THEY LEFT THE LIGHT ON : During summer in this remote Alaskan frontier town, the fishing’s great and the days never seem to end
My problem in Homer wasn’t the jaywalking moose or the cult of the halibut or the spit rats. It wasn’t the lady who accused me of being Tom Bodett. All these things I came to understand as facets of life in what may be the most celebrated small town on America’s last frontier. My problem was the summer light. I felt obliged to keep exploring as long as it shone, and it just kept on shining.
This was late July, and every day, dawn would arrive around 5, casting a gray glow onto the smooth stones, bleached driftwood and silvery tides at Bishop’s Beach, a block from my bed at the Driftwood Inn. Then the sun would inch its way across the sky, the wind would snap and ease, and the 4,200 rumpled and sweater-wrapped residents of Homer would go about their busy summer lives: hauling in hundred-pound halibut, throwing pots, steering seaplanes over glaciers, tidying their bed and breakfasts, piloting ferries across Kachemak Bay to Halibut Cove or the old Eskimo and Russian settlement at Seldovia. On their way, they’d pass messages to each other via the five-times-daily “bush line” of the public radio station, KBBI-AM 890.
To Natasha: Bears are on the trail between the head of the bay and town. Take the low road. From Boris.
To Bethany: Reminder that you have an appointment Tuesday at Dr. Todd’s office.
Ten hours would go by this way, then 15, giving me plenty of time to hit the usual tourist highlights. But then I’d find myself passing time, happy but unfocused, at just about anything. Combing the shoreline in search of a perfectly round stone. Hiking randomly amid the green shrubs and purple flowers atop Ohlson Mountain, which overlooks town. Taking a census of boat names in the Homer Small Boat Harbor. Watching the dock dogs snap for fish scraps.
One morning--or maybe it was afternoon--I was back at Bishop’s Beach looking at driftwood and stones, and found Mandy Ewald, 13, Sarah Ewald, 14, Tara Guhn, 16, and Crystal Loop, 12, splashing in the chilly surf. But for them and me and a few distant specks about a mile along the shore, the beach was empty. Beyond the bay, peeking through swirling clouds, lay jagged peaks, monumental fiords, Kachemak Glacier, Dinglestadt Glacier, Dixon, Portlock, Grewingk, Wosnesenski and Doroshin glaciers. The girls had come by car from Fort Wayne, Ind., and this, they agreed, teeth chattering, was the best place yet--even better, they said, than the big mall in Edmonton, Alberta.
Late that night--or maybe it was early the next morning--I sat hunched in the din of the Salty Dawg (founded 1957, open until 4 a.m.), my shoes scraping in sawdust, my head surrounded by wall-mounted life preservers, my ears ringing with beer-fueled accounts of the day’s fishing.
“Today was a big day,” charter deckhand Dan Prisaznuk told me. “A friend of mine, the first fish on his boat was a 208.”
That would be 208 pounds. The crew needed three shots to kill it. Large halibut are often subdued aboard ship by gun shots, lest their twitching tails break someone’s legs.
Someone else had a story about another guy, a few days before, who didn’t bother to spend the $5 it takes to enter the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby, then went out and caught a 300-pound fish. His fish was the biggest of the summer so far, which means the $5 the fellow saved might end up costing him a jackpot of something like $18,000. Hate it when that happens.
In this way I floated through the days and nights. Finally, each day, after 18 or so hours of light, around 11 p.m., the last direct rays of the sun would throw a warm pink glow onto the line of ragged peaks across the bay. Anglers would still be slouching around the Fishing Hole, and pre-teen kids were out riding bikes along the shoulder of East End Road, still sun-drunk.
Then would come a few hours of twilight, with the moon gleaming over the mountains and the still waters of the bay glowing like a great pane of glass, gas-jet blue. Then, around 2 a.m., a blink of darkness, under cover of which a high-living crew member could crawl home, change clothes, grab a bite and a quick nap, and head back out on another charter. Which could account for the bumper sticker I saw in the harbor lot:
“Have you flogged your crew today?”
Homer, which lies on the Kenai Peninsula about 2,200 miles north of Los Angeles, is southern by Alaskan standards. As the eagle flies, it sits about 100 miles south of Anchorage, and more than 500 miles south of Fairbanks. Though the mountains along the horizon never lose their snow, and the 3-million-year-old Harding Icefield behind them never melts, Homer’s location on the waters of Kachemak Bay keeps its temperatures moderate: around 60 degrees in summer, around 20 in winter, with regular runs of rain, clouds and wind to keep things interesting. (On my last day in town, the winds were so interesting that my “flight-seeing” expedition, to see glaciers and such by seaplane, was canceled.)
