Salty Dawg more than just another watering hole

Most of the traffic at the Salty Dawg at 11 a.m. on a recent Monday consists of tourists buying sweatshirts. But there’s some workaday drinking going on in here, too, including three guys from Louisiana off the 250-foot M/V Reliant. Employed by a contractor for Crowley on a natural gas pipeline up Cook Inlet, they’d tied up at the Deep Water Dock in the early morning for boat repairs. 

And they had been waiting eagerly since 8 a.m. for a cold beer. 

“If you want a bit of advice, this Spit needs a place for 24-7 beer,” Luke Wamble says.

He had tried to come into the bar earlier, probably through the door where the “Open at 10 a.m.” sign has been crossed out and rewritten as “11.” 

The other guys — offshore riggers — spot a bumper sticker on the wall saying “LSU,” the acronym for their state university, and seem charmed. They’re eager to get home, back to the Louisiana summer where they can ditch the winter hats they’re wearing now.

It’s not Cissy Rockett’s shift, but she’s in here, too, with work to do in the office upstairs in the lighthouse. A beacon for drinkers and not for ships, the lights in the lighthouse go on and off as the bar opens and closes. 

Cissy has tended bar here since 1982. She wears her 25-year pin, a tiny gold replica of the bar with a small diamond at the top of the lighthouse, on a chain around her neck to prove it. Except for taking a year off from bartending after each of her two sons was born, she’s been at the Dawg ever since an Alaska fisherman she met back home in California invited her up.

Cissy saw the bar through its rather lawless days of the 1980s. That’s at least how everyone seems to remember — or not quite remember — it. Those were the days when, at the end of a shift, she might find a dropped baggie of cocaine in the sawdust that used to cover the floor or, once, seven $100 bills in a single wad. 

Other people recall the days when you could buy a pile of Kachemak Bay shrimp on the Spit and enjoy them with beer at the Dawg. Or when you could buy a pick-up truckload of king crab for a dollar a piece. Cissy says there are still a few regulars from those days.

The Salty Dawg’s story starts earlier, though, in 1957, when Charles Baker Abbott, a draftsman who came to Alaska during World War II, opened the bar in a single cabin at the tip of the Spit. The cabin, which was originally built in 1897, had been used alternately as a post office, railroad station, grocery store, residence and coal company office, and it remains the main room of the bar. The adjoining room where the jukebox sits dates to 1909. Look for shipworm holes in the logs of the backroom — the cabin closest to the harbor. That building was used as a post office on Beluga Slough and dates back at least to 1927.

Earl and Mary Jane Hillstrand bought the bar in 1960, two years after opening Land’s End Resort. The 1964 Earthquake dropped the Dawg — and 70 percent of the rest of the Spit — into the sea. Luckily, the bar was empty at the time because it was closed for the season. The flood ripped off the fire hose Abbott had hammered to the edge of the bar to keep spilled drinks off laps and the floor. Now nothing was dry.

When the Dawg reopened for the summer, high tides wetted customers’ boots. Soon after, the Hillstrands moved the bar to its current location near the then-new small boat harbor and built the lighthouse tower to cover a water tank.

In 1975, the Dawg became an official reference point on nautical charts, and a few years later, an ocean survey crew installed a metal benchmark in the floor of the bar, locating the Dawg 30.94 feet above mean low water. How these two facts came to be may or may not involve a bet made over drinks.

Today the Salty Dawg is known far and wide. The bar has been featured on the reality TV mega-hit Deadliest Catch and on nationwide “best bars” lists. Conscious of its reputation, the Dawg has been selling merchandise since the 1970s, and today has an extensive selection of branded products and a fancy website with a photoshopped image of the bar, making it look, once again, as though there’s nothing around it but sea and snow-flecked peaks. 

The practice of pinning cash to the walls started when a fisherman who wanted to buy a drink for a buddy who hadn’t yet returned to the harbor wrote his friend’s name on a bill and left the cash pinned to the wall. At least that’s how the story goes. Bar staff remove most of the dollar bills each year.

“We leave the breeders up there,” Cissy says. 

The haul is donated to various charitable causes. According to Cissy, they unpin $3,000-$4,000 each year. Special Olympics, the Homer Hockey Association and Popeye Wrestling have all been recipients. 

Given Alaska’s conflicted relationship with alcohol, it makes no sense to glorify any entity that traffics almost exclusively in drink. But in Alaska, the state’s history is short and so anything that is comparatively old is held dear. As everything around us changes — the land, the sea, the people who come and go — we take comfort in what stays the same and what we feel will be the same for years.

Of course, things have changed at the Dawg. The sawdust and then woodchips that once covered the floor have been removed because, after the spruce-bark beetle epidemic of the 1990s waned, there was no easy source of chips and the insurer never approved anyway. The place went non-smoking a few years ago and a patio was added to accommodate smokers. 

Owner John Warren, whose family has owned the bar since 1980, says he tries hard not to change much. And the feel of the bar seems to have stayed intact over the years. 

“This is a happy place,” Cissy says. “Some people who come have saved their whole life to be here.” 

Miranda Weiss is a Homer writer.

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