On the Edge of Life

Four Days Exploring Kachemak Bay with Dave and Peter

Not every story abounds with drama involving the conflicts of a villain, beauty, and beast. Just as, in Alaska, not all adventures end in near-death experiences, though one could argue that entering the wilderness takes you a step in that direction. In August of last year I was invited to go on a three-day sailing trip in Kachemak Bay with Captain Dave and his first mate, Peter. I was excited yet apprehensive, for factoring in water brings the life-death border that much closer. We had our setbacks and minor scrapes (literally), but I was fortunate to be with two men who I’m pretty sure made it to their age on common sense and a healthy appreciation for nature.

When we descended the hill into Homer, a loud clunking noise interrupted our pleasant drive.

Beneath overcast skies, our group of three departed Anchorage in Dave’s Suburban with sailboat in tow for the town of Homer. The weather system moving across the Kenai Mountains threatened our long drive with rain, but we only encountered light sprinkles. Just out of Anchorage we could see the tide in Cook Inlet was low, uncovering many acres of damp silty mud. We wound through Turnagain Arm parallel with an Alaska Railroad train blazing her way to one of two possible destinations, Seward or Whittier.

Conversations on the drive touched the ‘old days’ and how Alaska used to be the ‘Last Frontier.’ As we talked about visiting family back on the east coast, and the large populations with their six lane expressways, we returned the title of ‘Last Frontier’ to Alaska.

When we descended the hill into Homer, a loud clunking noise interrupted our pleasant drive. Dave pulled the Suburban and trailer over and to our dismay, the trailer tire was completely shredded. Begrudgingly, Peter, Dave, and I unloaded all of the gear to uncover the jack and spare tire. We lifted the trailer, and Dave finessed the remains of the old tire off, and placed the new one on. After the long drive and subsequent delay, we were overdue for food and Fat Olives, a great place for pizza, was a block away.

Chaos ensued as we waited in line to launch the boat. Six spots to launch and take-in were available but there was no organization and some boaters were skipping line. Tempers flared. Peter made sure to let a few people know that they were screwing around and it wasn’t appreciated. Eventually we launched and set sail at about 6:30 p.m.. Dave steered us just outside of the harbor, and instructed Peter to begin filling the boat’s ballast with water to help lower the vessel a bit more into the water, resulting in a more stable passage across the bay.

Headed into a small 2-foot chop, we crossed Kachemak Bay and drifted past six purse seiners at the entrance of Peterson Bay. Our tire incident, meal, and chaotic launch delayed our start and made us eager to find a location to settle down for the night. Dave navigated to an isolated spot within the cove away from the chop and the occasional wake from larger vessels.

Grey sky greeted us in Peterson Cove.

The evening light began to dwindle as I untied our small dinghy, so I could explore around the backside of a small peninsula. I rowed through a narrow channel with a steep bank on my left and a dark forest with a grassy incline to my right. I considered the possibility of running into a black bear. Then, deeper into the channel, an eerie feeling of being watched caused me to reverse course and row back out to deeper water, away from the shallows.

A playful otter stole my attention as I rowed the dinghy to our vessel, the Gypsy Vixen. Before entering the cabin of the Vixen, I scanned back to where I had just been for one last look to affirm or disprove my earlier feeling and my eyes caught something on the beach–a dark spot. Being over 300 yards away and in low light, any small movement would be too difficult to notice, but the spot seemed out of place. Had the tide pushed something up the beach? Suddenly, the spot began moving. I grabbed the binoculars, and watched what appeared to be about a 400-pound black bear walking the intertidal zone feeding on beach greens exactly where I had just been. The multiple black bear attacks in the news the past summer had me on edge, and I was right to be uncomfortable rowing in shallow water, armed only with oars and a fishing pole, in a slow moving dinghy.

A black bear roams the beach in Peterson Cove

‘Pitter pat’ the rain lightly fell throughout the night, and the occasional wake rolled in and rocked the Gypsy Vixen. We rested well and rose to grey skies in Peterson Bay. The remainder of the second day we cautiously watched the weather and, in time, sailed south past China Poot, Sadie Cove, Tutka Bay, and made it to Seldovia Bay late in the evening. Before entering the bay, Dave had to navigate through a bed of bull kelp that stretched half a mile long and just as wide. The occasional otter popped its head up and waved to us.

