Kickin' Back on the Kenai

Urban Alaska

I pre-planned my days in Seward and Homer. The rest of my travel time was pure improvisation. When I spotted an inviting trailhead, I'd take a solo hike, clapping and hooting like a madman to scare off nosy bears. I liked the looks of the log cabin restaurant at Gwin's Lodge, had lunch on a whim, and was rewarded with a magnificent home-cooked meal. Gwin's rhubarb pie was so good that — in keeping with Alaska's big-game tradition — I wanted to take the crust home and have it mounted.

There are only five incorporated towns on the peninsula. Both Soldotna and Kenai, which sit side by side right where the Sterling Highway makes its big bend down the coast toward Homer, suffer from strip mall sprawl. Russophiles may find the old Russian Orthodox Church and the cluster of eighteenth-century settlers' homes in Kenai worth a visit. I didn't. They are surrounded by tract housing, an RV park, and American Legion Post 20; as is the whale watching observation point that overlooks Cook Inlet.

The highlight of my swing through Kenai was driving down Broad Street and having to stop for three moose who were noshing on shrubbery by a drive-in bank. I could've bagged 'em with a Weed Wacker. The Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center is only a block away. It was there I learned that 8,000 moose roam the peninsula. I also notice on display the black Alaskan sea otter cape worn by 1967's Miss Kenai beauty queen. Knocking around local museums is one of the unsung joys of travel. At the Seward Museum I stumble upon the canvas"cow raincoat" that an Alaskan farmer felt compelled to invent for his dairy herd in 1935, as well as a cross section of a 350-year-old Sitka spruce and an account of a 1916 baseball series between teams from Seward and Anchorage.

Upon entering Homer city limits, I immediately make a beeline for Pratt Museum, the pride of the lower peninsula. It has a fine collection of whaling, mining, and native-culture artifacts. The permanent exhibit on the 11 million-gallon Exxon oil spill in 1989 includes tapes of the tanker's radio transmissions and a detailed account of the massive cleanup, right down to the rehab costs of $30,000 per bird and $80,000 per sea otter.

Seward bills itself as "the REAL Alaska", a dig at Homer's trendy reputation. The homes in Homer are cute, the art galleries plentiful. The four-mile-long harbor spit is functionally funky, a place where one can sip espresso after charter-boat fishing for halibut. Homer has everything going for it but convenience. All the real-deal mountains and alpine lakes lie across Kachemak Bay. There is no road access. You are at the mercy of bush pilots and ferry schedules.

A day trip to Halibut Cove — a quaint, self-governing community of artists and rugged homesteaders — is as de rigeur as hoisting a beer at the famous Salty Dawg Saloon. I have the good fortune of catching the ferry on a rare occasion when Clem Tillian was at the helm. Tillian, age 72, gravitated to Homer after World War II; long before Homer was"Homer." During the bay crossing he keeps sticking his head out of the wheelhouse and providing a running commentary on everything from the Gull Island bird rookery to the origins of glacier names.

Tillian's wife Diana is a pioneer in her own right: She has mastered the art of painting landscapes with octopus ink. When the ferry ties up at Halibut Cove, passengers flock to her gallery. I go have a cup of tea with Clem in the stately bayside house he built by hand. A shotgun rests on the piano in the foyer. Life is beautiful at Halibut Cove, says Tillian. But there's no sewer system, no school, and no grocery store. His granddaughter also died in a house fire some years ago. There was no hook and ladder to race to the rescue.

I thought of that little girl on the return ferry leg when Tillian pokes his head out of his wheelhouse to chat with a passenger. "People use the word 'wilderness' recklessly out here," he says. "It hasn't been wilderness in about 50 years."

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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