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THEY LEFT THE LIGHT ON : During summer in this remote Alaskan frontier town, the fishing's great and the days never seem to end

SMALL TOWN AMERICA. One in an occasional series. The idea of vacationing in slower, more personable surroundings seems more and more appealing. Here is the third in a series of visits to selected American towns that are safe, walkable, affordable, not too busy and not too self-conscious

August 07, 1994|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

HOMER, Alaska — My problem in Homer wasn't the jaywalking moose or the cult of the halibut or the spit rats. It wasn't the lady who accused me of being Tom Bodett. All these things I came to understand as facets of life in what may be the most celebrated small town on America's last frontier. My problem was the summer light. I felt obliged to keep exploring as long as it shone, and it just kept on shining.

This was late July, and every day, dawn would arrive around 5, casting a gray glow onto the smooth stones, bleached driftwood and silvery tides at Bishop's Beach, a block from my bed at the Driftwood Inn. Then the sun would inch its way across the sky, the wind would snap and ease, and the 4,200 rumpled and sweater-wrapped residents of Homer would go about their busy summer lives: hauling in hundred-pound halibut, throwing pots, steering seaplanes over glaciers, tidying their bed and breakfasts, piloting ferries across Kachemak Bay to Halibut Cove or the old Eskimo and Russian settlement at Seldovia. On their way, they'd pass messages to each other via the five-times-daily "bush line" of the public radio station, KBBI-AM 890.

To Natasha: Bears are on the trail between the head of the bay and town. Take the low road. From Boris.

To Bethany: Reminder that you have an appointment Tuesday at Dr. Todd's office.

Ten hours would go by this way, then 15, giving me plenty of time to hit the usual tourist highlights. But then I'd find myself passing time, happy but unfocused, at just about anything. Combing the shoreline in search of a perfectly round stone. Hiking randomly amid the green shrubs and purple flowers atop Ohlson Mountain, which overlooks town. Taking a census of boat names in the Homer Small Boat Harbor. Watching the dock dogs snap for fish scraps.

One morning--or maybe it was afternoon--I was back at Bishop's Beach looking at driftwood and stones, and found Mandy Ewald, 13, Sarah Ewald, 14, Tara Guhn, 16, and Crystal Loop, 12, splashing in the chilly surf. But for them and me and a few distant specks about a mile along the shore, the beach was empty. Beyond the bay, peeking through swirling clouds, lay jagged peaks, monumental fiords, Kachemak Glacier, Dinglestadt Glacier, Dixon, Portlock, Grewingk, Wosnesenski and Doroshin glaciers. The girls had come by car from Fort Wayne, Ind., and this, they agreed, teeth chattering, was the best place yet--even better, they said, than the big mall in Edmonton, Alberta.

Late that night--or maybe it was early the next morning--I sat hunched in the din of the Salty Dawg (founded 1957, open until 4 a.m.), my shoes scraping in sawdust, my head surrounded by wall-mounted life preservers, my ears ringing with beer-fueled accounts of the day's fishing.

"Today was a big day," charter deckhand Dan Prisaznuk told me. "A friend of mine, the first fish on his boat was a 208."

That would be 208 pounds. The crew needed three shots to kill it. Large halibut are often subdued aboard ship by gun shots, lest their twitching tails break someone's legs.

Someone else had a story about another guy, a few days before, who didn't bother to spend the $5 it takes to enter the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby, then went out and caught a 300-pound fish. His fish was the biggest of the summer so far, which means the $5 the fellow saved might end up costing him a jackpot of something like $18,000. Hate it when that happens.

In this way I floated through the days and nights. Finally, each day, after 18 or so hours of light, around 11 p.m., the last direct rays of the sun would throw a warm pink glow onto the line of ragged peaks across the bay. Anglers would still be slouching around the Fishing Hole, and pre-teen kids were out riding bikes along the shoulder of East End Road, still sun-drunk.

Then would come a few hours of twilight, with the moon gleaming over the mountains and the still waters of the bay glowing like a great pane of glass, gas-jet blue. Then, around 2 a.m., a blink of darkness, under cover of which a high-living crew member could crawl home, change clothes, grab a bite and a quick nap, and head back out on another charter. Which could account for the bumper sticker I saw in the harbor lot:

"Have you flogged your crew today?"

Homer, which lies on the Kenai Peninsula about 2,200 miles north of Los Angeles, is southern by Alaskan standards. As the eagle flies, it sits about 100 miles south of Anchorage, and more than 500 miles south of Fairbanks. Though the mountains along the horizon never lose their snow, and the 3-million-year-old Harding Icefield behind them never melts, Homer's location on the waters of Kachemak Bay keeps its temperatures moderate: around 60 degrees in summer, around 20 in winter, with regular runs of rain, clouds and wind to keep things interesting. (On my last day in town, the winds were so interesting that my "flight-seeing" expedition, to see glaciers and such by seaplane, was canceled.)

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