Variety shapes culture of Spit

The vibrancy of the Spit depends on a mash-up of diverse elements and individuals: captains and slime liners, potters and biologists, Spit Rats and third-time cruise ship passengers, locals and people from all over the world, and crane operators and chefs and wanderers and everyone in between. This week’s Spit story reports on three outposts that help shape Spit culture.

 

LIVE THEATER ENERGIZES THE SPIT

When Pier One Theatre got its start on the Spit in 1973 in one side of a city-owned warehouse on Homer’s only dock, audience members could see water through the cracks in the floor at high tide. Chicken wire strung floor to ceiling served as a make-shift wall from which could be hung curtains and backdrop sets. And when someone from the cast needed a mid-show bathroom break, there was only a bucket.

Today’s Pier One, located in the peaked roof, barn-red building at the south end of the Fishing Hole, maintains this bare bones approach (although with flush toilets available to everyone.) Each summer, the organization, which is run by founders Barb and Lance Petersen, offers a season of live theater performances on the Spit, as well as a youth theater program for kids and teens ages 3 to 18. 

The organization is winding down a season of eight shows, including a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by an Anchorage theater group; a music and 

multi-media tour of Homer and the Cook Inlet region by pianist and songwriter Johnny B.; the play “The Flick,” in which the audience sits on stage and the performance happens in the theater seats; and an upcoming trio of one-act plays by Alaska playwrights and directed by Nancy Chastain. 

Barb and Lance Petersen launched the theater with friends Richard and Donna Dixon. The group’s original bankroll was $200. Today, the nonprofit organization has a budget of just under $100,000. The Petersens themselves take no salary from it, but use the funds to pay people to direct sound and lights, manage concessions and take care of graphic design needs. About three-quarters of the income is made up of ticket sales; the rest comes mainly from a small grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts, concessions, youth camp tuition and advertising. Barb is company manager and Lance is the artistic director,` and he does most of the cleaning and takes care of the books. 

Since the start, the organization has involved kids. Casey Parrett, a graduate of Homer High School, got involved at Pier One when she was 12 years old and this summer, now 21, Parrett just completed her third year directing the youth theater program. She’s a senior at Southern Oregon University and each year has left school early — turning in all of her work two weeks before the end of the semester — in order to get back to Homer to run the theater camp.

Barb Petersen estimates that about 70 percent of the audience is local. Over the years, the theater has offered performances that she feels couldn’t be offered in other Alaska communities because they feature mature themes and language or difficult subjects.

“We’ve been very fortunate living in a community where we can do plays that are a stretch,” Barb Petersen said. “The community has always backed us by coming to see a show.”

Pier One leases the building and land they occupy from the city for one dollar a year. Discussion came up at the city council level a couple of years ago about using the space currently occupied by Pier One for vessel haul-out and other marine industrial purposes. 

At the time, council member Francie Roberts spoke up in support of the theater and played a leading role in helping the organization stay in their current location.

“We have a lot of visitors that go to the Spit in the summer and it’s a wonderful program to show local talent,” Roberts said. 

When the council agreed to let the theater stay, they were flooded with “thank you” notes, Barb Petersen recalled. The Petersens feel their location on the Spit is critical. 

 “If there’s no alternative to marine industrial or charter boats and that sort of thing, there’s an emptiness in Spit culture,” Lance Petersen said.

 

GRIND SHACK SENDS FISH WASTE
OUT OF SIGHT

Before the Grind Shack was built, there was a Steller sea lion problem at the harbor. Fish processors and the city disposed of fish waste by chucking whole carcasses off the nearby Homer Deep Water Dock. 

This attracted the boisterous marine mammals that would then haul out on harbor floats. This made for great wildlife viewing, but became a nuisance as city workers sometimes had to rope off sections of the harbor to keep people away from these endangered — and occasionally aggressive — animals.