Moose roam freely. Bears across the bay swat at salmon in the cold river runoff. Whales, otters, puffins and scores of other birds live off the sea and shoreline, often within the protected territory of Kachemak Bay State Park. The halibut and salmon fisheries draw anglers by the thousands and sustain more than a dozen charter companies, which usually charge summer rates around $150 per person a day.
In winter, eagles gather here in startling numbers, perching outside the flower-festooned trailer-residence of a woman named Jean Keene, who has been feeding them for years. Mary Rollins, a Homer resident for most of the last 11 years, tells the story of a Christmas Eve a few years ago when she and a companion drove out on the Spit and counted 159 eagles.
“Then, four days later,” Rollins adds, “we counted 254. Well, we quit at 254.”
(I saw no eagles, though other folks did report sightings during my July visit. I did encounter my first moose about 20 minutes after arrival, at an intersection one block from the airport. She yielded right of way and bounded into the woods.)
This raw landscape brings in plenty of visitors, nearly all in summer. Some of them take a look around at the rich, unfinished nature of the place, decide this is where the next chapter of their lives should begin and cease to be visitors.
“I’m going to die here,” John Redman told me one afternoon or evening. Redman, 71 years old and bent from arthritis, moved up from the Lower 48 four years ago, gave up his hair-cutting business and started sharpening knives for charter companies on the Spit.
“I like the cold,” he explained. Besides, he said, in his new business he has “no overhead, and no dirty necks to contend with.”
More often, of course, strangers spend a few days in Homer on the way to someplace else. About 115,000 tourists pass through Homer yearly, which puts tourism second only to fishing among local industries. (Sometimes, the two industries overlap more than folks here would like: The National Car Rental outlet levies $100 fines against customers who bring back cars with interiors reeking of fish.)
But there’s a whiff of culture in Homer’s air too, and here and there the twinkle of New Age crystals. More than a dozen galleries fill their shelves and walls with the work of resident artists and craft workers. The Smoky Bay Co-op stocks mango chutney and various organic wares for a large and devoted clientele. In October, 1989, voters declared the city a nuclear-free zone.
Just across Kachemak Bay lies Halibut Cove, an artists’ community of about 160 residents (40 in winter). Halibut Cove is reachable only by ferry, but nevertheless pulls in dozens of travelers daily, most of whom leave the Homer harbor at noon and return at 5 p.m. (adult round-trip fare: $35). Crossing the bay, passengers get a close-up view of the murre, puffin and other birds on Gull Island, then watch as the ferry pulls into a charming inlet with houses on pilings connected by a winding boardwalk.
On my day trip there, I admired the locally produced pottery, jewelry and sepia-toned octopus-ink paintings, and ate a spectacular lunch of Halibut Veracruz, beans, rice and fresh bread at the Saltry restaurant. After the meal, I found myself standing on the boardwalk in the middle of a truly strange and pleasant scene: Snowy mountains rising above, green lagoon sprawling before me, idle boats bobbing here and there, and next to the Experience Art Gallery entrance, a freckle-faced 9-year-old named Nicky Riordan, practicing his cello. Minuets, mostly.
He’d been playing for three years, he told me, and he liked playing in summer best because he was on vacation from mandatory daily practice. Finally I had to go back to catch the ferry back to Homer, but all the way down the boardwalk, I could hear Nicky’s bow strokes echoing across the inlet.
For such a small place, Homer looms large in popular culture. Or at least facsimiles of it do. Cicely, a tiny, quirky and fictional Alaskan town not entirely unlike Homer, has been the setting of the television series “Northern Exposure” for more than four years. And there are the folksy books and Motel 6 radio commericals (“We’ll leave the light on for ya”) of Tom Bodett, a Michigan-bred, 12-year resident of Homer who has set many of his fictional stories in a tiny Alaskan community he calls “The End of the Road.”
Before I left for Homer, I called Bodett and solicited, from the voice that promises to leave the light on for you, a quick insider’s take on his town.
Homer is like most small towns, Bodett said, in that “people know each other’s business, and people tend to care about each other a little more because they know each other a little better than they do in bigger cities.” But he also pointed out a compound distinction that does make Homer different: “The people who settled this land are still around,” but now they’ve been joined by well-educated, simplicity-seeking immigrants from the Lower 48.
“There are more unused college degrees in Homer,” said Bodett, “than I’ve seen anywhere.”
