By Eugene Buchanan
In Alaska, tide-pooling is a verb.
It's 11 a.m. and the ebb is at its lowest outside our cabin in Kachemak Bay, home of the second largest tidal range in the world (up to 28 feet). That means it's tide-pool time.
The concept is simple. You don rubber boots and wade around kelp-covered rocks, marveling at a life-filled world completely underwater only minutes ago. You gaze at starfish, lounging as if on Laz-Y Boys; upturn rocks to see eels squirm, urchins prickle and crabs pompously pinch; squish Dead Man's Fingers into multi-barreled squirt guns; and touch the sticky tentacles of sea anemones until they contract. And you pick mussels, glorious mussels, to steam with garlic, wine and butter as an appetizer for your freshly caught salmon.
I cut the top off a kelp bulb and slice its stem to form a four-foot-long horn for my trumpet-playing daughter, Casey. She puffs her cheeks and blows a Gregorian belch that echos across the bay.
I'm here with my wife, Denise and daughters Casey, 11, and Brooke, 15. Joining us is the Alaska side of our clan–Denise’s twin sister Laurie, her husband Nino and 6-year-old Lily. We’re guests of Porter's Alaskan Adventures, which owns 15 acres with three cabins and wood-fired sauna on Hesketh Island. Owners Becky and Zach Porter live with their two children across the bay on land their grandparents purchased before it became a park.
Wise investment. Kachemak Bay State Park was Alaska's first-ever, encompassing 400,000 acres of bays, inlets, rivers, glaciers and towering, jagged peaks. Designated as Critical Habitat Area and a National Estuarine Reserve, it's as wildernessy as Alaska gets, if that's even a word. Visit it and, like tide-pooling, you'll come up with a lot more words just like it.
Zach picked us up two days earlier at Ramp 4, Slip 8, in the Homer harbor. To the kids' delights, basking in the sun next to us on the dock at Slip 9 was Bob the seal. Climbing aboard his Dreamchaser water taxi, Casey taking a turn at the helm, we ferried across the bay, sliced between the mainland and Yukon Island and then rounded the south side of Hesketh, facing Tutka Bay.
That it's a national reserve became apparent as soon as we touched the cobblestone beach. Two sea otters periscoped out of the water just feet from shore, while an eagle soared overhead with a fresh catch in its talons.
We arrived at low tide, meaning a bit of an uphill walk shuttling our gear from boat to cabin. Four sea kayaks, delivered by True North Adventures, whose base camp is just a 10-minute paddle away, were lined up side by side in front of it, our exploration vessels at the ready.
After unloading, I headed out for a clockwise circumnavigation of the island. Dodging long strands of horn-friendly kelp bulbs while hypotenusing across hidden bays and coves, I rounded a towering cliff on the far end, affording a view south of a fence post of peaks flanking Tutka Bay. The only thing more majestic: the plume of a whale, followed by the baritone of its exhale.
Snow-covered Iliamna and Redoubt, two of Alaska's most active volcanoes, commanded the skyline across Cook Inlet as I traversed the island's north side, accompanied by a murre, or common guillemot, oyster catcher and eagle At the semi-leisurely pace the scenery demanded, I arrived back nearly an hour later. "Damn, only saw whales, sea otters and eagles," I bemoaned.
Grilled fresh salmon melted in our mouths at dinner, whose entertainment involved more whales out in the bay. Then we melted in the wood-fired sauna, rejuvenating with plunges into the water. A crate of flip-flops eased the scamper down the beach. "Tomorrow let's do it when it's high tide so the water will be next to the sauna," said Casey, learning the tide's semi-diurnal nature.
A batch of fresh salmonberry and blueberry pancakes fueled us the next morning to gear up our kayaks to paddle around Grassy Island. Sure enough, the humpbacks surfaced again, blowing, spouting and breaching into orbit. See whales from a sea kayak with your daughter: check.
That night, the kids "rescued" tide-stranded jelly fish, using a kayak paddle blade as a spatula. Keeping a few as pets in bowls, they joked that now all they needed was a peanut butter fish. The 10 p.m. sunset turned the water a kaleidoscope of shades and sparkles as a crackling campfire warmed s'mores and added percussion to another round of whale exhales.
After our tide-pooling venture, we head out in the kayaks again. This time I get to share the whale experience with Casey in the bow, whose only other cetacean history has been singing Baby Beluga. A lone goliath flaps its fin back and forth as if waving, before disappearing with a bow of its tail.
Under Nino's guidance, we catch a cod and four rock fish, our rods bending instantly after sinking our squid lures 140 feet to the bottom. While scary to land into a closed-deck kayak, the spiny, orb-eyed denizens will be good eating tonight filleted with wine, garlic and butter. After the fresh, steamed mussels, of course.
In the afternoon, we take advantage of high tide to glide through a sea arch formed by the trunk of Elephant Island. Then it's back to our cabin and campfire, two beach-washed tree trunks perched at perfect camp chair height.
I've been to Alaska enough to know that the bluebird weather can't hold. In the morning, clam chowder fog envelops the water, blanketing everything in sight. It's a taste of the real Alaska, of how things often are in such a paradise.
I take a last paddle around the island, keeping its land within view the whole time. The effect is surreal, especially when another whale lets me know I'm not alone. I coin a new term, "solifeful," which tourism officials should adopt as a moniker.
I make it back to the cabins right as Zach pulls up out of the fog in the Dreamchaser. A commercial boat captain delivering heavy equipment to remote towns through the winter, he knows his local waters as well as its whales. He shuttles us across the bay to Kayak Beach, where, with the fog now lifting, we hike up Grace Ridge, a dinosaur back separating Tutka Bay from Sadie Cove. Fingers stained from picking blueberries en route, we turn and gaze back toward Hesketh Island poking through the clouds. Like our tide-pooling mission, the fog has ebbed enough to see what lurks below.
If you go: The cabins run $150 per night ($165 weekends), sleep four to six, share a common sauna, and come with mattresses/bunks, full kitchen, table/chairs, barbecue deck and propane lights. Porter's can shuttle you to the cabin for $80 per person (kids 5 and under $40), or you can boat there yourself. Info: www.portersak.com, (907) 235-8060. True North Kayak Adventures can deliver sea kayaks, single or tandem, straight to your cabin's door. Info: www.truenorthkayak.com, (907) 235-0708.