The dumping of unprocessed fish offal also created a pollution problem as fish carcasses decomposed — likely creating an oxygen-deprived dead zone at the foot of the dock. These issues prompted construction of the Grind Shack, a tan, metal-sided building about 20-by-30 feet on Fish Dock Road, in 2000.

You can smell the Grind Shack long before you can read the tag line on its sign: “You find ‘em, we grind ‘em.” Near daily during the summer months, city workers empty the carcass trailers at the three public fish cleaning stations on the Spit into lidded totes in front of the Shack. Charter operations and other businesses deliver their fish waste in tubs and totes, which sit on the pavement, often under the blazing sun, leaking blood, gurry and stink. 

Even though the facility is city-owned, since its start it has been managed by the Fish Factory. Every few days, employees from this neighboring seafood buying and processing company spend three or four hours grinding thousands of pounds of material. 

When they do, the stench is fierce. By forklift, one of the workers places a tote — lid now removed — into a mechanical cradle inside the Shack, at the end of a long stainless steel table. The cradle then lifts the tote and pours the contents through a funnel onto the table. 

Rot has bloomed on many of the carcasses by the time the workers — wearing rubber from head to toe as well as protective eyewear — have to sort through the smelly mess for trash and hooks, which would damage the machinery. Then they feed the stuff into a massive grinder that bellows too loudly to talk over. The end result is grayish-pink sludge about the consistency of oatmeal. The sludge mixes with saltwater in an underground vault and is then piped out to the bay.

You can sometimes see the slurry bubbling up just off the tip of the Spit between the two metal pilings visible from the beach at the end of the Spit road. More often, you can see the storm of kittiwakes, gulls, and anglers attracted to the fish that are drawn in by waste, the smell of which is, thankfully, far away.

MARINE BUSINESS ON THE SPIT TURNS 40 

South Central Radar’s bread and butter is outfitting and servicing commercial fishing boats with GPS, radars, fish finders, auto pilots, satellite phones and other electronic equipment. The marine electronics concern, which is open year-round, two doors down from the Salty Dawg, has been operating for four decades in Homer.

Mark and Laura Zeiset bought the business from founder Bill Tener in November 2012. Laura Zeiset takes care of the bookkeeping. Mark and his three other staff members take care of sales, installations, service and troubleshooting.

The couple had been looking to move from Anchorage to Homer, where Laura Zeiset grew up and her extended family lives. Originally from Pennsylvania, Mark came up to Alaska on a road trip with friends and never went back. He had been working for a private company that managed the electronic components of large utility systems in Anchorage, including street lighting and municipal water and sewer facilities. 

One thing Zeiset had to learn when he came into marine electronics was how seasonal the work is, and how timing can be critical. “For a commercial fisherman, having a week or two down can be a big hit.” In the summer months, he often works from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. or sometimes midnight. 

Zeiset is a member of the Homer Marine Trades Association and has taught classes in marine electronics at Homer High School and Kachemak Bay Campus to help encourage young people to get into the industry. 

Zeiset is now working with the Alaska Department of Labor and AVTEC, the state’s technical and vocational institute in Seward, to develop a three-year apprenticeship specifically focused on marine electronics. He has already hired apprentice Sunny Puterbaugh, who said she “begged” Zeiset to take her on after hearing his presentation at Homer High School.

 “It’s very hard to find skilled people,” Zeiset said. “We got to this point where we realized we had to train people in-house.” 

Providing skilled service is one thing that attracts boat owners to the business.

Ian Pitzman manages five boats based in Homer. Over the last year, he purchased a radar and satellite phone for the Katrina Em, a 101-foot tender and cod fishing boat. Pitzman says that while sometimes you can find marine electronics cheaper in Seattle, “It’s better to use the guys who can be there to support the equipment.” Last fall, Pitzman rented a satellite phone from Zeiset for a deer hunting trip in Kodiak he took with his son.

Pitzman has at least two boats working each month of the year and says that the best time to shop at South Central Radar might be the winter. 

“They take their time,” Pitzman said. “You’ve got the shop to yourself.”

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