Homer holds nose at spring scent

If the print edition of today’s Homer News had scratch ’n’ sniff ink, an eau de Homer this spring would have a recipe like this:

• Start with a generous dose of wet dog;

• Add a sprinkle of sewage sludge;

• Toss in a dead sea otter;

• Throw in that yucky black stuff at the bottom of an unturned compost heap;

• Marinade in fresh horse manure, and

• Let stand in a sealed 5-gallon bucket.

Open the bucket a week later, take a deep whiff and prepare to gag. That’s something like what locals have reported smelling this spring all around town.

What has caused an odor that one 20-year Homer resident said she had never smelled before?

When the Homer News asked its Facebook followers for their opinions, the ideas ranged from the serious to silly: “Moose poop,” “rotten cranberries,” “the city council,” “sour grass” and “methane being released from the earth as it thaws.”

To this reporter’s nose, the most intense smell seems to come wherever there’s grass, a low spot in the ground and poor drainage. The lawn at Bishop’s Beach park ranks at the top as being, well, the most rank. Two puddles by the parking lot have turned dark brown, with water a deep black in the middle. If bottled and used to coerce testimony from enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, it would be banned by the Geneva Convention as inhumane torture.

Aimee Sulczynski, who has lived in Homer off and on for a total of 20 years, including her childhood, said she could not recall a spring smelling as bad.

“It does seem like it’s worse, and not at all like I remember it smelling as a kid,” she said.

Sulczynski said she wondered if the smell could come from dirt used to sand roads.

“Is it farmland dirt coming from the Matanuska Valley with pig poo in it?” she asked.

That doesn’t seem likely, said Homer Public Works Director Carey Meyer. The sand the city uses on its roads is mined at Anchor Point and mixed with calcium chloride — salt. 

“I don’t know why that would create any kind of smell,” Meyer said.

Another suspect might be the sewage lagoon.

“Whenever there’s a smell in town, everyone points to Public Works,” Meyer said.

An odor coming off the sewage lagoon after it’s been turned over does smell ripe and similar to the pungent aroma around town. 

Meyer said that wouldn’t explain smells reported far away and upwind of the sewage plant and not near sewage lines. Meyer said he smelled the odor on Lake Street crossing Beluga Slough near a sewage lift station. There are carbon filters on the station though. Public Works employees checked that out.

“We’ve stuck our noses in there,” Meyer said. “It doesn’t appear to be coming from that location.”

Or, you could blame the smell on dogs, or dog owners who don’t scoop up dog poop.

“I do wish that people would take doggy bags with them when they went for walks,” said Homer Animal Control Officer Sherry Bess. “It is common courtesy to pick up after dogs poop.”

Bess, who is recovering from hip surgery, said she hasn’t been out a lot and noticed the smell. However, she doesn’t think dog poop is the source, at least poop that has been buried under snow.

“There isn’t that much of an odor after it sat all winter under the snow and it starts to deteriorate.” Bess said.

Could it be Beluga Slough and other wetlands?

Probably not, said Sue Mauger, a stream ecologist and science director at Cook Inletkeeper.

“Wetlands generally aren’t terribly smelly,” she said.

Mauger said she first noticed the eau de Homer while walking on East End Road near Cottonwood Horse Park.

“Wow, that horse park is really strong,” she said remembers thinking. “And then I realized the wind was blowing the other way.”

That suggests a source, Mauger said. To her, the scent is similar to fresh horse manure.

“Which tells me it’s a decomposing grass and hay smell,” she said.

“It reminds me of hayfields and horses.”

The frozen ground might be another factor, Mauger said. April is usually a fire month, with increased fire danger from drying grasses, she said. 

That’s not the case this spring. Wet uplands with grass haven’t dried out yet. At the same time, the frozen soil keeps water from draining so last summer’s grass sits, rots and decomposes, giving off that pungent odor.

That’s also Coowe Walker’s theory. A watershed researcher at the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, Walker said her best guess for the source of the smell is anaerobic — without air — conditions and really wet soils.

Thinking back, Sulczynski said she did remember an earlier time when she smelled the scent of 2013. In a spring about five or six years ago when her children were at a daycare center, they would play in a fenced-in grassy area. They came home with clothes reeking of the eau de Homer and she’d have to wash them. 

Sulczynski also noted a joke going around on  social media networks: “The irony of the ‘Spring Time in Alaska,’ the Fabreez scent,” she said. 

So what will end the curse of the Homer odor? Like odors from less-pungent years, the cure could be in the weather. What Homer needs is warmer temperatures and rain. That could be in the forecast for this weekend. 

The National Weather Service Alaska predicts highs in the 40s on Thursday and Friday and a chance of rain or snow. Alas, looking into Saturday, cold temperatures are projected, with lows 25 to 35 and highs 35 to 45 and a chance of snow showers. 

Alaska in general has been in the grip of a lingering cold spell. On Sunday, weather stations reported near-record lows, such as 2 degrees in Fairbanks. Normal highs in April in the interior are in the upper 40s and low 50s.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.