Thursday, May 06, 2010

Return to Homer

From September 2005 to August 2006, I lived in Homer, Alaska, an "End of the Road" fishing and tourism community of about 5,000 people. I still regard that year as the best of my life. There's just something about that cheechako year in Alaska - that fish-out-of-water discovery and evolution. And in a place like Homer - which is populated by sophisticated artists, grubby fishermen and general misfits living in cabins made of plywood, tires and Tyvek, all surrounded by an incredible panorama of mountains and sea - the process of becoming Alaskan is perpetually interesting. We lived in a great cabin on Diamond Ridge, with a huge single-room living space and a loft. We had cross-country ski trails out our back door, regular backyard visits from moose and bears, snow until June and vast fields of fireweed after that. I rediscovered my love for cycling and took up this little hobby called snow biking. I tried new things like run/mountain bike/ski triathlons and winter camping. I went to fun little art openings, independent movies and live music shows. Life was great. I know about the rose-colored lenses of the past and all that, and I certainly had my reasons for leaving. But seriously, I had no idea how good I had it. I just assumed all of Alaska was like Homer. Then, in early August 2006, I left Homer to start a new life in Juneau. I took one last glance in my rear-view mirror as I rounded Bay View hill, sighed happily, and I hadn't been back since.

As I grappled with homesick feelings for Juneau, I decided it would be gratifying to go down and visit Homer for the first time in four years. I wanted to be back in Anchorage in time to attend a journalism conference this weekend, so I only had a couple of days to spend down there. I hit the road south on Tuesday afternoon, wearing short sleeves with my window rolled down in the warm sunlight. As a cyclist, I have a guilty confession to make: I love driving. I love to buy a huge jug o'soda at the gas station and crank up the music and enjoy the effortless views of the world. I think my enjoyment of driving is connected to my cycling habit and my tendency to change locations frequently: I seem to be happiest when I am on the move.

The first thing I did when I arrived in Homer was park my car on the Spit and stroll along the beach. I admit I choked up a bit when I saw the backdrop of the Kenai Mountains against landmarks that haven't changed a bit: the dilapidated pirate ship, the Alaska flag flapping in the middle of the mud flats, the Salty Dawg. I went for dinner at my old favorite haunt, the Cosmic Kitchen, and then loaded up with groceries for an overnight bike camping trip.

Something I always wanted to do when I lived in Homer was ride the beach between Homer and Anchor Point. Back then, I didn't have the bike or the bravery to do it. But now that I'm armed with Pugsley and a GPS, I thought it would be fun to load up my camping gear and head north. I wanted to go luxury camping, with magazines and a pillow and a bunch of warm clothing, so I opted to take panniers. Because my rack is outfitted to only fit the front end of Pugsley, the bike bags had to go on the front. Note to self: Never, never load Pugsley with front panniers. It already steers like a tractor. Add 15 extra pounds of low-riding weight on the front, and I might as well just let the bike steer itself, because my ability to maneuver it is about zilch. Oh well. Beaches are wide, and as long as I avoid the largest boulders and the sea itself, I'll be OK. (Note to self: This isn't easy.)

Once I survived the cheek-clenching descent to sea level, the beach riding was surprisingly relaxing. I expected more Juneau-type obstacles: Wet grass, quicksand, clam shell graveyards, barnacle-coated sharp rocks and waves crashing against cliffs. What a found was mostly cobbles and sand - the riding was never fast, but for "off trail" cycling, it was about as good as it gets.

And the evening was stunning. It was after 8 p.m. by the time I hit the trail, with the sun still high on the horizon, moist air that was warm enough for a single layer, and only the tiniest breeze wafting off the surf. A deeply familiar smell permeated the air - a smell unique to Homer - salt infused with a gritty sweetness. It's different from the more earthy, musky smell of Juneau's shoreline. It filled me with nostalgia as I rode along a beach I had never before visited.

And it's so quiet down there. Even though the highway parallels the shoreline just a couple miles to the east, the beach is hidden by a fortress of sand bluffs, so I really began to feel that sense of being "away," a lone traveler in the backcountry.

I sang songs to myself; songs I genuinely hadn't thought about in years, because they never occurred to me until that moment. I sang and smiled at the strength of my distant recognition. Like the aroma of Homer's shoreline, some things just stay with you always. Even though I was only averaging about 7 mph, I imagined myself flying. Sandhill cranes and seagulls flew beside me; their shrill voices echoed in the breeze.

