Homer, Alaska: Mountains and coast, oodles of otters, and some really big fish

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The city of Homer perfectly matched my vision of an Alaskan waterfront town—part grizzled sea captain, part aquamarine enchantress.

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Source: Alaska.org

This town of around 5000 people—relatively large by Alaskan standards—sits on the southwestern Kenai Peninsula.  The Sterling Highway, one of the few roads that traverses the Kenai, runs out of pavement at the end of the Homer Spit, a narrow, 4.5-mile-long gravel bar that extends into Kachemak Bay, hence Homer’s nickname, “the end of the road.”

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Homer’s harbor, along the Spit

The drive to the end of that road, which took us out of Anchorage, onto the Kenai Peninsula, through Chugach National Forest, and then to Homer, was a beautiful one:

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One of the pristine rivers we crossed, seen from an overlook
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The fall colors of Chugach National Forest

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Alaskans talk about the benefits of living “on the road system,” and the more we explored southern Alaska, the more we understood this statement.  Homer may be 221 miles from Anchorage and in an isolated corner of the Peninsula, but when you consider that most of Alaska can only be reached by air or boat, the definition of “accessible” becomes relative!

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Russian Orthodox Church in Ninilchik, one of the little towns we passed through on our way to Homer

 

img_0431Once we reached Homer, we were greeted by views of mountains and water.  From just about anywhere in Homer, the Kenai Mountains can be seen across Kachemak Bay.  The glaciers that drape over and around the mountain peaks are part of the Harding Icefield, a body of ice that is thousands of feet thick.  The icefield contains over 30 glaciers and is protected as part of Kenai Fjords National Park, one of Alaska’s eight national parks.

Homer is a tourist hotspot during the summer, offering kayaking trips, fishing charters, and sight-seeing tours by air or water.  Some of Alaska’s best bear watching tours leave from here, heading by boat or plane to Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks, where some of the state’s most famous brown bear populations thrive.

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Brown bear at Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

We visited town at the end of September, and most of the tourist operations were shutting down.  The end of summer brings a dramatic change of pace in Homer.  Take our airbnb hosts, Kristen and Ash Churchill.  They run a fishing charter during the summer and also write about fishing, but like many Alaskans we’ve met, their careers change with the seasons: Kristen works multiple jobs in the winter, while Ash sells real estate.  It’s hard work, but they love Homer, and living in Alaska is worth the challenge.

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Homer and Kachemak Bay, as seen from the Churchill’s dining room and through the eyes of Katniss, one of their three pets

Regardless of the time of year, Homer is a fun little town to visit.  We either walked or drove the Spit several times a day just to take in the mountains, boats, and sea life.  We also visited the Islands and Ocean Visitors Center, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.  Kachemak Bay is a critical habitat area and home to many species of marine life, including sea otters, seals, porpoise, and whales, as well as many marine birds, including eagles, gyrfalcons, and puffins.  Every time we drove the Spit, we saw sea otters, sometimes dozens of them, swimming on their backs and interacting in utterly charming otter ways.

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Umm, yes, this is the cutest sea critter in existence. (Source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game–They have more sea otter photos here)

The fur of the sea otter—which has 650,000 hairs per square inch—is the densest of all animals and therefore highly prized, and Alaskan otters were hunted nearly to extinction in the 1900’s.  Fortunately, they fell under the protection of the Fur Seal Treaty in 1911, and the population rebounded in the 20th century.  Sea otter populations in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska are currently stable; unfortunately, their numbers in southwest Alaska, including in Kachemak Bay, have declined drastically for reasons that are not fully understood.  Hopefully, scientists will determine the problem, because otherwise we won’t get to see images such as this….

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…and the world will be a much darker place.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Fishing is the lifeblood of Homer, and boats were to be found everywhere—docked in the harbor, parked in people’s driveways, tilted on one side at the  edge of the highway.  Some of these vessels (like the Bering Sea, below) were high-dollar ocean-going ships, while others looked as if they’d seen better days.

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While in town, we had hoped to see the fishermen unloading their haul on the dock, but an intense storm was predicted to hit the town that night, and it was doubtful that boats would be going out.  Because of its location on the coast, Homer’s weather is less severe than that of interior Alaska, but it apparently has some wicked storms.  Around town, people were talking about the storm, with winds of up to 60-70 knots (~70-80 mph) predicted.  In the end, we were kind of disappointed that, after all the build-up, the gale didn’t actually reach its full potential over night, but it still kept the boats in the harbor the next day, and we never got to see the fresh catch.

We got to eat some of it, however, and it was delicious.  Several species of salmon are found in the area, but halibut is the star in these waters; Homer is known as the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.”

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Halibut—hands down my favorite fish—is in the family of right-eye flounders and typically hangs out at or near the bottom of a body of water.  The Pacific halibut, an enormous beast, can weigh up to 500 pounds and is one of the world’s largest flatfish (only rivaled by the Atlantic halibut).

I was introduced to halibut when we lived in Ketchikan, Alaska, over 20 years ago.  Dale and his brother Mike would go fishing and bring these huge creatures home and fry them up.  The result was beyond delicious, one of the best meals we’ve ever had.

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Since we were now visiting Homer, the world’s halibut capital, we knew we had to sample the goods.  Kristen and Ash recommended Alibi, a local favorite, which purportedly serves one of the best fish dishes in the state, a halibut taco.

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I’m a fish taco fan; Dale, not so much.  But, given its renown, we decided we’d both order a plate of Alibi’s signature dish.  It was an excellent choice.  The tacos were sublime; every ingredient, from the freshly caught halibut to the cabbage, avocado, and taco sauce, complemented one another perfectly.  If this meal didn’t surpass those home-cooked fish fries in Ketchikan, it came pretty darned close.

 

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Homer’s not just known for its halibut; according to the Homer Chamber of Commerce, the town is also the “Art Capital of Alaska” and is listed in the 100 Best Small Art Towns in America.  Homer has multiple galleries and artist studios as well as a live theater and several museums.  Even the public bathrooms around town displayed beautiful artwork by local artists:

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For such a small town, Homer has a huge amount to offer, and we enjoyed our short visit there.  It may be at the end of the road, hundreds of miles from Alaska’s biggest city, but Homer sits in an area so beautiful and pristine, with a flora and fauna so diverse, that people are willing to shape their lives around this little village.  I can see why!


Random Notes about Homer:

  • The first part of the trip was on the Seward Highway (and it’s this road that runs through the Chugach National Forest).  About 90 miles south of Anchorage, the road splits, with the Sterling Highway heading to Homer and the Seward Highway ending in, well, Seward.
  • The National Park Service has a bear photo gallery and also sponsors a Katmai bear cam.  I implore you to watch!  Now if they only added a sea otter cam…
  • Homer has known its share of celebrities: Tom Bodett (The Motel 6 guy), resided for a time in Homer and brought national attention to the town with his radio show and books.  Two Discovery Channel shows star Homer locals: the town is the homeport for the Time Bandit, one of the boats featured on the “The Deadliest Catch,” and it’s also home to “The Last Frontier” Kilcher family.
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Crab pots, those big cage-like devices like you see on “Deadliest Catch”
  • A Cinema Blend article from about a year ago reported that 20 reality TV shows are filmed in Alaska, but being the star of the show doesn’t always have positive benefits for the state.  It’s a pretty interesting read, especially if you enjoy Alaska reality shows.
  • I’ll admit that Homer Simpson comes to mind when I hear the name of the town, but it’s actually named after someone far more disreputable—Homer Pennock, a con man who, from 1896-97, created bogus gold mining companies during the Alaskan gold rush and sold stock in these companies to wealthy people on the East Coast.  Despite his nefarious ways, Pennock’s crew decided to name the town after him, and the name stuck.