The Kenai Peninsula is a scenic wonderland on the southcentral coast of Alaska. Just two hours from Anchorage, this region is relatively easily accessible year-round by tourists who want to catch a “Reader’s Digest Condensed” version of Alaska’s wildlife, mountains, lakes, rivers, bays, and glaciers. Tucked in a cleft of the southwest end of the peninsula is Kachemak Bay. The town of Homer, 225 miles from Anchorage, sits on the north shore of the bay and is the jumping-off point for its exploration. On a sunny winter afternoon, I took a water taxi from the town of Homer to explore this pristine waterway.
Water taxi tours of the bay embark from the harbor near the end of the Homer Spit.
A Protected Treasure
Parts of Kachemak Bay and some of its surrounding lands are protected by the State of Alaska under the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ park system. A total of 400,000 acres belong to and are protected by the state as a park and wilderness area, including most of the landmass south and east of the town of Homer.
Lands within the Kachemak Bay State Park are accessible only by boat and air. During the summer, a number of commercial air and water taxi services are available to take visitors into the bay and onto the shorelines on its south side. In winter, one has to work a little harder to find a willing guide. (Information on the park, including a link to authorized taxi services, can be found at http://www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks/units/kbay/kbay.htm ).
Sunny And Cold
As luck would have it, the day of my water taxi tour dawned sunny and very cold — in short, perfect. I and four colleagues took advantage of the five hours of daylight afforded by this midwinter’s day and located a willing taxi pilot. His “six-packer” was a small and humble craft just big enough for all of us. It supposedly had a heated cabin, but I never felt any warmth emanating from anywhere, but inside my multiple layers of wool and polypro.
Frost on the gunwales! A “six-packer” plies the 38-degree water.
The seas were mellow, just a mild chop, as we left the harbor and angled east-southeast toward Gull Island. I didn’t learn until later that the tides in Kachemak Bay are among the largest in the world, averaging 15 feet between high and low tide, with 20-plus-foot differences not uncommon. Fortunately, this information was our guide’s stock in trade, and he knew that the tides were in our favor for the afternoon. Not only were the entrances to all of the smaller bays open (not the case during low tides), we avoided by many hours the infamously treacherous rip current rapids that occur at tide change.
Little Bays And Trailheads
We curved around Gull Island, a set of monoliths strangely devoid of the thousands of squawking sea birds that make it their summer home, then turned south-southeast into Peterson Bay. From there, favorable tides enabled us to pole gingerly across a flooded bar into China Poot Bay. Amazingly scenic, this bay was ringed by steep, forested walls and snowcapped Kenai Mountain peaks; it was hard to believe that China Poot Bay is little more than a mud flat at low tide. Of course, we took our guide’s word for it; he held to the north channel of the bay as we cruised west and back out into the open waters of the greater Kachemak Bay.
Gull Island lacks its plethora of summer inhabitants in winter.
Curving north and east again, we retraced our steps past Gull Island and continued past the mouth of Peterson Bay until we reached the entrance to the deservedly famous Halibut Cove. Picturesque in the extreme, this bay is the home to a number of artists and their wealthy, nature-loving patrons; their homes line the entrance channel. Beyond the populated main cove lies Halibut Cove Lagoon. Campgrounds, trailheads, and moorings are tucked unobtrusively along the shores of the lagoon and a Ranger Station is situated on the south end.
The Reason For The Season
The day of my water taxi tour was day four of my stay on the Kenai Peninsula, and I was feeling downright smug about my decision to visit during the winter. The skies had been bright and sunny, the days had been windless, and temperatures had been bearable.
Otters abound in the coves and lagoons off Kachemak Bay.
Best of all, my touring destinations (the Homer Spit, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the Kachemak Nordic Ski Trail system, and now, Kachemak Bay) had been tourist-free. But as I looked longingly at the snow-covered campsites and the inaccessible trailheads, I clearly saw the reason folks come to Kachemak Bay State Park in summer. I look forward to trading my snow boots for hiking boots and returning during tourist season.
Sally O’Neal Coates is an outdoor enthusiast who makes her home in southeastern Washington State. Her books include “Hot Showers, Soft Beds, and Dayhikes in the North Cascades.” She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.