As late evening settled in, I came upon a brown mound rendered almost invisible by the flat light. I nearly bumped against it before I realized it was an animal and swerved quickly around it. I hit the brakes to see what it was. A ragged little sea otter looked back at me, nodded slowly a few times and then rolled back into the stones. It didn't growl at me or try to squirm away; it just looked at me with these soulful eyes, deep and black and hinting at a kind of desperation or resignation. I thought this sea otter must be injured, or very sick. I lingered for several minutes, wondering if there was anything I could do for it. It kept nodding toward its back end, as though something were wrong with its legs. Then its head would lull and it would settle back into a crouch, but the whole time, it never took its eyes off me. I was shaken by the interaction - knowing this otter was probably going to die, and there was nothing I could do to help. I wanted to call the SeaLife Center or PETA. It was all I could do to turn my back and let nature continue doing what nature does. In this modern world, lucky are the animals that aren't affected by human intervention. Still, humans are what they are, and it's difficult not to get emotionally involved.

The sun set just before 11 p.m.; its orange-tinted twilight lingered long and late. I rode to the end of a long spit of land before the Anchor River. I knew the river would block my passage, because GPS told me so, but I was having such a great night of riding that I guess I somehow hoped there'd be a way to cross it. There wasn't, not without swimming, and the water was flowing dark and fast. I backtracked a couple miles until I was out of sight of the bluff-top homes of Anchor Point, and set up camp on the cobbles at midnight.

Sunrise came a lot earlier than I would have liked. I enjoy bivy camping but I can't really sleep when the sun's out, which it usually is in the summer in Alaska. The temperature was down near freezing and there was a layer of frost on my bivy sack. I walked out to the edge of the water to take some pictures of the soft colors, and that was all it took for two ravens to attack my bag of bagels and peck disgusting holes in every single one of them. I yelled for a few seconds and resigned myself to eating a Power Bar for breakfast. I bundled up in my luxury down coat and booties and sat on the beach reading a magazine, but eventually the cold needled through and I had to get moving.

I rode to the state park and cut up to the highway, hoping to cross the Anchor River on the bridge and find a new access point to the beach. However, all of the roads I tried north of the river dead-ended at the bluffs, and I became frustrated with the effort. I backtracked down the highway and rode up the North Fork Road instead.

North Fork is a nice little backroad between Anchor Point and Homer. I used to ride it fairly often when I was training for my various first endurance races. Like most of the longer roads in Homer, it contains one big climb and a lot of rolling hills. (Note to self: Pugsley loaded with heavy front panniers does not climb.) And, like most of the longer roads in Homer, it's full of interesting sightseeing. This house is just one example of the many strange structures on North Fork Road. Why would anyone build a house shaped like that? It's such a mystery. But this is one thing I love about Homer: You can build a house shaped like that, made of plywood, and no homeowners association or planning commission is going to crack down on you.

The North Fork Road also has great viewing of Cook Inlet's famous volcanoes. I'm pretty sure that's Illiamna on the left, with Redoubt on the right. Mount Redoubt blew its top last year, and Augustine went off in 2006, so this is still a very active region for volcanic activity.

I rode all the way around North Fork, spent some time scouting out old snowmobile trails near Beaver Creek, and even rode around Diamond Ridge and back up Bay View hill, for a total of 16 miles on day one and 43 miles on day two, but I had gotten up so freaking early that I was still back to my car before 11 a.m. I had just about enough of riding the front-heavy, squishy-tire bicycle, so I headed out East End Road to do some snowshoeing near McNeil Canyon. It's crazy beautiful up there, with open, rolling hills to the north and a parabola of mountains hugging the south end.

Oh, and glaciers. There's glaciers, too. I mostly just dawdled around to kill a little time and then headed to my friend Carey's house. She spent the day fishing and caught a 45-pound halibut, so guess what we made for dinner? It's a special occasion, that first fresh halibut of the year, something to both savor and gorge on. We chatted about all the changes in our lives and flirted with the idea of going out for Cinco de Mayo, but neither of us felt like dealing with the party scene. Instead we filled sandbags on the beach for Carey's greenhouse project, and enjoyed yet another incredible sunset.

I figured the overnight below-freezing temps would lead to some nice crust conditions in the morning. I meant to get up early, I really did, so I could take Pugsley out for some summer snow biking on Crossman Ridge. But I didn't get up early; these things happen. By the time I did get out, the sun was out in full force and the snow was pretty punchy, but still rideable on the flats and downhills, and pretty darn fun, especially when you factor in the unpredictable fishtail factor and occasional dive into drifts.

So it was down from the snow, to Two Sisters Bakery for holistic organic vegetarian lunch, and then back to the beach. I rode one of my old favorite loops - down West Hill, out the Spit, around Kachemak Drive, up East Hill and across Skyline. Near Kachemak Drive, I found another good access point to the beach and did a little riding on the mudflats (yes, I did give Pugsley a real good spray-down and lube afterward.) I was back on the road north at 4 p.m., meaning I spent less than 48 hours in Homer. It definitely feels like I was there for longer than two days, and it definitely doesn't feel like I've been gone for four years.