Update: The caption has been corrected on the fishhook sculpture photo properly identifying it as a circle hook.
And like that, another furious tourist season draws to a close — or nearly so — on the Homer Spit. A great blue heron was among the Labor Day weekend visitors. Like many others on the Spit, it likely will head someplace else soon.
“It’s been a banner year,” Homer Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center Manager Jan Knutson reported. The chamber recorded 11,699 visitors to the center on the Sterling Highway between May 1 and the end of August this year. That was nearly twice last year’s total of 6,555, and well above the average of the previous four years of just over 8,000.
There’s no way, however, to know how many people visited the Spit. But when visitors have only one day to spend in Homer, Knutson said, chamber staff and volunteers direct them to the Spit, as well as to the Pratt Museum and Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.
The chamber also has been meeting passengers off Holland America’s 1,260-person capacity Statendam vessel, which called on Homer every other Tuesday this summer. Knutson along with six volunteers greet each ship, handing out the chamber’s visitor guide and answering questions. The volunteers are so enthusiastic, Knutson said, “they schedule their surgeries and their own travel so that can meet the cruise ships.” The final cruise ship visit is Sept. 15.
Shelly Erickson, owner of Homer Tours, has been providing tours to cruise ship passengers and other Homer visitors for 20 years. “The people of Homer do a really good job making people feel welcome, making people feel like they’ve visited a real town not owned by the cruise ship,” Erickson said.
Local people are friendly, she said. And when visitors come here, “They’re meeting Alaskans, not college students who would be coming up to work” for the summer.
Some Spit businesses said that cruise ship days haven’t been the economic bump some people might expect; often they’re “just looking days,” when passengers from the ship are more interested in talking to local people and getting a sense of Homer than in spending money.
Indira Mukambetova, owner of The Better Sweater, said that cruise ship days, especially in July, were very busy for her. The end of the visitor season, however, gives her time to prepare for buying trips to Europe, Asia and South America. She is taking her two children, Khadicha, 18, and Isek, 7, to her homeland of Kyrgyzstan, where first they’ll visit family in the rural village where she grew up. When the business part of the trip begins, she’ll buy felted carpets in Kyrgyzstan and small carpets, woven hats and bags, and jewelry in Turkey.
Then, with Khadicha, who just graduated from Homer High School, she will head to Nepal for wool sweaters. Many of the Nepalese artisans she works with, Mukambetova said, lost their homes during the April 2015 earthquake, which killed some 9,000 people. The two will travel to Thailand and Bali to purchase jewelry. They will return to Homer in February before a second buying trip in March to Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador for merino wool and alpaca sweaters.
Rachel Gonzalez, owner of Exotic Eye Tattoo, came to the Spit a year ago from Hawaii, where she runs a small tattoo business in the winter. The most common image tattooed onto visitors at her studio on the Spit? An octopus, she said. “I came here thinking I was going to do nothing but salmon and bear claws,” she said. But that hasn’t been the case. Mermaids and anchors come in close second.
Gonzalez said her Spit clientele is much more diverse than at her studio in Maui. “You never know who is going to walk in the door,” she said She came up to Alaska originally because she had started elaborate tattoos in Maui on a number of Kenai Peninsula residents visiting Hawaii. She joked that she’d finish working on them in Alaska.
You won’t be able to get inked on the Spit this winter, but you can eat sushi year-round at Happy Face restaurant in the two-story yellow building just past the Salty Dawg. The restaurant, which has a large menu with Chinese and American food, promises the “best food in town” on a white sandwich board outside. “Yeah, it’s true,” manager CJ Lee, who is originally from South Korea, said.
While the General Store below the restaurant will close in October, the restaurant stays open year-round. Sushi chef Andy Choi, also from South Korea, said that in January the restaurant will add Vietnamese Pho soup to the menu and a Japanese dish called Shabu Shabu that involves thinly sliced meat or seafood cooked in boiling water or broth. “In wintertime, it’s the perfect food,” Choi said.
Winter weather may be coming, but nonscientific observations reveal a record number of T-shirt days on the Spit this summer. The balmy weather had varied effects on Spit businesses. “The rainy days are busier for us,” Salty Girls co-owner Mary Huff said. The sunny weather, she said, tended to keep people outdoors. Her store, at the top of Ramp 1, sells a wide assortment of gifts, books and décor items, and is the only outfit — besides the bar itself — that sells Salty Dawg merchandise on the Spit.
Greg Hebard, who owns Eagle Vision with his wife Deanna, carries warm hats and jackets as well as sunglasses. “We kind of hedge our bets,” he said.
The weather seems irrelevant to the demand for fish and chips on the Spit. Darren McVeigh, owner of Boardwalk Fish and Chips, said he goes through nearly 10,000 pounds of halibut each season. And all of it is fresh over the Homer docks. “If they’re paying $20 for fish and chips, it’s gotta be fresh,” McVeigh said.
Producing large quantities of fish and chips means that McVeigh goes through a lot of soybean oil. But it doesn’t go to waste. Used oil is sent through a filter and then poured into a valve in the kitchen floor where it flows to a 500-gallon tank below the boardwalk. He doesn’t sell the oil, but instead informally barters it. Minneapolis-based artist Andy Sjodin, who works as a server at Boardwalk Fish and Chips in the summer, burns the oil in his Volkswagen Rabbit pick-up truck, which he’ll drive back to Minneapolis this month—at a total cost of $60, he said.
Tabor Ashment, owner of The Sport Shed, called the good returns of king and silver salmon to the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon this summer “a blessing.” The shop, which carries fishing tackle, is located across the street from the Fishing Hole and benefits when action at the lagoon gets hot.
“I think generally people had a great time,” Ashment said of the season.
Homer, and perhaps the Spit in particular, seem to harbor something special for visitors. You can meet tourists on the Spit from thousands of miles away who are back in Homer for their second, fifth, even 11th time.
And this summer, the Spit hosted many people seeking memories and meaning: a poet from California retraced her recently deceased father’s Alaska trip; a couple traveling in a pick-up with a camper top took the same photograph in front of the Salty Dawg that they took in 1978; a mother and daughter relived the mother’s 1958 honeymoon after the death of her husband; and with her mother’s journal in hand — which recorded 25-cent pie and coffee along the Alaska Highway — a woman followed her mother’s journey to Alaska decades before.