The first settlers couldn’t possibly have envisioned the lively colorful scene that the end of the Homer Spit has become. Back before the turn of the century, the 4.5 mile long finger was a grassy, flower-carpeted stretch with a grove of spruce, considerably higher, wider and drier than it is now. The prevalent theory for the Spit’s origin is that it is the remains of an ancient glacial moraine, constantly reshaped by ocean currents. The massive 1964 earthquake reduced the Spit to 508 acres, about 350 of which are submerged at mean high tide. And the ever-restless elements continue to rearrange this unique spot, most notably rebuilding the beach on the end of the spit to pre earthquake dimensions.
According to the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, ‘ka’ means water, ‘chek’ means cliff, and ‘mak’ is an intensive suffix meaning high, great, large. Therefore Kachemak means something like high or large cliff above the water, and comes from its original Native inhabitants. Kachemak Bay is also sometimes referred to as Smoky Bay or Smoking Bay to describe coal seams that used to smolder in the bluffs that front the north shore. Homer is named after Homer Pennock, a charismatic con man who led an expedition to the area in 1896 in search of gold. They found coal instead located in those coal seams on the bluffs above town. Pennock left the expedition, supposedly to secure more funding, and never returned.
Kachemak Bay is split into inner and outer Bays by the Homer Spit, which extends four miles into the Bay from the northern shoreline, delimiting the inner and outer portions. In general, water flows into Kachemak Bay on the southern side and out of the Bay on the northern side. The inflowing water is more marine while the outflowing water is more estuarine, being more turbid and less saline, due to the outflow of several rivers that terminate in the bay. Water flows between the inner and outer Bays through a narrow opening formed between the Spit and the southern shoreline.
The large tidal range brings nutrients into the Kachemak Bay estuary. Outgoing tides pull freshwater sediments from the land, and incoming tides push in nutrients from the ocean. You can actually see the delineation between the fresh and sea water as the tides pull it back and forth. This makes a highly productive intertidal area with salt marshes and many species of marine life. The bay’s estuary is the largest estuary research reserve in America.
“The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and the relentless drive of life…..” – Rachel Carson
The 1964 Good Friday Earthquake severely damaged the Homer Spit, causing portions of it to sink about six feet, destroying the road as well as the surrounding habitat, now known as “Mud Bay.” The US Army Corps of Engineers reconstructed the first few miles of the Spit, giving it its present appearance.
Even with the earthquake repairs, the forces of nature that built the Homer Spit might have washed it away years ago, if humans had not continued to intervene. Winter storms roaring out of the northwest continually try to separate the 4.5-mile strip of sand and gravel from the mainland, but rock walls and perseverance keep it intact.
A longtime landmark on the Homer Spit, the Salty Dawg Saloon is a 117-year-old cabin that has served the town in various capacities as a railroad station, grocery store, and post office. Believing that I would be back to visit inside we just cruised on by with only a photo of Cory seeming relatively uninterested in their “No Dogs” policy. I believe that with “Dawg” in the name it certainly should have had at least an outside dog friendly area!
When Kachemak Bay State Park was designated in June 1970, it became Alaska’s very first state park and for our Homer adventure Deanne and I chartered a private boat to tour the bay. Our captain was a retired marine biologist that knew the area and had many stories to share. Captain Glenn has over 40 years professional experience in biology and conservation of marine and coastal areas in Alaska, including over 16 years in the Kachemak Bay and Homer, Alaska area. A marine biologist by trade, he has also recently completed an graduate degree in Cross-Cultural Studies, studying indigenous knowledge systems and cultures in Alaska.
It was a great day on the water and we enjoyed a large variety of bird life as well as some of the marine mammal inhabitants of the area.
Gull Island near Halibut Cove is a rookery for more than 12,000 seabirds, including one of my favorite Alaska birds (after the Bald Eagle of course) the puffins. This was my first glimpse of puffins here in Alaska and they did not disappoint. We get a much closer look at these birds when we visit the Sea Life Center in Seward so will write more (and share more photos of them) in the next post.