Homer’s tourism and fishing industries both begin with a geographical oddity called the Spit, which reaches 4.5 miles into the waters of Kachemak Bay. From the lookout point by the satellite dishes on Skyline Drive, the Spit looks like a long finger of sand. To a walker on its millions of tide-worn rocks, it can sound as brittle as glass breaking underfoot. Some stretches of the Spit sunk six feet into the bay in Alaska’s 1964 Good Friday earthquake, but by then the local economy was built around it, and it continues to be the busiest place in town. It houses five boardwalks bristling with fishing charter services, tacky souvenir stands and seafood restaurants.
Nearby lie scores of RV camping spots, the Salty Dawg bar, a hotel called the Land’s End Resort, Jean Keene’s trailer and, in summer, hundreds of tent campsites along the beach.
Most of the tent pilgrims, who also call themselves “spit rats,” arrive with the warm weather after Memorial Day, and many take jobs with charter companies. Eager to underline the Spit’s informal status as End of the Road, they tack up mileage signs announcing distances--to Paris, to Riverside, to Oconomowoc (Wisconsin)--and give their settlements names like Freedom Beach.
“I had a little money saved up, so I figured, ‘Ah, well, I’ll go down to Homer and live like a bum all summer,’ ” said Scott Wales, a 32-year-old spit rat, erstwhile waiter from Scottsdale, Ariz., and apparent mayor of Freedom Beach.
Another night--I think it was night--while taking pictures a few hundred yards up the shore from Freedom Beach, I met another pair of spit rats as they stoked a bonfire, barbecued some fresh cod and sucked Budweisers. One of them, who gave the name Smitty and punctuated his sentences with the exclamation “Arrrgh,” proposed that we steal a Coast Guard ship and pirate our way to Hamburg, Germany. He was serious, in a stinking drunk sort of way.
The rest of town is built on meadows and hillside among sandstone bluffs, overgrown by spruce, birch, alder and elderberry, and arranged around the main drag of Pioneer Avenue. Pioneer runs a mile through town and, in the improvised, spread-out fashion of Alaskan development, sustains enough businesses to fill about one-half mile of main drag in the Lower 48. City Hall, the library, the Smoky Bay Co-op, and the Ptarmigan Arts and Homer Artists galleries are all along Pioneer.
One afternoon--or perhaps evening--I ducked into the Homer Public Library and wound up comparing the Homer News’ police reports with those of its upstart rival, the Homer Tribune. The News scored a clear scoop, and offered a strong clue to the volume and depth of crime in the city, with its account of the escaped goat discovered “eating flowers and harassing customers” at the Wolf Sculpture Gallery. The goat’s owner got off with a warning.
The Pratt Museum, just off Pioneer Avenue, traces the region’s natural history, admirably paying particular attention to recent events. Downstairs, at a standing exhibit called “Darkened Waters: Profile of an Oil Spill,” visitors press a button and hear the low, laconic voice of Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, calling a Coast Guard dispatcher on March 24, 1989, to report a problem.
“Yeah, Valdez back, we should be on your radar there. We’ve fetched up, hard aground, north of Goose Island, off Bligh Reef, and evidently leaking some oil, and we’re gonna be here for a while, and, if you want . . . so, you’re notified.”
The spill amounted to more than 10.8 million gallons of crude oil dumped into Prince William Sound, the largest spill in United States history. Exxon agreed in 1991 to a $900 million civil settlement payment to state and federal officials, but several other spill-related lawsuits are still in progress. Though no traces of oil are visible on Homer’s beaches five years later, the city’s shores were among the 1,500 miles of directly affected Alaskan coastline. Cathy Godfrey, who moved to Homer just in time to experience the spill, remembers sitting at the Land’s End restaurant, a plate of clams before her, while beyond the window on the beach, clean-up workers strolled the beach in contamination suits.
For all the natural wonders that surround it, urban Homer is not a postcard place. Mark Turner, who arrived from Tucson four years ago and serves as editor and publisher of the Homer News, says he loves the place and has no plans to leave it, but he describes much of the local architecture as the “Ugly Alaska” school of design--buildings raised of necessity from resources at hand, and neighbored by stray materials that might someday come in handy. Junked old cars, for instance, and odd pieces of lumber.
