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From Homer to Haines: Crossing the Gulf of Alaska

Two Days in Homer, The Best of the Spit, On the Ferry, Alaskan Scenery, and the Fairweather Mountains

semi-overcast 57 °F


Homer, Alaska is a “quaint drinking village with a fishing problem.” It is also the “halibut capital of the world” (so they say). I don’t know if either of those boasts are true, but I DO know that Homer is home to the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had (from K-Bay Coffee), and home to the best seafood I’ve ever eaten (Captain Patties). Beyond those opinions, Homer is an intriguing Alaskan town that catches hold of you like a virus. When you first arrive, you say, “Wow, that’s a hell of a view.“ Then, thirty years later, silver haired and rheumatic, you say, “Wow, what happened? I came here to visit and stayed for thirty years.“ I stayed for two days, and I regret leaving.
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I think it is the view. Homer sits largely on the side of a long, high bluff that runs roughly southwest to northeast on the north side of Kachemak Bay. On the far side of Kachemak bay, lie the snow capped and picturesque mountains of the Kenai Peninsula Mountain Range. It is a daily view of this mountain range, which captures the soul. I felt their pull. Every morning I would wake up and look out over the bay to those mountains and think to myself, “I want to go play over there.” In talking to a Homer resident, he put it this way, “There’s something powerful about this place. I could be having the worst possible day. On my way home I’ll look out at the view of those mountains and see the sunset lighting up the clouds in colors I’ve never seen before. Then a rainbow will form above it all, and I forget about what it was that was bugging me.” In my experience, it’s hard to feel bad when you live near mountains.

With two days to explore, I barely had enough time to see the town, much less Kachemak Bay and the mountains beyond. If I had to do it over again, I would have stayed for a week and researched the region enough to make an adventure out of it. However, on this occasion I was just passing through, waiting two days to catch the ferry to Juneau.

My main goal in Homer was to visit some friends of mine. One of them was nice enough to put me up for a few days, a burden I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But she did it without complaint, and for that I give her my sincerest thanks. My other friend was an old classmate of mine who I had not seen in nearly a decade. It is roughly 2,600 miles from Homer, to the small town where we went to school (as the bluebird flies) in northern Michigan. I was curious to see what she had to say about life in Alaska, and we set up a time to go out for dinner at Captain Patties.
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On my first day, I was given the driving tour of the town. There really wasn’t much to it, but she showed me the downtown area that was full of the necessary services such as the bank, grocer, liquor store and hardware store. There were quite a few restaurants, and independent shops. Most of the businesses looked like fun places to visit. They were brightly painted, clean, with a funky feel to them. My friend told me that, “The meals you eat here in Homer, will probably be some of the best food you’ve ever eaten. The people of Homer spend all winter trying new recipes and tinkering with old ones.” It’s true. Homer serves delicious food. They also embrace the locally grown food movement, which is always good to see. I sincerely regret not eating at the Vagabond Café. I mean, who better to endorse such a place? I’ll eat there next time.

After our spin through town, we drove out onto the Homer Spit, and it was here where I would spend most of my time.
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The Homer Spit is a narrow piece of land that juts almost five miles into Kachemak Bay. The Spit-as it is locally known-is where the action is (at least during the summer months). The Spit is home to an eclectic mixture of tourist shops, restaurants, campgrounds, sport fishing charter companies, fish cleaning shacks, and industrial warehousing. The marina can handle any boat from a small skiff to deep water vessels hundreds of feet long. There is public access to the beach at Pioneer Park, and many people take advantage and use this park daily. Next to the road sits an asphalt bike path that runs almost the entire length of the Spit.

My host was working evenings, so I had plenty of time to roam around town. But since I was on foot, I decided to base my explorations on The Spit because of its scenic beauty, beach access, restaurants, and photo opportunities.

Scenes From The Spit
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The Salty Dawg Saloon is one of my favorite taverns that I have visited. This small wood tavern was built from the wood of several of Homer’s historical buildings and has been around since 1957. I had to duck my head a little to get through the front door. I went in and sat down at the end of the bar, taking in my surroundings. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. As it was, I couldn’t stop looking at the building’s decoration. There were thousands of dollar bills pinned to every open surface available. The bills displayed the name, and hometown of the people who pinned them up. It was really cool. I felt as if I had just walked into the secret room of a mad man obsessed with dollar bills. I ordered a brew from the Homer Brewing Company, and hung out, digging the atmosphere. A small group of friends began to sing a traditional shanty out loud, and it sounded beautiful. Besides the bills, there were unique pictures and pieces of maritime history from old ships that have passed through. As a mariner, I loved this place. And of course, I put my own dollar bill up on the wall.
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Taking the Ferry From Homer to Haines
The ferry was seven hours late. In Alaska, the tides control a lot of the timing for a large vessel. This is because the difference between high and low tide can be quite dramatic. The Alaskan ferry Kennicott was delayed by these tides somewhere along the line, and we had to wait. When it arrived, I was sitting in the ferry terminal building finishing up a chapter in my book. There were two kids staring at the monstrous ship as it slid close to the dock for mooring. I don’t know if they had ever been on a boat before, but they looked to be in awe.
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After I boarded, I checked in with the purser to see if there were any cheap cabins available. I would be aboard for three days, and thought I’d see if I could get a roomette. I was in luck, and I purchased a room for thirty dollars a night. The room wasn’t fancy, but it had a bunk, and a place to keep my stuff. I was happy with it.

