We Alaskans

Homer's heartbeat: An ode to the Spit

 
 

HOMER — Visitor season is in full swing on the Homer Spit, a 4½-mile-long wisp of land that juts into the middle of Kachemak Bay at the southern end of the highway from Anchorage.

Each summer here plays out in a string of — forgive me — small moments of poetry on the Homer Spit.

  • A Russian Old Believer fisherman pulls his gillnet out of the water with a dump truck while his wife — in a long traditional dress and with a babe in arms — stands watching from the harbor dock.
  • A silver salmon — still bright — lies lifeless on a harbor float having, apparently, leaped to its death.
  • A tote of coral-red rockfish — some, no doubt, older than the state of Alaska — sits on the dock with a dozen eyes to the sky.
  • The charred remains of a sailboat float in the harbor wearing an orange boom like a string of pearls.

The Spit is where the town of Homer was born, first as a staging area for coal mined from bluffs on the mainland. The Spit offered the closest deep-water anchorage for ships that took to market this low-quality product that tended to spark. Coal mining is long gone, but today the Spit houses the community's boat harbor, barge terminal, large vessel dock, charter fishing operations, adventure outfits, trinket stores, art shops, seasonal restaurants, million dollar condominiums and Homer's most upscale hotel.

Visitors come from all over the world for the unobstructed views of two mountain ranges, four volcanoes and miles and miles of open sea. They come to fish: from the gravel beach at tip of the Spit, off charters and private boats, and in the man-made Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon — or Fishing Hole as it's known. At the 100-some mostly locally owned storefronts and restaurants that crowd near the end of the Spit, they buy fish and chips, ulus, hoodies and lattes. They belly up to one of Alaska's most famous bars, the Salty Dawg Saloon, in a log cabin that has served, over the last century, as a coal company office, railroad station, grocery store, residence and post office. They swarm the Spit in RVs and rent rooms at Land's End Resort, which let the first accommodations here nearly 60 years ago. Some summer weekends, it seems as if half of Anchorage has emptied onto the Spit, and the Sunday evening traffic back up the highway is dreary.

City officials want to capitalize on Homer's position as a gateway to Cook Inlet and the Arctic. Long-term plans call for a major expansion of the harbor to accommodate large vessels that now can only tie up on a short-term basis outside the breakwater. Homer could play a role during construction of Alaska's planned LNG pipeline from the North Slope to tidewater and in ongoing support of LNG and other oil and gas operations in the region. This could mean a huge boon to maritime industries in Homer and an industrial makeover of the Spit. 

The Spit used to be the summertime bedroom for scores of "Spit Rats" — college students who descended upon Alaska in June to work in fisheries and wanderers who found their way to the end of the road. You could roll into town, find a job at the Icicle Seafoods processing facility and pitch a tent. When the Icicle plant blew up in 1998 because of an ammonia leak, lots of jobs went up with the smoke. With fewer entry-level positions available, and stricter rules against long-term camping, these days there aren't many Spit Rats around. Some locals think this is a shame. Despite their itinerant beginnings, many one-time Spit Rats went on to dig deep roots in Homer, opening some of the community's most successful businesses: a beloved bakery, a popular restaurant, a long-running charter business.

Sense of loss 

In the 1970s, you could get a crab dinner for $2.25 at Land's End. And you don't have to wander too far around the Spit to find someone eager to reminisce about the days you could drop a pot off the dock and catch enough king crab for a dinner with your friends. Or how you could get a bucketful of shrimp for a few dollars to take to the Salty Dawg to enjoy with your beer.

The shrimp are gone. The king crab are gone. The Dungeness crab are gone. Halibut are shrinking. Today people wonder what stories they will tell in the years and decades to come.

Despite the sense of loss that's just below the surface here, an abundance of flora and fauna manages to squeeze in between tourism concerns and industry infrastructure on the Spit. Eagles nest on metal piers just outside the harbor breakwater. Anemones bloom on the undersides of harbor floats. Otters haul out next to docked pleasure craft. An octopus dens just down the beach from where a 150-foot landing craft has been dragged ashore for repairs.

And each spring, tens of thousands of shorebirds on their way to nesting grounds farther north needle their bills into the mudflats around the Spit in search of pink, thumbnail-sized macoma clams. 

Even so, this far-flung finger of land points at the global changes shaping our climate and oceans. At Coal Point Seafoods, the Spit's most popular outfit for processing sport-caught fish, a traveling video kiosk informed visitors about ocean acidification and its impacts on local waters. From the recently extended trail that traces the length of the Spit, you can witness the workaday operations of Alaska's fisheries as the questions dangle about how they will be transformed in the decades to come.

Transformed by 1964 earthquake

Thousands of years ago, the Spit was a pile of gravel at the foot of a glacier. And today it remains at the whims of natural processes, despite endless fortification over the years with riprap, concrete and fill. Sediment washes down both sides of the Spit from the north, depositing at the tip, extending the landform by an inch or two a year and clogging the harbor mouth, requiring regular dredging. The scouring of the sea on the Spit's outer flank can be seen in the way the parking lot at the $1.5 million Kachemak Shellfish Growers Cooperative building is disappearing. A winter storm also decimated a nearby RV campground, leaving a tangled pile of steel gabions, chain-link fencing and broken crab pots that are the remnants of the owners' improvised seawall, patched together over the last decade and a half.

In the years before the huge 1964 earthquake, the Spit was higher and wider, with a meadow near its base large enough to hold ballgames and graze horses. The violent shaking dropped the Spit half a dozen feet into the sea, dissolved the breakwater of the new harbor, which had opened just one year before, and sent high tide into the lobby of Land's End Resort and across the bar at the Salty Dawg. 

Saltwater now inundates Green Timbers, an area near the base of the Spit where a grove of spruce trees grew before the quake. Once the town's most popular playground and now treeless and tidal, Green Timbers offers a respite from the business of the Spit and the rest of the world. Blue, waist-high rye grass rises up between sea-carved driftwood and odds and ends the tide has delivered: a blue sweatshirt size small, a rusty hook in the shape of a question mark, the title page from a book called "The Sins of The Father."  

On this margin of gravel and sand, here at the verge of the sea, at the fringe of this busy outpost of humanity, you can almost feel as though you're on an island flung off Alaska's coast. You can almost imagine the Spit during the days when Dena'ina sea otter hunters gathered here before a hunt. Not far from the Green Timbers beach, they left middens that reveal how this finger of land — Uzintin, or "extends out into the distance" — was more than just a waypoint. It was a gateway to the rich, rich sea. 

In little more than a month, most of the Spit will be put to bed for the winter. Only to wake up again as the returning light blares down on Alaska come spring, and commercial fishermen and scrap metal exporters, Spit Rats and third-time cruise ship passengers, captains and slime liners, locals, visitors, potters, chefs, biologists and everyone in between find their way here once again.

Homer freelance writer Miranda Weiss is the author of "Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska".

Sponsored