On Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Catching Halibut, and Stunning Tableaus



Slide Show

Exploring Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula

CreditJoshua Corbett for The New York Times


The Kenai Peninsula is a 9,000-square-mile appendage jutting down from Anchorage into the Gulf of Alaska. At the end of the Sterling Highway, the 140-mile winding backbone that snakes down the peninsula, is the town of Homer, a.k.a. the End of the Road — the beginning (or termination) of the Alaska state highway system. Indeed, with the way the road begins (four and a half miles out to sea on a long narrow berth called the Homer Spit) it feels like the beginning of all of America’s roadways. The highway has come to symbolize the spirit of freedom and exploration — things I felt in abundance during my five-hour drive from Anchorage to Homer.

The drive from Anchorage to Homer covers a wonderful area to explore — and it can be done fairly frugally. Much of the entertainment is free, in the form of stunning natural beauty, including a national forest, views along the Cook Inlet and a visit to a glacier. When I reached Homer, I splurged on a halibut fishing charter; not inexpensive, to be sure, but a thrilling, one-of-a-kind experience, justifiable if you plan to eat your catch (which I did).

I made a couple of quick stops on my way out of Anchorage, recommendations from the friends I was staying with: South Restaurant and Coffeehouse for a filling $8.50 breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs and chorizo (and a couple of day-old biscuits for the road, two for a dollar), and, across the street, the South Anchorage farmers’ market. It’s a small market with perhaps a couple dozen vendors and a lone, scraggly guy with a guitar picking out Dylan covers. I noted how much halibut fillets were going for — $16.50 a pound.

From there I wound south on Alaska Highway 1, through the vast, half-million square miles of Chugach State Park. When the road split — Highway 1 continuing toward Homer and Highway 9 going to Seward — I decided to take a short detour, remembering that President Obama had recently visited Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park.

Photo

The town of Ninilchik.

Credit
Joshua Corbett for The New York Times

After parking my car (no fee to enter), I began a short one-and-a-half-mile hike. Along the path, there were signposts marking where the glacier used to reach: a couple hundred feet here, a couple hundred feet there. “If you had been standing here in 1998,” one sign read, “the ice would have been right at your feet.” I finally reached the glacier and while incredibly impressive, it was surrounded on three sides by dozens of feet of barren rock. It seemed a glaring, palpable example of the effects of global warming: The glacier has retreated roughly one and a quarter miles in the last two centuries but with an alarming acceleration in recent years: It lost about 187 feet from the end of summer in 2013 to the same time in 2014.

I continued on my journey to Homer, passing through the towns of Cooper Landing and Sterling. Needing a caffeine fix, I stopped at True Blue Drive Thru, a small coffee shack on the side of the road. I picked up a $2 Americano and struck up a conversation with Derek Poppin, a local musician who plays with the Robb Justice Band. “I love it out here but it can be tough sometimes,” he said. “Not exactly a ton of gigs.”

The towns on the road to Homer are small but worth a quick stop. Cooper Landing, across from Kenai Cache Outfitters, is a nice place to take a rest and enjoy the clean, limpid Upper Kenai River. Also interesting are the old Russian Orthodox settlements from around the time of the Alaska Purchase in 1867. Ninilchik, about 45 minutes outside Homer, has a Russian Orthodox Church built in 1901 and an adjoining cemetery. I drove through town and out to the beach, where residents and visitors like to dig for razor clams. I was ready to grab a few of them when I noticed a sign — because of the paucity of mature clams, there would be no digging until further notice.

From Ninilchik, Homer was just a stone’s throw away. The descent into town, beginning around Mile Marker 170, was dazzling — a panoramic tableau of snow-peaked mountains from across the Kachemak Bay. I did a quick survey of the town up Pioneer Avenue north of the highway, and down the old Main Street south of the highway, closer to the water. I recommend spending some time on Old Main Street — older, weather-beaten buildings housing cute cafes, inns and other businesses abound. There is also at least one excellent restaurant: Two Sisters Bakery, known primarily for its breads and pastries, also does dinners featuring fresh produce and local seafood. It’s not particularly cheap, but my scallop appetizer ($12) and roasted tomato and bacon spinach salad ($9) were delicious and generous in size.

Photo

The Russian Orthodox Church in Ninilchik, Alaska.