I had never been on the Kennicott before, and I went for a walk to check it all out. I won’t give you all of the vessels stats, but its 382 feet long with a beam of 85 feet. This vessel is one of two accredited ocean going vessels that the Alaska Ferry System runs. On my walkabout, I found that the vessel had a large forward observation lounge, a dining area, a small bar, a solarium (where I would’ve slept had I not taken the cabin), and two aft observation lounges. Beyond that, it had two outside companionways on two different levels where the passengers could hang out and sit in the sun if it appeared. I would be comfortable enough.
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I sat on a watertight locker as the Kennicott’s deckhands hauled the massive mooring lines aboard. We were finally leaving, and I was at sea once again. I wanted to find a place on board where I could watch the passing scenery and have quick access to the exterior decks on either side of the ship if there was a scene I wanted to photograph. I found the aft observation lounge perfect for this purpose. Since it was directly over the propellers, the room was slightly louder than the forward lounge, and it also had a bit of a shake to it. Being a seasoned mariner, this didn’t bother me at all. I had the room entirely to myself for most of my voyage.

I spent my days sitting back in the aft lounge relaxing. It felt great to sit around for a few days, something I rarely allow myself to do. On a boat, you have no choice. Time passes slowly.
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After living in a plywood shack for two weeks in Denali, it made me appreciate having a warm, well lit room where I could plug in my computer, get a drink of water, and use the head. I was loving life! I took turns reading, catching up on my writing, playing games, taking photographs, and listening to tunes and podcasts. I ate when I was hungry. I made a lot of peanut butter sandwiches, and suffered through meals from the ships cafeteria. No offense to the good people who work on the ferry, but the food is awful. There is no love in it, and it’s all prepackaged, or frozen. Ugh. I’ll admit I’m a spoiled mariner, as I work on a cruise ship that serves fresh, local, nutritious food that I don’t have to pay for.

My plans for exploring the coastal towns that the ferry stopped at were dashed by our seven hour delay. At each ferry terminal, we were reminded that we would be leaving as soon as we possibly could, as the captain was trying to get us back on schedule. On the original itinerary, we were to scheduled to be in port for several hours at a time. Instead, we spent just enough time to unload and load passengers before moving on. We also arrived at most of these ports in the early morning hours when I was fast asleep. Ah well.

The following pictures are scenes from the Ferry.

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Islands and Clouds
I was amazed at how thick these low island clouds formed. They stretched out in a long low band across Ushagat and Amatuli islands. They were simply beautiful.
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Chenega Bay
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We arrived in Chenega Bay just as the sun was setting over the mountains. The surrounding islands and mountains were bathed in great light.

The Fairweather Mountains
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I’ve seen the Fairweather Mountains from Glacier Bay National Park, and I have seen them from far away (near Sitka, Alaska). But I’ve never seen them from up close. We passed by them on a stunningly beautiful day, and I sat outside in the chilly air all afternoon. Mt. Fairweather rises 15,325 feet above sea level. That high point was almost three miles above where I sat on the bow of the Kennicott. I don’t think I’ve seen a prettier mountain range. Bands of clouds flowed around the high peaks of Mt. Fairweather, Mt. Adams, and Mt. La Perouse among others. I saw the Fairweather glacier, and had a good look at the La Perouse glacier as we passed by. I love traveling by ship. Most vessels travel so slowly, it gives you a great chance to enjoy the scenery. In the late afternoon, we rounded Cape Spencer and passed into Cross Sound leaving the open ocean behind. I was back in familiar territory. We passed familiar places, such as the Inian Islands, Glacier Bay, Icy Straight, Funter Bay on our passage to Juneau (see May to September 2011 for more adventures and pictures of these incredible places).
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We docked in Juneau at 8:30 pm. I stepped on land for the first time in three days. It felt good. I spent two hours reading my book before I boarded the ferry Matanuska which would take me north to Haines. I slept on the ferry under the heat lamps of the solarium. But it was a fitful sleep where I tossed and turned on the plastic deck chair. When I awoke for our arrival in Haines at 3 a.m., I got a call from my friend who arranged to have her boyfriend pick me up. I was looking for a guy named Darren who had a full “Fu man chu.” He said “hello,” handed me a beer and drove me to the apartment where I would be staying. We talked a bit, but it was 3 am, and we were both beyond tired. I went into the spacious one bedroom apartment that I learned would be my home for the duration of my stay, and crawled into the bed that was already made up for me. I love having good friends! I fell asleep just as the sky was starting to get lighten up for the coming dawn.

I wonder what Haines is like?

Posted by Rhombus 08:17 Archived in USA Tagged mountains boats islands alaska clouds oceans photography homer taverns fairweather

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