Homer, Alaska — the “end of the road” that winds far south of Anchorage — opens into glorious view over a final bluff, unspooling at last a four-and-a-half mile spit of land from its fireweed hills, into the ale-dark waters of Kachemak Bay and the sunlit reflection of distant glaciers.
Hardly undiscovered country now (its offbeat inhabitants have been the subject of writer Tom Bodett, and more recently, “reality” television), Homer has become a funky, friendly, bar-sopped fishing and tourist town with its own airport, bed and breakfasts, farmers market, art galleries, documentary film festivals and stray moose trotting through town. Think “Northern Exposure” — except with a few thousand more people … and a southern exposure.
“In Homer, people sort of pride themselves on being a little different, a little quirky,” says Michael Armstrong, a journalist for the Homer News, adding that in addition to the creative and outdoorsy, there’s a strong intellectual bent. “You’re more likely to find a taxi driver who has a Ph.D.”
Talk to some of the fishermen and artists, hunters and hippies, bartenders and bush pilots, cowboys, marine scientists and other escapees from the civilized world who have made their home at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, and they have found a kind of Eden that has lasted well beyond first impressions. Walls of mountain and ice, distant volcanoes, lush rainforest with endless thickets of berries, torrents of sea life, beaches strewn with ancient fossils, one of the mildest climates in the state, and that iconic tendril of Homer Spit from which fishermen launch their boats and bald eagles feed.
But this still mostly blue-collar outdoor paradise must be earned. That means second or even third jobs, and subsistence fishing and hunting for many year-rounders. Freezers are stocked with fish and game to last through the winter, when the daily sun merely skims the clouds settled over the mountains across the bay before dipping back below the horizon.
Storms can whip up waters in the bay, and further out in Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Alaska, making a perilous journey for fishermen or hunters boating to distant shores. The occasionally violent quake or Ring of Fire volcanic eruption may make California’s seismic activity seem relatively tranquil. A 9.2 temblor in 1964 (the second largest ever recorded, anywhere) nearly sunk the spit and yanked ships from the harbor, according to news accounts of the day. This is a place where what you can do or make — a boat, a piece of furniture or a loaf of bread — is valued much more than what you can buy, and the freedom to be one’s own person is worth the dangers of the wilder life.
Mark Marette came to Alaska in the early 1980s at the age of 25, riding a dream born in his Minnesota childhood.
“I was a kid in the suburbs — didn’t have a horse, anything of that sort — but like every little boy who wanted to be a cowboy,” says Marette. He bought his first horse in the mountains of Colorado, where he worked for several years until one day a girlfriend gave him a copy of Alaska magazine.
“Before the night was over, I’d looked through that issue and said, ‘I’m moving to Alaska,’” Marette says.
Sitting now in a barn east of Homer with his wide-brimmed hat, blond mustache, red bandana and Extra Tough rubber boots (which he insists are the proper cowboy footwear in these often wet and muddy parts), and his sheltie by his side, the 58-year-old Marette has more than met that boyhood calling. For the past 30 summers, he has been leading visitors out on horseback, riding trails in the hills and down by the beach. In the off-season he retreats alone to his off-the-grid homestead hermitage to care for his cattle. No electricity and no running water.
“A lot of people think that when you live out there that you’re hiding from something, you’re running from something, trying to isolate yourself,” he says. “I’m going out there because I like where I live, you know, and I like the lifestyle.”
Homer’s natural beauty, youthful population and arable (enough) conditions to grow hay for the horses are what drew Marette. While those all remain, he knows the area is changing, with encroaching development, occasional knucklehead backwoods behavior, and the abandoned vehicles and empty beer cans that sometimes litter the beaches and trails near his home.
“You either have to turn around and face the change in your community, or you’re going to have to go running, screaming, somewhere way up into the [Yukon Territory’s] Brooks Range, or rural Alaska where it’s 60-below at night,” he says. For the foreseeable future, Marette is content to chat up his guests on the trail, sell his grass- and glacier-fed beef, hunt moose, and compose cowboy poetry in the friendly company of his muses: his dog, horses and cows.
“I don’t see myself living anywhere else,” he says.