After a delicious onboard meal, we walked the docks and up the ramp into town. We toured and photographed Seldovia Slough, St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, the harbor, and beyond. With dwindling daylight, Peter, Dave and I walked Main Street back to the harbor. Live music from the Linwood Bar and Restaurant boomed across the small town. Snug in our sleeping bags, we soon drifted to sleep.

Seldovia’s harbor

Rays of sunlight peered through the cabin window early Wednesday morning. With the greyish weather breaking, I popped out of bed with camera gear in my backpack, ready to jaunt down the Otterbahn Trail. With all the recent bear attacks, the bear sighting warning signs stapled to the harbormaster’s building, and my ever-present paranoia guiding the way, I strapped on a few instruments of protection in the event a bear decided to break from its berries and tidal salad diet.

I had just made a turn in the trail, and from behind me came the sound of stomping feet and heavy breathing.

I entered the dense and dark forest trail with my senses heightened. I closely inspected the heavily vegetated areas alongside the trail. Fresh scat gave evidence that a bear had recently meandered down the same path. Hiking alone, and not wanting to talk aloud to warn a bear of my entering its domain, I pulled out my cell phone and hit play on a random Spotify playlist. It just happened to be Coldplay. If you’ve listened to Coldplay, you’d know many of their songs are full of ‘oohs and aahs,’ moaning noises and a few whiny sounds, not really the sounds of a human who hopes to stay atop the food chain. Frantically skipping songs to something more edgy, I continued down the trail, watchful and aware.

Entry sign to the Otterbahn Trail

A light breeze drifted through the forest. The atmosphere was pleasant, but was soon broken by a “huff… huff…” grunting noise. I had just made a turn in the trail, and from behind me came the sound of stomping feet and heavy breathing. Some large beast was headed directly at me. My heart was beating out of my chest as an animal appeared that would scare some folks even more than a bear. It was a large white female American bulldog, covered from head to toe in brown mud.

Her eyes met mine, and she was as startled to see me as I her. I spoke soothingly to her and offered my hand out to allow her to smell me, but she jumped backward a few feet. She had no desire to be petted, and waited patiently for me to move first. She was looking for someone, and had not expected to run into me. I continued down the dark trail with confidence since now I had a big beautiful domesticated animal ready to jump into the ring if any non-domesticated animal were to present itself.

Boardwalk traversing a marsh near the coast

She and I had the same destination in mind, Outside Beach. This beach is a favorite place of mine to explore. The large light-colored rocks with bladderwrack hanging on tightly, the tidal pools with sea anemone and occasional starfish, as well as otters splashing close by all make for any enjoyable respite. The dog rejoined her ‘pack,’ leaving me to make the return trip alone.

Weather reports coming in over the radio from our land Admiral, Dave’s wife back in Anchorage, forecasted possible north winds from the Gulf of Alaska, over the mountains and coming in our direction.

Making my way back, this time with less drama, I snacked on the salmonberries and I captured imagery of the unique details of a temperate rainforest. I walked back through town to the harbor to find Dave and Peter awake and ready for breakfast.

Landscape outside of Seldovia

That day we visited some friends who own a vacation rental near the head of Seldovia Bay. We had to anchor the Vixen in deeper water and row the dinghy to shore. It was a bumpy ride in the choppy waves with a blustery wind, but Peter got us there safely. It made me think of how interesting life would be living in an area where travel by boat was the primary means of getting around.

Later that evening we returned to the Vixen. Dave steered us back to the Linwood for a hearty bowl of clam chowder with plans to leave Seldovia Bay right after. As we entered Kachemak Bay, we were greeted with large rolling four and five foot waves. Weather reports coming in over the radio from our land Admiral, Dave’s wife back in Anchorage, forecasted possible north winds from the Gulf of Alaska, over the mountains and coming in our direction. The report rang true as we entered into Tutka Bay. Instead of fighting the breeze, we turned back north and into the direction of Sadie Cove.

Spot we anchored and jigged for rock fish.

What a beautiful place! We threw the anchor down and wet our lines in crystal clear and calm water. Rockfish hit our jigs and I reeled my first one in, and soon after caught a kelp greenling. Our Admiral also served as our chef and had prepared incredibly tasty food, along with specific directions for Captain Dave to follow for cooking on the one burner stove. As the light faded, once again, fat and happy, we turned in for a peaceful night of sleep in the quiet cove.

