When you’re standing at the tip of the Spit, you’re already four-and-a-half miles into Kachemak Bay. But the Spit has always served as the springboard to outings that take you far beyond those miles.
For Charlene Wilkins, weekend adventures from the Spit as a kid in the 1950s meant piling into the Salty Duck, an amphibious World War II landing vehicle that her father, Charles Abbott, founder of the Salty Dawg and the oil terminal at the tip of the Spit, had acquired from an Army surplus sale. At about the speed little Charlene could have walked it, the family would putter across the bay in the hulking, 31-foot vessel. After driving the Duck up the beach, they all spilled out to explore abandoned fox farms on the south side of the bay.
You couldn’t find adventures “for hire” on the Spit back then, but in the early 1960s, you could rent a skiff from the boat basin at the tip of the Spit and set off on your own. In 1966, lifelong Halibut Cove resident Marian Beck began hauling freight and people on a run between Jakalof Bay and Halibut Cove on the M/V Danny J, a 42-foot wooden boat originally designed for troop transport during WWII.
In the mid-1970s, rather than just trolling the pie bar at Land’s End for customers, Marian and friend Wilma Kempl set up a tiny office inside the Spit’s General Store they called “Central Charters.” In 1974, Marian earned her 100 Ton Masters License — the first woman in Alaska, she said, to do so. Able to carry additional passengers, she honed her tour for visitors — pulling crab pots, stopping on the beach for tea and explaining marine science along the way.
By the early 1980s, more visitors were coming to Homer as the Alaska and Sterling Highways morphed from muddy tracks to passable routes. And Kachemak Bay State Park — established in 1970 as Alaska’s first state park — got its first onsite ranger in 1984, and with that trail construction and maintenance. With easier access to Homer and more destinations across the bay, the adventure industry on the Spit began to bloom, although slowly at first.
In 1982, Jack and Fran Montgomery — owners of Rainbow Tours — leased a six-pack boat and ran tours to Grewingk Glacier Lake. The year after, they began runs to Seldovia. That same year, Scott Burbank and Susan Aramovich, owners of St. Augustine’s Kayak and Tours, started sailboat tours, guided park hikes and kayaking trips. And Marian Beck ditched the “tea on the beach” idea and opened The Saltry restaurant in Halibut Cove, using the Danny J to ferry restaurant patrons.
The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill brought an end to life and work as Spit folks knew it. That summer, almost everyone with a boat — and many people without — went to work on the cleanup.
The decade after the spill saw an explosion of development in the business of giving people great adventures from the Spit. Marsha Million — a wintertime leather bootmaker who lived in Little Jakolof Bay — started the Jakolof Bay Ferry with the M/V Harlequin, a wooden craft built by local boatwright Dave Seaman. Tom Hopkins joined the year after with a second boat and they teamed with Ageya — one of the early kayak tour companies on the bay. Karl Stoltzfus began Bay Excursions in 1994 with a six-passenger water taxi after inheriting his family’s boat upon the death of his father. Mako’s Water Taxi started up two years later and now about a dozen companies buzz people back and forth across the bay all summer long.
Spit-based adventures continue to evolve. One of the most exciting new experiences being offered on the Spit is guided standup paddleboard, or SUP, trips through True North Kayak Adventures, a 22-year-old business owned by Alison O’Hara. Paddleboarding — or SUPing — has exploded in Southcentral Alaska. Although shaped like surfboards, they are heftier and more stable, making them popular with adventurers of all ages and abilities. On average, they’re lighter than kayaks, so easier to transport.
For the first time, O’Hara is offering standup paddleboard tours on Grewingk Glacier Lake on the south side of Kachemak Bay. The lake can be accessed by hikers from the Glacier Spit Trailhead (3.2 miles) and from the Saddle Trailhead (1 mile) — not exactly the kind of distance over which a typical SUPer would be hauling her craft. But at the beginning of the season, O’Hara and her helpers hiked a fleet of inflatable SUPs to the lake in order to offer guided tours.
Grewingk Glacier Lake is likely the most popular hiking destination in Kachemak Bay State Park, and anyone who has ventured there is familiar with the reward: a stunning view of the foot of a glacier across a lake in which scattered icebergs glow blue.
“After so many years of taking pictures up there, I’m able to paddle into my photograph,” O’Hara says.
Paddleboarding on the lake gives participants an opportunity to weave through icebergs and view the site of a massive 1967 landslide that sent a 200-foot-tall wave of water across the lake and shot debris down the valley in a flood more than a third of a mile wide.
Brisk katabatic winds — winds caused when cold air whooshes downhill — flow off the glacier and help keep paddlers a safe distance in the event of a calving, which could produce large waves.
“It feels so prehistoric, like there could be a woolly mammoth up there coming at you over the rocks,” O’Hara adds.
Donna Warren, a Homer resident and recent participant on the tour, recommends putting the trip on your “bucket list.” She recounts the experience of listening to the glacier from her paddleboard: “You hear the ice melting and dripping with the hint of the wind blowing through the crevasses.”
True North also offers a chance to ride the tide in China Poot Bay. Adventuring by SUP gives you a great vantage point for observing the incredible diversity of colorful marine life in the bay — from huge red and green Christmas anemones to purple sea urchins. On a recent tour, O’Hara says, SUPers could see 30 feet down to the seafloor. The 24-armed sunflower stars, which can be as large as trash can lids, are always a favorite, she says.
Numerous tour and adventure operators report that competition has gotten stiffer over the years. And that everyone wants to go faster.
“We were more immersed in the landscape,” Marian Beck reflects on the earlier days of the adventure industry on the Spit. Those opportunities still exist.
So, if you can, get out there, slow down and look around you.
Miranda Weiss is a Homer writer.