The populace has definitely changed over the years. From indigenous Alaskans to coal miners, homesteaders, fishermen, insular Russian communities who fled religious oppression, “spit rat” cannery workers, back-to-the-landers, writers, artists and retirees, Homer is now seemingly as exotic a patchwork of characters and points of view as anywhere in Alaska.
Grizzled fishermen man the town’s watering holes in mid-day, some even earlier. In the evening, a scraggly-bearded cigar smoker at the end of the bar — who’s not spoken for an hour — unexpectedly weighs in knowledgeably on the difference between violin and fiddle music. Another man has a whiskey-soaked laugh that could stand your hair on end, while a wobbly woman with more than a few miles on her odometer grabs the karaoke mic and unveils a beautiful voice. Yet another, a quiet, unassuming man of silver hair, steps to the stage with a guitar and belts out a folk troubadour classic to cheers.
While open-minded Homer maintains an atypically liberal-conservative balance for these parts (merely leaning Republican, with Bernie Sanders supporters to match its critics of tax hikes and Obamacare) it is, in the end, familiarly Alaskan in its offbeat, independent-minded sensibilities. And, folks there will tell you, it is a community in the greater sense of the word, where despite differences of opinion, neighbor looks out for neighbor.
In late summer, amid balmy 60-degree temperatures and warming north Pacific waters, humpback whales frolicked off the end of the tourist-encrusted spit, breaching playfully and slapping their pectoral fins in the choppy waters as they gorged on plankton. Sea birds bobbed and otters lazed on their backs, immune to tossing waves. Vast numbers of the swamp-green skinned, pearly-white fleshed halibut (as ugly as it is delicious) for which Homer is renowned drifted along the bottom. Coddled cruise ship goers ambled from their mammoth floating palace to board waiting school buses into town for a mere afternoon, before returning for the next port-of-call. Some had to be informed by cheerful volunteer greeters from the visitors center that they were, in fact, already standing on the famed spit.
By mid-September, the tourist numbers had faded, and fog and cool rain settled over the harbor where massive-hulled seiners, drift-netters and longliners return from the sea with their catches. Small-craft fishermen methodically sliced open fresh carcasses at the cleaning station, keeping the filets and flinging the rest into an increasingly fragrant dumpster. Hunters in fatigues stalked into the woods to round up their winter meals.
In the tidal flats of remote Chinitna Bay a 45-minute flight away, mammoth coastal brown bears rummaged in a thick drizzle through the muddy headwaters emptying into Cook Inlet, gorging on plentiful salmon, their muzzles red with blood. About a dozen, including mothers with their cubs, ignored the small chartered airplane that landed on a nearby beach, as well as its passengers, who slowly followed the creatures about and knelt in the muck and rain just yards away to watch in amazement.
Rare sunshine lit the hills above Homer in colors of green and yellow and red. On Friday nights, as fog gathered on the spit and the gulls began their plaintive calls, locals gathered for the annual burlesque show at Alice’s Champagne Palace, settled in with a glass of whiskey for local blues aficionado Jack Oudiz’s radio broadcast, or cheered on fishermen as they recited bawdy and morbid tales and sung sea chanteys at the old Salty Dawg saloon, the spit’s best-known landmark, where the dark humor of the seafaring life was in full effect.
One woman who took the mic, describing herself as a former fisherman, told a harrowing story of a stormy voyage that was marked by the sudden death of a fellow crewman along the way. “Anyhow, it came out okay,” she concluded abruptly. She paused a thoughtful beat. “Well, the guy died.” The crowd burst into laughter.
In the tiny fishing and artist community of Halibut Cove, a short ferry ride across the bay, Marian Beck was finishing up her season at perhaps the area’s finest restaurant, the Saltry, a sea-to-table eatery with idyllic views perched on a pier built into the cliff.
“Food should be the flavor of the land,” says the well-traveled Beck, who counts the cuisines of Asia, Europe, Africa and Central America among her culinary influences but utilizes the best of the local catch to deliver artful dishes accenting the tastes of Alaska. On the menu were halibut ceviche and seafood chowder, and entrees of black cod, salmon and octopus, served with rustic flair and the ocean seasoning that hangs in the air, on tabletops made of pottery shards. Beck opened the Saltry, the first remote fine dining restaurant in Alaska, she says, in 1984 — 36 years after her father bought a homestead here for $15,000, before the highway came to Homer — and it now receives an international clientele.
