Monday, May 7, 2012

Homer spit

Homer spit is Homer spit. It's not raw, pristine wilderness, but nor is it the Jersey Shore. It falls somewhere in between. The town of Homer, Alaska lies at the southwestern tip of the Kenai peninsula in the south-central part of the state, where the road ends. The sprawling road system comes to an abrupt halt at this wave-ravaged, wind-driven finger of sand, curling out four miles into the sparkling waters of Kachemak Bay. Out on the spit there are commercial fisherman and redneck kids on four-wheelers, writers and artists and, in the summer, tourists. Thousands of them pour from cruise ships and RVs, all eager for a taste of Alaska. They down a shot at the Salty Dawg Saloon, hook a giant halibut on charter boat and buy a sweatshirt from one of the brightly-colored gift shops perched on barnacled pilings. It's a little bit salty, a lot bit touristy, but nonetheless beautiful. There are sea otters and seals in the harbor, migrating cranes in the mudflats and moose wandering in the alders at the base of the spit. It is, after all, Alaska.

It is late April, and the tourists are still at home, plotting their vacations. Most of the storefronts are boarded up. There are a few signs on the bulletin boards posted by young fisherman from Iowa or Oregon looking for summer work. The winds blow and the air is cold, light dancing from a sun that stays late in the sky, belying the cold, hinting at the season to come. The marsh grasses are brown, stalks whispering dryly in the endless twilight.

Kate and I are driving a red rental car we picked up in Anchorage, four hours north. We drove it first to Seward, on the other side of the Kenai peninsula. There, the mountains are even more dramatic, rising straight up around the town, straight from the deep fjord of Resurrection Bay. We kayaked to a cabin in the spruce woods next to a waterfall. The woods still harbored a wet, dirty snow littered with pine needles and flecks of wood, but the cabin was warm and and we drank wine and played canasta and slept to the sound of rain dripping through the treetops, pinging against the metal roof, the campfire smell of the stove mingling with the wet marine air. 

We were close to Homer, but we couldn't get here from there. We had to drive three hours around the mountains to reach the spit. Now, as we shake out our tent, the light is brilliant, sun and clouds pulled apart and together by the wind, swirling in the sky. We camp on the sand, among twisted trunks of driftwood. Behind us, on the gravel lot, there is an aluminum trailer with 26 mongrel sled dogs chained up and down its sides, occasionally whipping themselves up into a yowl and then settling down again to lie in anticipation for the next distraction. Next to us are three Eskimo men with a boat and a heavy yellow tent they heat with propane. They offer us some of their bratwurst and we get to talking. I ask if they've been fishing. No, says the youngest, hunting. Like most native Alaskans, he speaks slowly, pausing before he answers. A camo jacket hangs off his wiry frame, and long, wavy black hair hangs over the cigarette that dangles from his lips. The two other Eskimos are older, with thick straight hair and heavy black mustaches. They're cousins, from Nome up north, but they now live in Anchorage. Every April, when the water is free of ice but the seals still have their winter blubber, they come here to hunt.

They pull back a blue tarp in their boat and I have to take a step back. Inside, the brightness of the blood is astonishing; it glows, the brightest of reds, drops of rubies splattered on the blue tarp. The two seals wrapped in the tarp are huge – 250 pounds apiece – laid out head to tail, with a neat bullet wound through each head. Their eyes are an icy blue, whiskers caked with blood. I've never seen a seal so close, or so dead. Where a knife has sliced through to bleed them out, their blubber is three inches thick. It will be used to make seal oil, which the men's mothers eat by the spoonful, like peanut butter from a jar. The gray speckled fur will be made into native crafts. Wayne shows me pictures on his iPhone of the masks and boots he makes from seal fur.

We drink wine from tin cups, and the endless twilight spirals on. The sun drops away but the sky does not darken. It is a metallic blue. The moon rises cold and distant. The man with the sled dogs turns out to be from Montana. He's just gotten off the mushing circuit and decided on a whim to drive to Alaska with his 26 dogs, just because. He's stayed two weeks so far, and may stay the whole summer, he says. Anything is possible. He's made friends with two other men who have been camping on the spit, both here alone in this strange season between when the snow melts and the tourists arrive. One is a cocky guy of about 30 who has been commercial fishing since he was 18, working the crab boats in the Bering Sea (he boasts). He broke his foot and is drinking away his workers comp checks, biding his time out on the spit. And there's Mark, who grew up in Hawaii and hasn't seen his daughter in ten years but is glad to be alive and living here in the salty, clean air. “Every day I live in awe,” he says, tilting his face toward the sky, the mountains: “Ahhhh!” He walks with one stiff leg, swinging it out as if it's a pirate's wooden peg. His face is crevassed with wrinkles. He teeth are yellow, his beard white, his eyes the same blue as those of his beautiful husky. Limping around camp to throw wood on the fire, pour wine, break up a dog fight, he bursts into song: Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Bob Marley. We are all living in awe.

None of us, not even the Eskimos, are from here. Each of us came to this stretch of no-man's land for our own reasons, and yet we came for the same reasons. For the way the wind whips the sand, the ocean surf crashes on the beach, the way the stars begin to pierce the slowly darkening sky. For the stark white mountains in the distance and the cold dark depths of the sea and all the dreams and fears and concealed answers locked away in those secret places. For the freedom and the promise and adventure of being at the end of the road, beyond the clogged highways and parking lots and climate-controlled office buildings. There is all of that, and there is loneliness too, a loneliness that everyone, after a few cups of wine, begins to let slip from their tongues. It is the one thing that binds us, out here on the spit, all of us young and old, male and female, all of us from somewhere else, sitting around a driftwood fire, feeling the pull of Alaska and the weight of what we've left behind. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Nature Blog Network