I arrived in Homer near the end of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies second decade — in March 1998, after being hired as the CACS program manager to fill the giant footsteps of Jane Middleton. My desk was piled high with 20-plus school group reservations at the Peterson Bay Field Station from teachers for trips that would begin in mid-April. I was quickly schooled by board members, volunteer educators, and Lisa Ellington, the office manager, in “how we do things.” I was given complete checklists honed over a decade to open up the Field Station building — and the trails — and “what and how we teach.” Time was short to schedule the groups, boat transportation on the Rainbow Connection, and volunteer and seasonal naturalist instructors. I developed hour-by-hour agendas for each group, all based on the timing of the tides, then assembled and staged a mountain of supplies and gear — from water jugs, flashlights, and toilet paper to datasheets and microscopes.
CACS’ second decade was one of expansion, still based mainly on volunteers. Kathy and Roger Herrnsteen, a.k.a. “Mr. and Mrs. Crab,” began leading six-hour Onboard Oceanography programs in 1994, exploring the productivity of the Kachemak Bay for crabs and the cultivation of oysters. Two Nomad Shelter yurts were added at the Field Station, which provided a welcome alternative to sleeping on the floor inside the Field Station (boys downstairs, girls upstairs).
The 126 acres straddling East Skyline Drive donated to CACS in 1991 by the Wynn Foundation became a nature center and preserve following Carl E. Wynn’s wishes. Wynn’s vision for the future of his land was shared by his good friend and neighbor Daisy Lee Bitter, who also saw the opportunity to fulfill a CACS dream of having an educational site on the Homer side of the bay. Daisy Lee joined Toby Tyler, Barb Hill, Joyce Robinette and Dolores Butler on the Wynn Committee.
They oversaw the development of the programming and construction of a parking lot, rustic trail loops, a small cabin, a covered pavilion and a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk on the north side of the road. The Elliott Fischer memorial platform was added after the death of the husband of Carl Wynn’s daughter, Billie Fischer. The 30 acres south of the road remained an undeveloped wildlife preserve.
Wynn Nature Center had its grand opening in 1995 and first guided tours. It quickly became the perfect place to get off the road and “smell the roses” on trails winding through the boreal forest and meadows full of wildflowers that changed throughout the summer; to spot a songbird, moose, or porcupine; or to go “leaf-peeping” amid the brilliant golds and deep reds and magenta in the fall. Plants and forest ecology were the main emphasis on the guided tours, drawing on the knowledge of Toby Tyler, Daisy Lee Bitter,and Priscilla Russell, Wynn’s first staff naturalist and scholar of Dena’ina and Alutiiq ethnobotany.
In 1996, CACS held a “mortgage-burning” party for the Field Station. Two years later, the organization had a new mortgage on their headquarters building on Lake Street, thanks to a generous donation for the down-payment by Toby Tyler.
A spruce bark beetle epidemic peaked in the mid-1990s, killing trees on both sides of Kachemak Bay. Maintaining CACS trails required hours of work by volunteer chain-saw brigades to clear or re-route them. But the epidemic also provided “teachable moments” about insect life cycles, decomposition and forest succession.
CACS entered its third decade with year-round programming and staffing by myself as the executive director and two outstanding environmental educators, with the continuing office support of Lisa Ellington. The current CACS Executive Director, Beth Trowbridge, had begun providing winter programs in Homer through Community Schools, and Bree Murphy had become the year-round program coordinator.
CACS will celebrate the opening of a new visitor center for the Wynn Nature Center and the Inspiration Ridge Preserve on June 18. For more information about the history of CACS and the people who make it happen and upcoming 40th Anniversary events and educational programs, see the CACS website: http://akcoastalstudies.org.