A coastal Alaskan town at the end of a narrow sand spit, Homer combines wild natural beauty with Native Alaskan culture. Fiona Harper reports.
Poking around the pebbly beach of Homer Spit I’m drawn to beachside gift shops and galleries displaying cabinets filled with ancient artefacts. Delicate, fragile and beautiful, some are embellished with intricate scrimshaw etchings. Whale baleen is intricately woven into teeny baskets the size of a golf ball. Fossilised walrus ivory, seal and whale bones are polished to a porcelain-like finish, crafted into sculptures and jewellery paying homage to ancient traditions. So too polar bear claws, which are enhanced with ivory settings to create eye catching pendants. It sounds a little garish I know. And at first I’m distraught at the thought of wildlife being sacrificed to create inane trinkets. But I discover that the practice is strictly regulated and that no live animals are utilised in this craft. To create these artworks, Native Alaskans harvest long dead skeletons buried beneath the frozen earth: recycling in its most primitive form.
With much of Alaska located above 60 degrees north (the Arctic Circle lays at 66 degrees north), during summer the sun barely dips below the horizon. Native Alaskans utilise the warmer weather to penetrate the permafrost, digging historical hunting grounds in search of fossilised bone, teeth and tusks. Retrieval is governed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act which celebrated 40 years of mammal protection in 2012. Genuine Native Alaskan artworks are identified by the Silver Hand seal to distinguish genuine artefacts, legally harvested, which have been crafted by an artist of an Alaskan tribe.
Bear claws have fascinated (yes, and also revolted) me since an Inuit trader in the Canadian Arctic sidled up to me, unwrapping a stained cloth to reveal polar bear claws he was flogging for ‘just $70 for you lady’. There was no sale. So I’m relieved to learn that Zack Tappan, owner operator of Sasquatch Alaska Adventure Company is driven by conservation and preservation of bears and their wild habitat. Guided by a philosophy to ‘live your dreams, leave only tracks’ Zack and his wife Nancy are both pilots who fly small groups deep into brown bear country.
After swapping our shoes for thigh high rubber waders, we strap ourselves into Zack’s Cessna 206 and fly southwards towards Katmai National Park, home to the world’s largest brown bear population. Leaving the plane on the narrow beach, locked to discourage inquisitive bears, we traipse across sedge grass plains towards a sleuth of bears spotted from the air. I’m immediately thankful for our waterproof waders when we strike a creek bed flanked by soft squidgy quicksand that proves reluctant to release our feet. Within minutes of perching ourselves on a grassy knoll beneath snow-capped peaks, a brown bear makes its way towards us.
His chocolate brown coat swishing as he lumbers across the plain, the bear is about the size of a Mini Cooper. We huddle together to simulate one large superior being; he inches forward, snout pointed skyward, determining our level of threat. Close enough to see the spittle dripping from his mouth, and posing cooperatively for our cameras, eventually he casts a petulant glance over one shoulder before loping away. Exhilarated at observing the king of the food chain at close range, we walk to the river bed where a mother and her trio of cubs are foraging. Well, the mother is foraging, the cubs show far more interest in playing.
Tumbling over one other, splashing in the shallows and launching themselves at their mother’s haunches, they’re spring cubs, just a month or two old. Despite the chill wind wheedling icy tendrils down my collar, I could watch for hours. However with fog forecast, reluctantly, we hike back to the Cessna.
Approaching Homer, our accommodation of the previous night is easy to spot high on the bluff. A converted railway carriage, timber fishing trawler and a two-storey log cabin form the quirky sleeping arrangements at Alaska Adventure Cabins. Dazzled by never-ending daylight, I’d stayed up beyond midnight enjoying dusk tinting the mountains across the bay every shade of violet.
Back on Homer Spit, which juts six kilometres out into Kachemak Bay, we meet up with Shannon McBride from Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge. On the short boat trip across to the lodge, Shannon tells me how his intrepid parents settled into a gaunt skeleton of a log cabin at the foot of Kenai Mountains after the devastating 1964 earthquake. An immensely talented couple enchanted with their wild environment, they’ve created a splendid family run lodge bursting with character. Log cabins have been relocated from far and wide and mostly refitted with enormous picture windows to savour views atop the cliffs of spruce trees, mountains and China Poot Bay itself. It’s the sort of place that entices with exquisite food, delightful hosts and nature-based excursions amid implausibly crisp air that it almost hurts urbanised lungs to breathe it in.
But much of Alaska is like that: so immensely beautiful that it takes your breath away. •
For small group bear viewing tours travelling by light aircraft. (July to September best time.)
Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge, www.alaskawildernesslodge.com Alaska Adventure Cabins – stay in a converted rail carriage, fishing boat or log cabin.