HOMER, Alaska — He was big and bold and bearded, and he smelled like effluent from a fish cannery.
He wore high rubber boots over patched overalls, and a plaid flannel shirt that stretched tight across his barrel chest. Bloodshot eyes glared out from beneath his cap--a navy-blue tuque--that covered his long, brown hair. He sauntered into the saloon, ordered a brew, pulled up a barrel beside me and launched into a vociferous soliloquy on environmental politics.
He was, in short, an Alaskan. And like many Alaskans, whose reputation for toughness in an often-harsh climate is well-deserved, the local bar was his social center.
My new acquaintance on this occasion was a fisherman just in from a cold, rainy week of halibut fishing on Kachemak Bay and the Cook Inlet. His refuge was the Salty Dawg, which occupies a ramshackle lighthouse opposite a bald-eagle feeding ground near the end of the three-mile-long Homer Spit, at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
Built in 1897, the Salty Dawg has weathered nearly a century of catastrophic storms, tidal waves and earthquakes, some of them much larger than Los Angeles' recent 6.6-magnitude tremor (a devastating 1964 quake measured 8.4). It has been a school, a post office, a grocery store, a railroad station, a coal-mining office and an oil-company headquarters. Today the Dawg is a sometimes-rowdy saloon with a sawdust floor, initials carved into its counters and tables, and flags, life buoys and T-shirts hanging from its ceilings and walls. When it's too stormy out to launch a boat, some fishermen and workers from nearby canneries are here when the door opens at 11 a.m.--and stay until it closes 18 hours later.
The Salty Dawg is not unique in its ambience. There are similar watering holes throughout the 49th state--not just in old lighthouses, perhaps, but in equally atmospheric settings. Skagway's Red Onion, for instance, is lodged in what was once a brothel. And the Howling Dog, 11 miles north of Fairbanks near the Arctic Circle, is right on the edge of the tundra.
Instead of a fisherman, your company there might be a North Slope oil worker escaping the permafrost, a logger who has been thinning the old-growth cedar forests of the Panhandle, or a hard-bitten miner with a lode on his mind. For that matter, especially in Anchorage, Alaska's Fresno-size metropolis, it could be a spiffed-up office worker out for a night on the town.
Alaska's natural beauty has few parallels on this earth. The same can be said of its half-million people. They work hard to earn a living from an unforgiving land, and when the work is over, they traditionally play hard. There may be no better place to strike up a conversation than in their local saloons.
Beer drinkers rave about Alaskan Beer, brewed in Juneau (and best enjoyed at that city's Red Dog Saloon). The Alaskan Brewing Co. was established only in 1986, but already its Alaskan Amber has twice been voted the most popular beer at the annual Great American Beer Festival in Colorado. There's also an Alaskan Pale Ale ("a northern light").
Saloon food varies widely, though it's always pretty basic. You won't find oyster bars here. Some bars serve up nothing more appetizing than peanuts and pretzels (or, in the case of Anchorage's Fly by Night Club, Spam); others, like the Malemute Saloon near Fairbanks, go whole hog with reindeer stew or other wild-game dishes. The Red Dog is adjoined by an atmospheric restaurant, The Cook House; no meals are served in the bar, but steaks and seafood are 10 steps away. More typically, Alaskan bar menus feature burgers or burritos, pizza or deli-style sandwiches.
Liberal state licensing laws permit bars, restaurants, liquor stores and other licensed establishments to operate from 8 a.m. to 5 a.m., seven days a week. Anchorage, Juneau and many other towns have passed local ordinances that have reduced open hours, typically to 2 a.m.
During the past 10 years, while researching and revising a guidebook to the state, I have made many visits to Alaska hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions and, yes, drinking establishments. Here, then, are some of my favorite places, chosen for their uniquely Alaskan spirit. These are all full bars, serving a full range of spirits along with beer and wine. With one exception, they are local hangouts, but places where tourists are welcomed as well. The exception is the Malemute Saloon, which I've included because it so successfully re-creates a turn-of-the-century gold-rush flavor.