer Spit.

It was my fault to some extent. When we went home, I did some research and found some interesting options. There weren’t any reasonably priced ways to visit the national parks, but there were some fun options for crossing Kachemak Bay to the south. So, I booked us a nature expedition to Kachemak Bay State Park with a local research outfit called the Center for Coastal Alaskan Studies.

The night before the trip, we drove down to Homer and got a room in town. We were just too far away to get to an eight o’clock boat from Nikiski. We took our time getting there and had a nice hike at a state recreation area on the way. That stroll took us along the side of a creek filled with fishermen. Guides were rowing frantically trying to keep the large boats in place against the strong current, then paddling hard to help tourists reel in whatever it was they were catching. On the trail we spotted our closest yet moose, a cow browsing on plants just fifty feet off the trail. She glowered at us for a few seconds and I watched for the characteristic retraction of the ears that signals moose-anger. She stayed calm and let us pass in peace.

We got groceries in Homer. Even when we stay in hotels, I try to save by making meals in the microwave or just from sandwich materials. At the grocery store, a strange local version of Sam’s Club or Costco called Save-U-More, we saw large numbers of Russians. Not the modern, glamorous Russians of the twenty-first century, but the Old Believer, pre-Soviet type. They were bonneted and long-dressed and reminiscent of the Amish. I also made the mistake of buying a pack of Nutter Butters that turned out to lack the characteristic peanut-shaped cookies. Instead, they were disgusting gluten-free wafers that looked and tasted like astronaut food. Yes, I still ate them. Caveat om-nom-nomptor I guess.

In the morning we met our crew and the other tourists on Homer Spit. Of course, we were just barely on time, of course we had to be told to put on our masks, of course I parked in the wrong place, and of course we were chastised for not having rain gear. I’m just that kind of dad. But we were there and soon we were puttering on the water taxi across the bay. It was a sparkling, clear, blue-skied day and again there were glaciated mountains all around us. I’ve mentioned it several times, but it really can’t be overstated and should certainly never be forgotten. Alaska is beautiful and that beauty is everywhere.

On the way, we passed a pile of rocks called Gull Island. The crags were covered in kittiwakes and puffins, and there was even a little harbor seal popping up to say hello. The east end of the island was a sea cave that looked exactly like the first, lightning-streaked room on Pirates of the Caribbean, the one you pass right before shooting down the only drop of the ride.

We docked at an inlet called Peterson Bay, right next to a pay of oystercatchers poking around on the mudflats for clams. There was a steep walkway up to the land, steep enough that I had to dig my toes into the metal slats of the boards and that we were worried the less fit members of the party might have trouble. I think it was like that so that it could serve in higher tides.

The facility we came to was a research station built on the property of a southern doctor’s abandoned retirement home. We sat outdoors and were given wading boots and a talk on bear safety. There are no brown bears on this side of the bay (I wonder why), but the black bears are apparently numerous and not to be trifled with. I had bells and spray, so I wasn’t terribly concerned. We were also in a party of about twelve people, which makes bear attacks astronomically improbable.

To be Continued…

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