Even with one bad eye, Alaska’s Barren Islands are a sight to behold

  • Author: Steve Meyer
    | Alaska guns & hunting
  • Updated: June 12, 2018
  • Published June 12, 2018

Christine Cunningham is happy to have both eyes to see this Quillback rockfish. The Barren Islands are in the background. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

When I shook Christine awake at 2 a.m., she muttered, "I don't think I can go."

"What do you mean you can't go, you always go," I said.

Then she turned her head and revealed the rationale behind missing a trip to new country for us, a small cluster of islands in the middle of nowhere, sort of the "last frontier" for the hopeful angler.

The night before we had sat around the fire ring, mesmerized by the eruption of sparks from its core, much later than we should have. But we've always held to the belief that one can sleep when they're dead.

Her turned head evidenced a common phenomenon for Alaskans. An insect of indiscriminate taste had bitten her, and the aftermath was a left eye that was swollen shut and the size of a tennis ball.

Sympathy never being a strong suit, I laughed and pointed out that the reason we had two eyes was just such an occasion. Why squander the opportunity to utilize this natural spare tire?

"But people will see me," she pleaded.

"No, fishermen will see you, it isn't the same thing," I said.

"I'll look hideous," she said.

I suggested we could put a black hood over her head, stick a fishing rod in her hand and lead her down the ramp to the boat. "The fishermen will think it is a new way to combat sea-sickness, and besides, you know the salt air heals everything."

"Fine, I'll get up!" she said.

Three hours later, standing in the stern as we passed the tip of the Homer Spit, I could hear our ever-sensitive captain hollering above the engine noise and the slap of the waves on the aluminum hull.

"Hey one-eye, there's some frozen herring in the cooler back there, go slap one on your face," he chortled.

Tim, the captain and a great friend of ours, was a charter boat operator who had plied his trade on the waters of Lower Cook Inlet for 30 years. He had taken a busman's holiday to celebrate July 4th with his daughter, her husband and Christine and I, in a place unfettered by civilization, a symbolic celebration of freedom. He brought his love of the water and his ever-present good humor.

Heading southwest out of Homer, the sun rising off the southern Kenai Mountains, a slight breeze added to the morning chill that, if the weather held, would be gone in the three hours it would take to reach our destination.

After a lifetime of trips along the coastline that harbors the small, picturesque communities of Seldovia and English Bay it is always a welcome diversion from the mainland. Family groups of sea otters bob in the swells, the lone males, with their grizzled, silver faces, lay back like old men in their recliners, pining away their days. The otters always seem to be waving, wishing you well.

Spastic seabirds, the puffins, murres and a variety of seagulls challenged the boat, sometimes strafing in disdain when no morsels were cast their way. After pounding through the rip where Kachemak Bay meets Cook Inlet, a group of Stellar sea lions lounged along a small rocky island, one old bull opening one eye to give us a look that suggested he didn't appreciate the disturbance.

Breaking away from the relative security of the coastline, looking over the bow, the often-ominous dark line that signals bad weather was absent, a welcome sign for the day ahead. Nevertheless, as we parted company with other boats that continued down the coast, the feeling of being alone was palpable as we headed to the edge of nowhere.

The Barren Islands are situated in a bit of a vortex on the northern portion of the Gulf of Alaska. Bounded by Cook Inlet to the north, Shuyak and Raspberry Island to the south, the Shelikof Strait to the southwest and Gore Point to the northeast, the Barrens are lonesome chunks of real estate surrounded by waters that provide some of the Gulf of Alaska's most spectacular weather.

The currents below do not subscribe to the tide book. Nor does one precisely know what the sea will be doing on any given day.

When we arrived off the southern coast of the Barrens, we found them to be anything but barren. The islands are covered in a variety of green vegetation and the coast line is jagged edged cliffs, home to thousands of seabirds. The designation barren seems more to suggest barren of humans, as there is little in the way of accessible places one could attempt to go ashore.

The wind was light, but the swells out of the gulf were building as we started dropping jigs to the pinnacles jutting up from the seafloor below. Between the tide, the swells and the stalagmites below, the fishing was amazing, but relaxing it was not.

For Tim, who choreographed our efforts from the cabin with a constant visual of the bottom on the depth finder, it seemed anything but a holiday. But he kept his humor, jabbing Christine at every opportunity. "Hey one-eye, your eye shouldn't slow down your reeling, get that thing up."

After a couple of hours, Christine brought in the fish of the day, a lingcod in the 65-pound range.

"Do you want to keep it?" Tim asked.

"Well yeah," she said. Lingcod are exceptional table fare and we don't often have the chance to put them in the freezer.

With the fish box full it was time to move on. It was then we looked around and realized the swells that had grown early and provided a roller coaster view of the surroundings during the fishing frenzy had settled. The water we needed to cross on the way home looked placid.

"You know," Tim said as we headed back, the picturesque Barrens framed in the cabin door, "this is why I could never do anything that would send me to jail. I would miss all of this. Being out here, no matter what the day brings, makes everything better."

Looking at Christine he said, "I can't even call her one-eye anymore, she's all healed up. See, the salt cures everything."

Steve Meyer of Soldotna is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact Steve at oldduckhunter@outlook.com.