This may scare off aesthetes, but it’s a direct expression of how recently and roughly the town rose from the dirt and weeds. Non-native settlers, who came to exploit coal and other mineral deposits, didn’t try to establish any kind of community here until the end of the 19th Century, and then they failed. (One of them was a gold prospector from New York named Homer Pennock, who gave his name to the place before he gave up.) After close to 20 years of deterioration, the town was rebuilt in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s by fishermen and homesteaders who arrived and departed by boat and plane. Homer’s future was assured in 1950, when a state crew completed Sterling Highway, the first road connection to Anchorage and the outside world. Locals say that by then, Homer’s salt-of-the-earth, head-in-the-stars, end-of-the-road character was probably already set.
“When I grew up,” says artist Asia Freeman, who was raised here in the 1960s, “it was the fundamentalists and the anarchists.” (Some of the city folks up in Anchorage apparently have another word for those who live here: Homeroid.)
These days, Freeman and her partner, carpenter Kurt Marquardt, are trying to put their own stamp on the new Homer. The focus of their efforts is a boxy old building at Main Street and Bunnell. Fifty-seven years ago, the building was put up to hold a boarding house upstairs and a general mercantile store below.
Now it houses the Bunnell Street Gallery (founded 1991) downstairs, the Old Inlet Trading Post B&B; (founded 1993) upstairs, the Two Sisters Espresso Bakery (founded in 1993) next door, and boatwright Gregor Welpton’s shop next door. A vintage clothing shop, about a year old, stands brightly hued across the street, and an informal guild of home beer brewers meets in the basement. It feels like a place where things are going to happen.
It was about three blocks from there, however, that the Tom Bodett thing happened. I was eating a late dinner alone near the rear of Cafe Cups on Pioneer Avenue, and an assertive woman from out of town was leading her party of seven into a discussion of Homer’s leading author and radio host.
First she asked the waitress where Bodett was. Getting no satisfactory answer, she pivoted in her seat, spied me in the back, and announced to her friends, to me, and to the rest of the restaurant, “I’ll bet that’s him. Are you Tom Bodett?”
The real Tom Bodett, I knew, was on vacation in Hawaii. This was one of those wondrous Alaskan opportunities, my chance to adopt a drawl, say whatever I pleased, and add a Tom Bodett chapter to my life.
Alas, Mr. Bodett can rest easy. I just shook my head, finished off my scallops, and stepped out of the restaurant into the late-night lazy afternoon light of summertime Homer. A true Homerite, I suspect, might have done otherwise.
GUIDEBOOK: Homer Primer
Getting there: Alaska Airlines, Delta Airlines and Mark Air fly regularly between LAX and Anchorage (direct flights; restricted round-trip fares starting at $478). In summer, Mark Air offers daily nonstop flights between Anchorage and Homer ( restricted fares starting at $116 round trip). The 225-mile drive to Homer from Anchorage takes about 4 1/2 hours. Homer is on an Alaskan ferry boat route that also includes Kodiak, Seward, Valdez and other ports. More information: Homer Ferry Terminal (P.O. Box 166, Homer, Alaska 99603; 800-382-9229 or 907-235-8449.)
Where to stay: Land’s End Resort (4786 Homer Spit Road, Homer, Alaska 99603; 907-235-0400) at the end of the Homer spit, features 61 rooms, restaurant, lounge and RV park. Summer rates for double rooms: $80-$160 nightly. The Driftwood Inn (135 W. Bunnell Ave.; 907-235-8019) is a block from the beach, has 21 rooms and follows a woodsy-nautical theme. Double rooms in summer run $62-$128. The Old Inlet Trading Post Bed & Breakfast (106 W. Bunnell Ave.; 907-235-7558) has three rooms, (two share a bathroom) and stands one block from the beach. Summer rates for a double: $55-$65.
Where to eat: Cafe Cups (162 W. Pioneer Ave.907-235-8330); rustic/sophisticated atmosphere and menu featuring local seafood; dinner entrees $11-$19. The Homestead (mile 8.2, East End Road; 907-235-8723); and very popular with locals, despite some of the highest prices in town; dinner entrees $14-$22. For breakfast, lunch and snacks, Two Sisters Espresso Bakery (106 W. Bunnell St., Suite B; 907-235-2280). The Saltry (Halibut Cove; 907-296-2223) requires an hour-long journey by sea each way, but is memorable with its waterfront setting. Entrees $8-$16.
For more information: Contact the Homer Chamber of Commerce (P.O. Box 541, Homer, Alaska, 99603-0541; 907-235-7740) or its Visitor Information Center (907-235-5300). Another source is the Alaska Division of Tourism (P.O. Box 110801, Juneau, Alaska 99811-0801; 907-465-2010).