Alaska; a boat ride out of Homer

Please consider all images as copyrighted and ask permission if you want to use them in some way. Thank you, DEClapp.

I should first say that Homer is a very crisp town at the end of the Kenai Peninsula about 225 miles from Anchorage and up against the waters of the Cook Inlet. The Seward Highway out of Anchorage (a real city) down to the Sterling Highway and then 142 miles on to Homer is all it takes to reach this little bit of paradise. Homer really is a very nice place. It has residential and wilderness living, with spectacular views, and great fishing, birds, mammals, and waterways and hosts a much more moderate climate than does most of Alaska. The road, Route 1 or the Sterling Highway, hugs the coast and rivals any highway anywhere for scenic vistas (the blog post on eagles was all shot along this road near the town of Anchor Point). This area is very accessible from the Anchorage airport and offers most everything that Alaska is known for. Over the past several decades the Homer Spit has served fisherman, college kids looking for summer work, birders, and now tourists. 

The Spit is about four-and-a-half miles long reaching out to separate Kachemak Bay from Cook Inlet. Forty years ago I was here and there were fish processing plants, a strong fishing fleet, and summer jobs for kids who would camp on the beach and save money (and have fun) during the summer. The Spit is now mostly art galleries, restaurants, and fishing charters galore. There are still lots of boats but way more recreational craft than ever before. There are walkways and boardwalks to get you near the boats.

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Like much of Alaska the beauty around Homer is inescapable. Here along the harbor in Homer the mountains to the east have snowy shoulders throughout of the year. As you drive along Route 1, heading to Homer from Anchorage, the mountains to the southwest include a few of Alaska’s volcanoes; the currently active Iliamna, and the recently (1980s-90s) active Redoubt, Douglas, and Augustine.
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I’ll use this map off and on as it shows the entire state – though specific locations are hard to locate. The great Aleutian chain of islands runs off to the west from Alaska’s Southwest corner. The island below the starting point of the Aleutians is Kodiak and Anchorage is up that waterway above Kodiak to the northeast. Homer is at the tip of the lower bulge. Nome is up near the Arctic Circle line on the southwestern corner of the Seward Peninsula. The three roads in Nome (see other posts) that we traveled are represented by the trident-like lines reaching into the peninsula. Notice that much of western Canada is actually Alaska and part of the USA. This area, called the Southeast, has Juneau, Petersburg, Sitka, Scagway, Haines, and Ketchikan as small but important cities. This lower area is largely temperate rain forest and all but one of the listed towns are only reached by plane or boat.

Anyway, what I am finally getting to is that we took a several-hour boat ride out from Homer to see what we could see. Fran and I were hoping for birds; but whales, eagles, sea otters, and fish were all options we wouldn’t have passed on and we saw all of them. We had called Karl Stolzfus, a native-born Alaskan, who operates the Bay Excursions boat called Torega. We had signed up for the boat trip before we arrived in AK but it turned out the boat wasn’t full and we had good company and plenty of room. We also had a chance to choose where and what we might look for. Karl has run this route for years and knows where each species is likely and where the least common are nesting. He was very informative and a very capable captain.

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As far as birds go Alaska has some specialities. Many of the state’s land birds migrate north on the Russian side of the Pacific after wintering in the waters of the Japanese (or similar) islands. There are many sea birds that use this regions remote nesting rocks in the well-lit but short northern summer. Many of these birds species are oceanic (pelagic) migrants but some stay out to sea in the winter – many are simply hard to find without getting to the west coast or better yet the Alaskan coast.

The terns above are Aleutian Terns though they were not known to nest in the Aleutians prior to the early 1960s. The introduction of foxes was probably what killed them off (by the thousands) in the previous two centuries. They arrive back in Alaska to breed but their wintering grounds are still unknown; the Pacific is huge.

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Any boat trip can be waylayed by marine mammals and we stopped for many a sea otter. These animals are recently returned to the sea (evolutionarily speaking) and can best be described as well adapted land mammals now well-suited for this cold water marine life. They were the basis of the Russian invasion of the northeast Pacific in the 17-1800s and their complete removal for the fur trade was one of the reasons Russia was so willing to sell off their land rights to what is now Alaska and was then Russian America. There are two books about Georg Steller; Where the Sea Break’s Its Back and Steller’s Island. They are both good and both introduce Alaska to the world – and they introduce Steller as well. When Steller was forced to winter on a remote Bering Sea island he wrote that the Sea Otters came to the shore to bask, nurse young, and interact socially. That seems to be a characteristic that has pretty much disappeared. Grooming, nursing, eating, and sleeping all seem to done in the water, usually in or near kelp forest.

Sea Otters (and Murrelets) deserve a page of their own and some day will get it, but here are a few fun facts about Sea Otters. They have the thickest mammals fur known, with 850,000 to one million hairs per square inch. (In my prime I probably never had the human average of 2,200 hairs per square inch and now, whew way fewer.)  The skin of the Sea Otter never gets wet as the longer guard hairs shelter the air-holding undercoat. Thus they are warm, dry, and bouyant. Youngsters are so bouyant they cannot get below the surface and are left floating like bobbers often wrapped in kelp fronds. Females weigh about fifty pounds and males about 80, though the heaviest male can reach 100 pounds. The water here in Alaska is quite cold, so the mammals need to burn lots of food to create the warmth needed to survive even with the dense fur coat they wear; they eat 25% of their body weight each day – or even a bit more. They eat some fish but lots of urchins, crabs, and shell fish.

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There are three puffin species in the world and two of them are here in Kachemak Bay; above is the Tufted Puffin and below the Horned Puffin (the third species is the Atlantic Puffin which is very similar to the Horned). They both breed commonly on the northern parts of our continent’s west coast and in the Homer area the Tufted is very common and the Horned much less so. After breeding, both species head southward into the great expanse of the northern Pacific where little is understood about their habits. The Horned Puffin is rarely seen from shore as it remains well out to sea through the winter. The Tufted does much the same thing but is found a bit closer to shore in some locations during some winters.

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The Guillemots are medium-sized sea birds of the rocky shore line and are characterized by a large white wing patch and black body when in breeding plumage. These two are Pigeon Gullemots and have a dark bar intruding into the white patch as a species-specific marker.
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One of the highlights of a boat trip out of Homer is a visit to Gull Island where thousands (5000 or so this year) of Common Murres nest along with Pelagic Cormorants, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Pigeon Guillemots, Tufted and Horned Puffin, and Herring and Glaucous-winged Gulls. The numbers of nesting murres overall seems to be negatively impacted by warming sea water temps. Young fish and many “krill” larval forms are in need of a specific water temperature and warm water is not what they need to survive – and then further along the animals (fish, birds, mammals, including people) that need to feed on the smaller prey find there is not enough food to raise young or (perhaps) survive.

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