An Afternoon in Halibut Cove
I’m just back from two weeks with my dad in Alaska, and suffering a bit from a cold, but otherwise overwhelmingly impressed with my time there. Here are some highlights from Homer, our first stop on the trip.
Arriving in Homer, we were picked up by the very cocky and certainly sly cabbie named Josh, who was affable enough, but seemed to second guess our being there, as we didn’t plan to fish. Homer’s spit is a fishing hub, and consists of a row of weathered wooden buildings that one local calls the Las Vegas of Alaska, and it’s easy to imagine, if you take away all the lights, and the showmanship, and the gambling. The real thing that the spit and the strip have in common is the people, who all seem to have a bit of a weathered edge, as if they’ve seen things you can’t imagine. The buildings all are weathered too, wooden structures where you can purchase a sweater or a ride on a half day halibut boat. The place that most evoked Vegas was the Salty Dawg Saloon, a bar who ironically does not accept members of the canine persuasion, and whose attached lighthouse signal alerts its patrons to the fact that they’re still serving. Wander inside and you’ll find the bar covered floor to ceiling in dollar bills, and I swear that all the fishermen were drinking screwdrivers, in what I thought was an effort to fight off scurvy. “It was probably the special,” one local noted later, and she was probably right.
Instead of fishing, we decided to visit the small artist colony of Halibut Cove onboard the Danny J ferryDanny J ferry, a boat that brought WWII soldiers to Alaska in 1941. She’s a sturdy old wooden boat that stands out in the harbor amongst the sea of aluminum fishing vessels laden with nets. During the war, she served as an open skiff and could hold 75 men; afterward she was used by Halibut schooners. While waiting at the dock, I learned a few things about Homer from the museum-like placards placed along the walkway: sea otters can be up to 100 pounds, and eat up to 20 pounds a day. Nice. And there was some fascinating information about Frederica de Laguna, “a 24-year-old adventuresome archeologist [who] pieced together the sites from Kachemak Bay, and discovered that people 2,000 years ago hunted seals, porpoise, marmots, birds, and fished for halibut, built homes of wood and kept dogs, wore ornaments of wood, bone, and pierced their noses, ears and lips.” She studied in Homer from 1930-1932 and was originally from Pennsylvania.
Frederica is apparently just one of a long line of adventurous women who have been drawn to Homer. One such woman is Danny J‘s owner, Marian Beck, who says the boat’s been manned (wommanned?) by a female skipper since she purchased it from her uncle in 1978. When I visited, the captain was Marian’s cousin, Sydney Bishop; Sydney’s daughter Elsa served as the first mate. “The girls on the bay in the Danny J” is a tradition, Sydney explained. They come back every summer to run the ferry and spend time in Halibut Cove. A former herring fishery, the Cove was home to 36 saltrys in its heyday in early 1900s. Today it has 70 full-time residents and its population swells to about 200 during the summer. And unless you’ve got your own boat, the ferry is one of the only ways to get there. It’s been in the family for decades, Sydney says, “we ran it when we were kids,” and noted that Marian earned her skipper’s license in her teens and was the first woman to do so in the area. Girl power is obviously in full effect on the Danny J.
Sydney steered the ferry out into Kachemak Bay and past Gull Island, a bird sanctuary about 20 minutes offshore that is home to nine nesting species. Dad and I spotted several, including the black-legged kittiwake, the herring gull, and common murre, and my favorite, the horned puffin, with its orange beak standing out against the guano-covered rocks. The waters beyond the boat teemed with wildlife, and we saw the first of many otters we’d spot along the trip. (Their whiskered faces always crack me up.)
Arriving in Halibut Cove, we had several hours to wander through the village. But wandering is a bit different there. There are no roads or cars in the cove, just a series of boardwalks that connect the buildings and galleries dotted along the waterfront. Our first stop was The Saltry, Marian’s restaurant, which is perched over the water and serves one of the best bowls of fish chowder (above) I’ve had in my life.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
After lunch, we strolled the boardwalk, through the galleries filled with works by Halibut Cove residents, including Marian’s mother, Diana Tillion, a painter who works with octopus ink. Marian is a painter as well; it seems that everyone in Halibut Cove spends the time that they have not fishing pursuing their creative endeavors, and with the landscape, it’s easy to see how they’d be inspired. We wandered down to a small coffee shop, which sits on the end of the pier, and watched as its patrons sipped their lattes lazily, looking at the water. It’d been overcast on our way over on the ferry, but the clouds pulled back, the sun came out and the sky’s reflection on the Cove’s still waters made it seem like we were suspended in the air.
Getting There: The Danny J ferry runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, departing twice daily from the Homer Spit: 12 p.m. for the Gull Island tour, and at 5 p.m. for a dinner cruise. You can book yours by contacting the Kachemak Bay Ferry +1 907 296-2223 or Central Charters +1 907 235 7847.
Photos: Janelle Nanos