Exploring crabs, sea stars, kelp, octopus of Kachemak Bay

HOMER — The morning sun was creeping across the storefronts of Homer Spit as I plunked my backpack and XtraTufs near the doorway of the Center For Alaskan Coastal Studies yurt. A brightly decorated sign featuring sea stars and bits of kelp (or was it seaweed?) festooned the entrance, welcoming visitors to their hands-on experience within Kachemak Bay's briny depths.

The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CACS) is a quadrant of facilities stretching from the upper reaches of Homer's bluffs to Peterson Bay on the other side of Kachemak Bay. Dedicated to fostering positive interactions with the Kenai Peninsula's stunning natural surroundings through a vibrant curriculum of science-based activities and outdoor stewardship, the center is on track to become a go-to location for Southcentral Alaska school kids, families and visitors who want a deeper experience than what they might find on land.

Though I've visited the other coastal center properties like Wynn Nature Center for independent exploration, guided tours, and events with my family, the one destination remaining was Peterson Bay Field Station. Reached via a short boat ride from the Homer harbor, Peterson Bay is tucked away from the usual cacophony of summer fishing, harried souvenir-seekers and campers who frequent Homer Spit each summer.

Naturalists lead visitors

The Peterson Bay Field Station property was purchased in the early 1980s and consists of a small house that acts as headquarters for miles of trails, a beach and five yurts that accommodate overnight stays. Naturalists spend the summer as caretakers of this 4-acre patch of property, leading hikes and classes, and providing a dash of area history for the constant flow of visitors arriving between April and mid-October.

As our charter boat lined up with the field station dock, naturalist Laura Robison welcomed the mishmash of adults and kids on the eight-hour day trip to explore the area's flora and fauna.

"What do you want to learn, today?" she asks, gathering up a stack of identification cards and hitching up her rubber boots. "It's a great tide right now!"

Nearly everyone had been to beaches, and some of us had even walked among the rocks, but few knew actual names of the living things crawling or swimming around in the cold water aside from terms like "worm" or "crab." Robison's plan? Hike to the beach and get wet and dirty.

An eagle watching us from a dead tree chattered as we wound our way up and over the ridge leading from the house to China Poot Bay, stopping often to talk about edible plants, the sounds of songbirds or simply to marvel at the 75-degree weather that caused us all to strip down to T-shirts and apply sun screen.

Robison paused so we could snack on early blueberries and to ask if we thought the smaller leaves of the watermelon berry plant taste like cucumber (they do). At one point, we stood around the remains of a Dena'ina dwelling and discussed life in Kachemak Bay centuries ago.

But it was the beach and swirling water that drew us closer, and Robison was anxious to get us down to the shell-laden shoreline while the tide was at a maximum low. Opening her pack, she grabbed the identification cards, each strung with a length of yarn to go around our necks.

‘Beach bling’

"It's your own version of "beach bling," she said, and it would make figuring out the myriad species of mollusk, crab and barnacles present along the half-mile stretch of beach much easier.

After a tutorial that made me instantly guilty remembering all the mussels I've ever stepped upon, Robison turned us loose to explore. Alaska's high and low tides cause an amazing diversity of saltwater creatures to cling to rocks, docks and pilings, and today was no different. Robison cautioned us to pick up living things carefully, staying close to the water, and returning them as soon as possible.

The sun beat warm upon our backs but the water was chilly as we leaned over and dipped our hands into the bay to capture a pygmy rock crab that skittered across our palms and a gunnelfish that looked way too much like an eel for me to pick up. Adults turned to kids with a child's excitement of new discovery, and kids became invertebrate experts, teaching the grownups how to touch a Christmas tree anemone without hurting its delicate outer surface.

Robison says that's her favorite part about working at Peterson Bay — the opportunity to discover something new and understand how one layer of life connects to another. Adults love to visit because the setting is serene, semi-remote and full of rich environments in the temperate rainforest near the house and yurts, and along the kelp beds of the waterfront. Kids love to visit because chances to hold an arthropoda or see an octopus arm sticking out from beneath an enormous rock don't happen every day, no matter where you live.

Plus, it's undeniable, this feeling of care for a place so fragile and sensitive to changes, be they man-made or natural.

"I want everyone who makes the effort to come out here to feel a connection with the environment," Robison told me later. "I've given them a tangible reason to care, and maybe they'll go home and start looking differently at their own backyards."

All too soon, it's time to put back the pygmy hermit crabs and leave the octopus so he or she can get ready to slink away in the coming high tide. Robison collects our beach bling, does a final sweep for stragglers, and points us back up the hill toward the headquarters building.

As I looked back, I saw a family with small children slowly making its way along the beach. The two little ones squatted near the water's edge, tiny hands close to the water as they scooped up shells and kelp, laughing loudly at their own surprise when a clam squirted water in their faces from the mud.

We all looked at each other and nodded. We knew how they felt.

Peterson Bay Field Station: If you go

  • Getting there:
  • The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies arranges day or overnight excursions to the property and provides transportation.
  • www.akcoastalstudies.org
  • . Prices vary depending upon the tour and length of stay.
  • Activities:
  • Independent travelers can take an 8 a.m.-4 p.m. day tour that includes ample tidepooling time. Groups can arrange day tours to fit school curriculum or service projects.
  • Overnight stays:
  • Yurt stays are an enjoyable way to extend a day trip. Bunks are comfortable and guests have access to a full kitchen and common area in the headquarters building. Overnight guests should bring sleeping bags, food, and beverages. Not into tent camping? A yurt experience offers a nice bridge between roughing it and civilization, especially with kids.

Erin Kirkland is author of "Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th State With Children," and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family-friendly travel.