Credit
Joshua Corbett for The New York Times

Not only that, but I also picked up some good local intel from a friendly waitress, Alanna. She gave me a newspaper with a calendar of the town’s events (the Shorebird Festival, an annual celebration of spring, was happening that weekend) and recommended a couple of good places to grab a drink. She invited me to go out with her and some of her friends later to Kharacters, a locals’ bar open until 5 a.m.

But true to form, I passed out in my room upon arriving at Land’s End Resort, at the very tip of Homer Spit, where I had picked up a $95 rate on Hotels.com. I woke up around 2 a.m., having missed my drinks date with Alanna and her friends by about four hours, but decided to go over to the bar, anyway. I was greeted by plumes of cigarette smoke and strains of some fun, if slightly disjointed folk music: Lady Gwennie and the Good Timers were still playing at 2:30 in the morning to a small crowd. I grabbed a $5.25 Bud Light and enjoyed the low-key scene before heading back to my room.

I may have missed making new friends, but the next morning’s activity offered another chance: I was heading out on a halibut fishing boat through Inlet Charters, one of dozens of fishing charter companies on Homer Spit. I spent some time on the spit, taking in the boardwalk atmosphere and vibrantly colored buildings elevated on stilts and overlooking the bay, then headed to Inlet Charters a little before 8:30 a.m. and bought my one-day sport fishing license for $20 (necessary for halibut fishing).

I bought a half-day charter for $155 — a full day is available for $235. Frugal? Not exactly, but the experience is undeniably worth the price especially if you’re a first timer like me. I boarded our 36-ton boat the Whistler, with about a dozen other people, including a five-member family with a young boy. We were soon joined by our crew, Capt. Max Shifler and two deckhands, Penick and Lindsay. The engines roared and we set off, taking in a sunny sky and sharp, clean air.

Photo

The Homer Spit as seen from the road out of town.

Credit
Joshua Corbett for The New York Times

We headed out to sea for about 45 minutes. Penick and Lindsay gave us a primer on fishing basics as they chopped salted herring (bait for the halibut) and got the hooks and lead sinkers on our fishing poles ready. I asked Captain Shifler why he decided to start piloting fishing boats, and if he had any tips for newcomers. He peered at me through dark sunglasses. “Well, I used to be a backup dancer for Britney Spears and I decided to hang it up and come here,” he said, deadpanning. “You’ll be fine. For whatever reason, it’s always newcomers and kids that catch the biggest fish.”

We arrived at our fishing spot and Captain Shifler killed the engines and dropped anchor. We each grabbed a pole that was baited with a chunk of herring. At the end of each pole was a mean-looking hook a few inches long and a two-pound lead weight. “Just drop it in until it hits bottom, but keep your thumb on that reel the whole time,” Captain Max said. I got a strong tug on my line immediately — but lost the fish. I didn’t realize that you had to throw a switch on the reel mechanism so that you could start reeling in. I was bummed about what could have been “the big one.”

During the two or three hours we were on the water, I learned that fishing takes patience. The halibut will, more often than not, eat the bait right off the end of your pole. Once you hook one, though, the crew advised us, don’t yank up on the pole. Reel up steadily but not too aggressively, pulling up on the rod every so often to make sure the fish is still on the hook. Once out of the water, the halibut thrashed violently, as you might expect. There were big wooden clubs aboard used to kill the fish quickly — gruesome, to be sure. But I liked the idea of knowing exactly where my dinner was coming from.

I ended up with two good-looking halibut as well as a large cod. Captain Max worked deftly after we had returned, filleting the halibut and slicing out the highly prized cheeks, while the crew packed our individual catches into garbage bags. Once back on land, we paid to vacuum seal our fish at 75 cents a pound. I left Homer with around eight pounds of halibut — at $16.50 a pound retail, that is over $130.

I left Homer and drove back to Anchorage, stopping at my friend Isaac’s house to share some of my bounty. He’s a good cook, and soon we had a big plate of tender halibut cheeks and pan-fried halibut fillets. “Wow, I was never really a halibut fan,” he said, “but I think it’s because I never had it this fresh.” The halibut fillets were delicate and tender; the cheeks were more substantial and, prepared with a bit of oil and salt and pepper, tasted like a firm, buttery scallop. We sat at his kitchen table at 11 p.m., just as the sun was disappearing, talking about old times and enjoying our late supper.

Continue reading the main story



Source link

About admin

Check Also

In Canada, Hunting and Preserving an Indigenous Way of Life

In September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the nation’s past “humiliation, neglect and abuse” of ...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *