D’oh! No, not that Homer – Homer, AK. It’s a small town in a stunning location at the road’s end on the west side of the Kenai Peninsula. It’s situated where the Kachemak Bay empties into Cook Inlet, feeling cozy and protected by the Kenai Mountains interspersed with glaciers to the south and east, and the Alaska Range with its four towering volcanoes to the west. A key geological feature of the town is the Homer Spit, a terminal moraine left by the glacier that filled and carved out the Kachemak Bay 15,000 years ago. The Spit is a long, narrow, natural gravel bar that sticks out 4.5 miles into bay, now dotted with campsites and shops and people fishing.
We loved Homer! And that was all Duncan’s fault.
Before we left Vermont, our friend Mike insisted we get to Homer and look up his old (ahem, long-time) buddy from way back, Duncan. He was certain we’d get along. We complied and of course, Mike was right. Duncan welcomed us to Homer on the day we arrived with hugs, jokes, a walk along the salt marsh, lunch at the famed Two Sisters Bakery, a tour of the highlights of Homer, a list of things to see, places to visit and hikes to consider and a job proposition. He was on his way to help a friend with a show and they could use a couple more ushers. We’re in!
Johnny B combines two passions – piano and the environment – into a lively, fun, inspirational and educational show. Using a multimedia approach, Johnny narrates breathtaking videos of Alaska accompanied by his compositions played live on the piano, mixed in with storytelling combining his delightful sense of humor with genuine examples of sensitive environmental issues centered around Alaska. He famously performs his shows in the summer at the Pier One Theatre for the cruise ships that visit Homer, taking his show on the road during the spring, winter and fall. We loved his show! It was fun to watch, interesting for us to see what the cruise ship audiences see, and it gave us (and them) an excellent overview of Homer and the Kenai Peninsula and beyond. Of course, we took quickly and seriously to our roles as ushers-for-a-day. Not a single audience member fell down the steps on our watch.
We found a great camping spot on the Spit right on the shore with an up-close-and-personal view of Homer’s legendary tides – the second highest in the world (after the Bay of Fundy), according to one method of calculating tides – with a maximum range between high and low tide of 28 feet, although 15 is more typical. The largest during our visit was 23 feet. D’oh!
Our friend Nick had highly recommended a visit to the Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center operated by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and Duncan concurred – in fact, that’s where he suggested we should meet. The I&O Center features fascinating exhibits and films on the Aleutian Islands, their history, people, culture, geology, seabirds and marine and land mammals. Curiosity and desire aside, visiting the Aleutians in extreme southwest Alaska is logistically challenging and about 100% impossible via RV. We were elated to get to see and learn so much through our visit at the I&O center.
Both Duncan and Nick suggested hiking ‘anything in Kachemak State Park.’ From anywhere in Homer, one can see the Kenai Mountains within Kachemak State Park across the bay. The Grewingk Glacier and three prominent peaks – Sadie, Grace and Broken Knife – were continuously calling to us. One issue with hiking in the Kachemak Park is that there are no roads in the park, and there is no road to get there. After consulting our trusty guide book and several water taxi operators, the Grace Ridge trail stood out. We could hire a water taxi to drop us at the south trailhead and arrange for pick up at the north trailhead, enabling us to traverse the entire ridge. We booked our seats on the Tankita’s first run of the day.
The early morning taxi ride across Kachemak Bay and up Tutka Bay on the Tankita to the southern end of the Grace Ridge Trail took nearly an hour over quite calm waters enabling views and photos along the way. Captain Forest pointed out key landmarks we’d be seeing along the open ridge of our planned hike, as well as our pickup rendezvous point. On the boat we met Rachel and Nick, who also planned to hike Grace Ridge south to north that morning. And hike we did.
The trail started, obviously, at sea level (OK, almost high tide, so we got a head start on the climb) and quickly rose with a series of switchbacks through tropical-looking ferns, mosses, tall grasses, berry bushes of many kinds, and oversized Devil’s Club into forests of spruce and alder. Soon, we were above tree line in an alpine tundra where views presented in all directions, interrupted only by the need to pay attention to the steepness of the trail to the ridge line. Once on the ridge, the trail continued in a series of short, staged climbs and plateaus with views opening up with every step with nooks and crannies, wildflowers and rock outcroppings to explore along the knife-edge trail. Our landmarks – Sadie Peak, Nubby Fingers, Red Mountain, Broken Knife, Sadie Cove, Tutka Bay and the Herring Islands – morphed and reshaped themselves with our different positioning and the changing light throughout the hike. Once at the summit, we took in the full view which now also included Homer, Kachemak Bay, Cook Inlet, and four volcanoes. We squealed with wonder and delight at the giant alpine meadow exploding with wildflowers we’d cross on our descent. Once across the meadow, another series of switchbacks through the brush brought us back down to sea level (low tide), and a beautiful gravel beach inviting horizontalness and eye resting while awaiting Captain Carrie and our water taxi pick up. Extremely very satisfying hike, indeed!
Back at camp, we spied a unique RV that we’d crossed paths with a few times in the past couple of weeks. We introduced ourselves to Angela and Clint, 4/5ths of their kids, and a dog who live and travel full-time in the RV, promoting awareness of environmental issues. We’d seen their demo at Salmonfest, where the kids were teaching other kids how to minimize waste through recycling, composting, and reducing overall use of stuff. In addition to our common interests in the environment, biking and hiking, and a similar traveling style (Us: How long will you be in Homer? Them: Dunno), we figured out we’d all lived in the same town in VT for a period of time around 1999. It’s a small world (but I’d hate to have to paint it…).
On our last night in Homer, Duncan and Johnny invited us to a casual al fresco dinner. It was a gorgeous evening and we sat in camp chairs on the lawn, sharing the largest pizza I’ve ever seen, chatting, trading stories. Just like long-lost new friends, already making plans to meet again…