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Wilderness trip with Lower 48 visitors can be full of pitfalls and pleasures

Alli Harvey
Mako's Water Taxi crosses Kachemak Bay. Bob Hallinen

A sweeping view of the panoramic, majestic shoreline along Kachemak Bay State Park & Wilderness would have stopped short at the sight of us, like a snag in fabric.

The five of us stood together on a remote beach with our substantial pile of mismatched belongings. Each of us faced the same way, scanning the water for boats. Rain clouds billowed purple behind us.

The youngest in our group was 11. The oldest was her grandmother. A blue cooler sat with its wheels dug into the sand under a duffle bag with irregular-looking bulges (a pot, and a box of honey grahams). Several backpacks and duffels were arranged in a perilously leaning tower.

We nervously cracked jokes so none of us would have to say what was really on our mind. What if the boat didn’t come back?

I took the moment to reflect on how we had come to be in this place together.

Months before, when it was still dark out and we wondered if summer would ever arrive, my husband and I received the email confirming his family’s travel itinerary. His mom and sister would fly up from the desert to visit for a week.

In turn, like the good Alaska hosts we are, my husband and I recommended hotels, shared activities (bike riding, ice cream, bird watching), and promptly booked a primitive shelter in the wilderness only accessible by boat. We reserved the Haystack Yurt across Kachemak Bay for two nights of delightful family fun in the Alaska summer sun.

What?

By the time they landed in Alaska, summer had arrived but the weather forecast didn’t look good. Rain pummeled down on our windshield after we picked them up from the airport. When we discussed our weekend plans, details began to emerge. No, there isn’t a shower where we’re staying. No, we can’t take the truck across the bay. There are no electrical outlets. Yes, well, there’s a bathroom of sorts...it’s a port-a-potty kind of thing, and you need to pack out your own waste.

Silence fell in the car. I pictured an open-air water taxi bumping across Kachemak Bay with this same kind of rain drenching our things. I pictured a very, very long weekend.

Inner backpacker concerned

When I saw the actual quantity of things we planned to bring across the bay, my heart sank further. There were at least five boxes of firewood. We had a fully packed cooler on wheels. An entire backpack was dedicated to dry food. A massive duffel stowed our cooking supplies. Assorted backpacks and totes stored personal gear, and there was a 5-gallon jug of water. We brought the board game Settlers of Catan.

When we arrived in Homer and I took another gander at the gear in the truck, my inner backpacker fretted. Hadn’t we packed too much?

The amiable properietor of Mako’s Water Taxi, Mako Haggerty, made me feel better as he escorted me down the ramp to show me where we could stage our stuff on the dock to wait for the water taxi. Haggerty said lightly, “When I go camping, I like to bring my couch and satellite TV.”

Before long, the taxi arrived to take us across the bay. Once we were out on the water (and there was an indoor cab, by the way),  the sun appeared. As we approached the opposite shoreline, the canvas-colored top of the yurt came into view from amid the trees.

Then the water taxi operator dropped a metal ladder from the boat into the waves lapping on the shore and started helping us launch our earthly belongings from the boat onto the sand.

We stood on the beach and he pulled the ladder back up into the boat and waved. I said, with a brightness in my voice that perhaps belied concern, “See you Sunday!” We watched him motor away.

It’s a very strange thing, being deposited on a beach in Alaska with one’s many (many) camping possessions and nothing else.

We were alone. We hadn’t even found the yurt yet, because it was hidden by trees. We scanned the beach for signs of a trail, which in a place as wild and overgrown as this forest, was not as easy as it sounds.

Wow moments

We found it, though, and ascended a short path to our home for the next two nights. A yurt is a rounded shelter with a conical roof that tapers off in the center with a skylight. They’re typically not hard to assemble and designed efficiently. But they’re not known for their privacy, as they are one big room. However, when we opened the door and found ours in good condition, people seemed excited about the novelty of staying there. More importantly, we were excited to check out the beach. We put down our things and walked back down the path.

When my husband and I have time off for just the two of us, we typically select a mountain we want to climb. Or, if we have a lot of time, we’ll go on a backpacking trip. Whatever, it’s probably uphill, and it’s probably hard. We enjoy the grind in our strange way and then treat ourselves to beers and burgers afterward.

What happened this trip is that, with the relatives in town, we found ourselves experiencing an adventure alongside them. Our family was far from their usual place in the desert. We were far from our normal sort of weekend or vacation. We all started walking on the beach, and quickly realized we were -- really, truly, actually -- the only people on it.

We marveled at this. Even for an Alaskan living in Anchorage, I don’t get the sense that I am a speck on a vast landscape as often as I’d hope. I was awed and excited. As we walked, I heard “wow!” and “this is amazing” from the visitors.

It was amazing. The view stretched out in every direction, in many colors. The clouds and sun settled over different mountains and stretches of water, so the light was always moving. There were two sea otters close to shore. We saw eagles and thousands of gulls. There were pieces of driftwood that were entire trees. We wandered for hours, creating a seesaw out of driftwood, skipping stones, admiring tracks and exploring the marshes, grasses and beaches until we started to get hungry.

We went back to the yurt and made dinner together. There was a big fire ring, so we started in on the wood we’d brought. I was excited we had so much stuff with us -- even if it didn’t include a satellite TV.

For the entire rest of the weekend it barely rained.

By the time Sunday rolled around no major catastrophes had occurred. However, we were ready to leave. The awe had worn off and we were tired, uncomfortable and muddy. Showering sounded really nice. So did food that didn’t come from the cooler. The water taxi did indeed come back for us and soon we were heading back across the bay toward Homer Spit.

Someone once told me that nostalgic memories of outdoor experiences are formed in retrospect, once all of the creature discomfort has faded. You hike, hurt and curse your way to the top of the mountain and back. The next day (or week or year) you think back with nothing but a lovely recollection of the view. I think spending quality time with people you love in remote corners of Alaska that lack the modern comforts of home is like this. In the moment, there is a sense of discovery and awe that is quickly tarnished by sand, muck and the anxiety of waiting for a boat. In memory, it’s only the good stuff.

Check out yurts across the bay in Homer (including, but not limited to, the one we stayed at, Haystack Yurt) here or call: (907) 299-6879. Contact Mako’s Water Taxi at (907) 235-9055

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.