“Everything you see happened in a very short period of time,” Beck says. “We grew up in the wilderness.”
A formerly glacier-covered outpost in south-central Alaska, where native groups have existed for millennia, Homer is oddly named for a charismatic late-19th-century promoter who came looking for gold in what was then a coal-mining company town, but stayed only two summers. Those remaining from the 50-man crew that Homer Pennock convinced to come with him in 1896 were left to harvest coal deposits, the dark seams of which still protrude from the cliffsides.
“He definitely was a con man,” says Janet Klein, a local historian who has authored three books on the area. “He was looking to make a quick buck, and he literally was all over the United States in the 1800s.”
Ironically, the colorful Pennock seems to have been one of the few visitors who decided to leave Homer, heading to the Yukon in his quest for gold. He later disappeared, Klein says, and died in poverty in New York City in 1912. A proposal in 1952 to rename Homer after someone more savory ultimately failed. Locals seem to have become comfortable with their namesake.
“People have said, ‘He’s not the only con man here. He’s still not the only con man here,’” Klein says, laughing. Klein, who moved to Homer in 1978, echoes the sentiments of so many others about why this place — whatever you call it — is so special to them.
“A lot of us have come over the hill on a sunny, beautiful day, like my husband and I did, and said, ‘We’re going to live here someday, we’re going to raise our kids here someday,” she says. “That’s it. You just feel like you’re coming home.”
The paths here may be well-worn — trails of dreams for some and false promises by others, bearing the adventurous, the lovers of beauty and open spaces, the hardy and the foolhardy — and the challenges now include preserving this delicately balanced natural environment as well as the local economy, but the wild still remains, and the road never truly ends.
Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at www.openskylight.blogspot.com.
IF YOU GO:
Hiking, fishing and bear viewing trips are among the great options in summer. Stop by the Homer Visitor Center (201 Sterling Highway, www.homeralaska.org) in the Old Town district for info on local events and activities. Homer has also evolved into a surprisingly talented and varied (if a bit pricy) food town. Fresh seafood is of course the way to go, but you’ll also find decadent desserts at Two Sisters Bakery, and a few miles east of town, New York-style bagels at the Bagel Shop and brisket sandwiches at the Fritz Creek General Store. By law, you won’t find wild-caught Alaskan game in restaurants, so make friends with a local and you may get treated to a moose burger.
The Saltry: One of the must-visit restaurants in the area, the Saltry is accessible by 45-minute ferry from Homer Spit across the bay to Halibut Cove. It is open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day and reservations are required. www.halibut-cove-alaska.com/saltry.htm
Nina’s Samovar Cafe: About a half-hour drive north of Homer, in the Russian Old Believer village of Nikolaevsk — one of a handful of such villages in the area — Nina Fefelov bucked the typically insular tradition of her community by opening a cafe, stocked floor-to-ceiling with colorful gifts, photos, keepsakes and other artifacts from her homeland. It’s more of a cultural experience than a culinary one. She serves a variety of hearty, home-cooked Russian food favorites, finally answering that age-old question: Is there borscht at the end of the road? Reservations recommended. www.russiangiftsnina.com
Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies: One of several area organizations dedicated to environmental conservation and education, the center offers kayaking tours and naturalist-led hikes exploring the tidepools and rainforest in nearby Peterson Bay. 708 Smokey Bay Way, Homer. www.akcoastalstudies.org
Pratt Museum: Another local gem, this small natural history museum tucked off the main drag combines science, cultural and art exhibits in illuminating portrayals of life on the Kenai Peninsula and Kachemak Bay. 3779 Bartlett St., Homer. www.prattmuseum.org
Lands End Resort: The official end of the road, this popular resort at the end of Homer Spit is as far south as the highway goes. Tidy, comfortable rooms have incredible views of the bay and, occasionally, passing whales. The resort also offers a restaurant and spa. Mid-May through mid-September: Rooms $159-$299. 4786 Homer Spit Road, Homer. www.lands-end-resort.com
Alaska Adventure Cabins: A fun, unconventional option in a gorgeous setting, guests can choose from log cabins, a railroad car or a three-floored former Gulf Coast shrimping vessel perched on a cliffside overlooking Kachemak Bay. $265 to $445. 2525 Sterling Highway, Homer. www.alaskaadventurecabins.com