Scrrrrape! Around 4 a.m. the Vixen’s hull scraped against the bottom. The wind had pushed us into the shallows, fortunately, on a bottom free of any large rocks that could damage the boat. Peter, Dave, and I all breathed a sigh of relief and we continued to sleep. The tide came back and lifted us. After breakfast we made our way near the entrance of the cove to try and catch a few more rockfish. We were motivated to get an early start because the no-see-ums attempted to eat us alive in the peaceful but windless cove. We continued jigging with luck. I landed another rockfish and small female kelp greenling. The weather lifted. The sun was shining and we decided to continue back into Kachemak Bay and northward.

West Ismailof Island Light

We entered Halibut Cove and had a quick look around. The many houses, docks, and other structures made for an aesthetically beautiful world for the urbanite. We, however, were going on a more natural course, so we turned around and continued north out of the cove and back east into Halibut Lagoon. Our timing couldn’t have been better as high tide allowed us to motor up a 10-foot-deep channel, hugging the hillside, past rafts of otters curiously watching our vessel from shallower water on our port side. After a quick and insightful conversation with the park ranger and camp host, spurred by the changing tide, we motored back through the channel before it lost too much water, and over to the Grewningk Glacier Trailhead.

Dave researched the trail a bit online to get an idea of distance and elevation. The descriptor of ‘flat’ and ‘easy’ wasn’t necessarily true. Before Dave and I reached the flat and easy section, we had to climb about half a mile up a switchback trail into a saddle that offered stunning 180 degree views of Halibut Lagoon and out to Kachemak Bay. At the top of the saddle, workers were carving out a newer and much-improved trail just above us to our left. We hiked through high vegetation of grass, devil’s club and cow parsnip. Sometimes our line of sight was limited to 10-12 feet ahead of us, and 5-6 feet to our sides. That distance wasn’t very reassuring as we dodged many piles of fresh bear scat loaded with grass and blueberries.

180 degree view of Grewingk Glacier

Dave and I descended down into a heavily graveled moraine with tall alders on all sides. The much needed cool breeze picked up and pushed away the gnats and mosquitos trying to dive bomb us. Traces of the glacier came into view through the densely covered trail. And before long, we were standing in front of Grewningk, its silty lake, and small icebergs floating to the shore. The long half moon shaped gravel shore gave plenty of opportunity to explore and absorb different perspectives of the spectacular sight ahead of us.

Sometime early the next morning we were all awakened with a start. A loud THUD and shake caused Dave and me to jump out of our sleeping bags into the chilly morning air and race out of the cabin to see what predicament we were in.

Water taxis buzzed in and out of the cove picking up and dropping off hikers. We met many of all ages along the trail. Dave and I enjoyed the walk and conversations. It was a pleasant time, with many rewarding views. We returned to the Vixen to find Peter savoring a cigar on deck.

An otter watches us closely as we exit Halibut Lagoon.

We ventured back to the spot in Peterson Bay where we had anchored on the first night of our trip. However, this time the weather completely broke and golden evening rays lit the landscape, coloring the shore, tall spruce trees, and splashing otters with a dark orange hue. The resident black bear returned while I rowed the dinghy out in the cove to jig for rockfish. Adolescent cohos, kelp greenling and rockfish all attacked my jig. Catch and release was the mode for the evening, as none of them had much size.

Sometime early the next morning we were all awakened with a start. A loud THUD and shake caused Dave and me to jump out of our sleeping bags into the chilly morning air and race out of the cabin to see what predicament we were in. Dave pulled the anchor and instructed me to start the motor, put it in reverse, and navigate away from a pyramid shaped rock that low tide had exposed. The night before we had positioned the boat over a clear bottom, but the wake and light breeze in the night pulled us into this one obtrusion. Again we were fortunate that the scrape damage was minor.

The evening sun peaks upon Kachemak Bay as return to Peterson Cove. 

The sky was blue, the sun was out, and with a light breeze it was the best weather yet, but all great Alaskan adventures must come to an end. We set out of Peterson Bay and back across Kachemak Bay to Homer’s small boat harbor. As we cruised across the water Peter made the comment, “Dave, we’re on the edge of life.” I may be forgetting the exact phrase, but Peter said a similar refrain many times over the course of our trip. Dave would reply, “Yes, Peter,” and that was that. No other words were necessary to explain the thrill of being on the ocean in such a place.

Alaska’s beauty is tangible. Many times the scenery across the bay from Homer beckoned me and I wanted to be closer to it. Thanks to Captain Dave, the Admiral back in Anchorage, and 1st mate Peter, I was able to experience it with great company and now have fun memories. We survived our days on the water without any harrowing heroics or swashbuckling duels for maidens in distress, but I will admit, we were quite the trio of smelly beasts. 



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