The bay is also home to Harbor Seals, some Sea Lions and a huge resident population of Sea Otters.
Sea otters are the heaviest members of the weasel family. They can weigh up to 100 pounds, which is still pretty light compared to seals and sea lions, but much heavier than they look at first glance. I would frequently watch the sea otters around the Monterey Bay in California and they have a huge range stretching from one end to the other of the shallower coastal waters of the North Pacific Ocean, although I learned that most are, incidentally, found in Alaska. Otters eat lots of other ocean critters; urchins, abalone, mussels, clams, crab. They must eat 25% of their body weight in food each day just to support their incredibly high metabolism that, along with their fur, helps to keep them warm. Sea otters rely primarily upon fur, not fat; to keep them warm in the chilly waters, so they have a dense, soft, and heavy fur; up to 250,000-1 million hairs per square inch. This beautiful coat is what made them so popular to the fur traders in the 1700’s and into the late 1800’s.
“Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people who are alive today, but the property of unknown generations, whose belongings we have no right to squander.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Survivors of the 1742 Bering Expedition sparked a “fur rush” when they returned to Russia with Sea Otter pelts from Alaska’s coast. To the sailors’ amazement, a single pelt in the Chinese market was worth three times their yearly pay at the time. This fur rush would last 170 years and decimate populations of both the Native peoples and the native animals. The natives’ harvest of the otter for only what they needed shifted to the market hunters taking all that they could. Island by island, Russian fur traders pushed through the Aleutians, the Kodiak Archipelago and on to Southeast Alaska, subjugating the Native inhabitants and hunting all the sea otters that they could find. By 1860, not only the Russian, but also British, French, Spanish and American fur traders had harvested approximately 600,000 sea otters on the southeast coast alone. By 1899, otters were so rare that none of the scientists on the Harriman Alaska Expedition reported seeing even one.
But sea otter populations have recovered in many areas, thanks to a few changes. The International Fur Seal Treaty in 1911 protected sea otters from most human harvest. Wildlife agencies also made an effort to aid sea otter recolonization. The current Sea Otter population in Kachemak Bay is in the thousands, according to our captain possibly as many as 4,000-5,000 animals. Judging by the numbers we saw on just this one morning I can certainly believe it. Although it appears the numbers are increasing there have been high numbers of dead otters washing up on beaches in recent years.
Homer’s climate is moderated by the Pacific Ocean, resulting in warmer winters and cooler summers than seen in places farther inland in Alaska. The average maximum temperature is 29.2 degrees F in January and 60.9 degrees F in July. The average minimum temperature is 16.7 degrees F in January and 46.3 degrees F in July. Average total annual precipitation is 24.4 inches, with 54.9 inches of snowfall, and 5 inches average snow depth in February
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” – Aldo Leopold
As in other parts of Alaska and the world, Homer’s climate is warming. While there are large variations from year to year, a linear trend analysis of records from 1949 to 2009 reveals an average seasonal temperature increase of 5.9 degrees F in winter, 3.8 degrees in spring, 3.3 degrees in summer, and 1.8 degrees in autumn. An overall increase of 3.8 degrees. This trend is continuing and potentially growing in strength. In 2015 alone, Alaska’s mean average annual temperature was 35.3º F, a substantial 2.7º higher than the 30-year normal of 32.6º. This is also resulting in warmer water temperatures. Warmer temperatures speed fish metabolisms, requiring them to eat more, just as their food declines. Some fish may see tinier bodies, more disease, and, in many cases, falling populations, according to recent studies. Already, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, many fish and plankton are heading toward the poles in search of cooler temperatures. As productive areas grow scarcer with less cold water, fish and predators will congregate in fewer places, creating new challenges and resulting in species turning up in places never seen before.
Could this be the reason for the otter’s population increase and die-offs? Fortunately, scientists will continue to study the cause and effect of the warming and the resulting changes – because that is what they do and because it is the right thing to do for the future of our planet.
“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson
Heading off to Seward to see more of this beautiful state for the last few days of Deanne’s visit.