Kayaking Kachemak Bay - Lattes in Hand
By Hal Shepherd
There is nothing like the experience of paddling across the Bay on a beautiful sunny day with the Kenai Mountain range as your windshield.
Kachemak Bay is a gem among the Kenai Peninsula’s recreational destinations. My most recent emersion into the perfect mixture of mountains and water that form the Kachemak Bay Watershed was last month when friend Todd Mitchell and I kayaked across the Bay to Halibut Cove. Todd, who is an experienced kayaker and always up for an adventure – especially if it involves a sea kayak, had never been to the Cove, so it was the perfect opportunity to introduce him to this must-see site.
Navigating the tourist traffic and the crowds on the Homer Spit, we met at “the Rock” - the official beginning of the Kachemak Bay Water Trail. After unloading our boats and gear and, due to the low tide, lugging everything about a quarter mile before getting to the water, we got in our boats and suddenly went from the rush of RV traffic, crowds, and hopeful fisherman at the Lagoon, into the quiet of a vast marine wilderness.
Gliding through the still waters, we spent the next two hours enjoying ideal paddling conditions while watching Puffins and Common Murres bobbing around us. There is nothing like the experience of paddling across the Bay on a beautiful sunny day with the Kenai Mountain range as your windshield. Because the water was so calm at that time in the morning, it was more like a drive around the countryside than a 16-mile open water adventure. At one point, I turned around and saw that Todd had the latte he had purchased on the Spit sitting in a makeshift cup holder on the bow of his boat.
But whether you are in a kayak or other means of transportation across the Bay, the real adventure starts when you get to the other side. There are so many coves, inlets and Islands, glaciers, mountains, lakes, rivers, and other features of Kachemak Bay’s ecosystem that one could spend decades in a man-powered watercraft, exploring them all.
This time, once we reached the other side of the Bay, Todd and I enjoyed the amenities of Halibut Cove. After we pulled ashore, we spent the afternoon walking around paths reminiscent of the English countryside, touring art galleries, and sipping fresh lattes at the Halibut Cove Coffee House before jumping back into our boats for the return trip. It was shortly afterwards that the gentile nature of our trip came to an abrupt end.
When we got back to the boats, the day breeze had kicked up, and the two-foot swells that I’d read about on the NOAA weather site the night before greeted us shortly after we got out of the relative protection of the Cove. We spent the next six miles pushing through swells, white caps, and cross waves caused by power boat traffic. Nevertheless, we stayed in good cheer and, to keep our minds off of the rough conditions, talked about everything from kayaking to the wonders of the Bay, only having to “raft up” once for safety when boat traffic got a bit too close.
Kachemak Bay’s wilderness and recreational qualities are so impressive that, in order to preserve these values, in 1972, the state legislature established the 198,399-acre Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park, which includes 79 miles of rugged coastline.
Last May, the Friends of Kachemak Bay, a non-profit organization based in Homer, celebrated the Wilderness Park’s 50th anniversary. According to a Facebook post by Roger McCampell, former Head Ranger for the Park who, like so many of us, first saw the Park when driving down Baycrest Hill into Homer:
Like a postcard, you can enjoy the view, but to really enjoy it you need to get into it. Not many parks can offer long beach walks, calving glaciers, clamming, salmon and halibut fishing, moose and mtn. goat, coyotes and wolves to name but a few. 50 years ago, these were gifts the people of Alaska gave to themselves. Enjoy these gifts for the next fifty.
The Wilderness Park is adjacent to the southern boundary of the 371,000-acre Kachemak Bay State Park – Alaska’s first state park, both of which encompass a portion of the Kenai Mountains and extend south into the Gulf of Alaska. The Kachemak Bay Watershed also includes the almost two million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the 229,000-acre Kachemak Bay Fox River Critical Habitat Area. Each of these areas offers excellent backcountry skiing, hiking, hunting, fishing, and sightseeing opportunities.
About a decade ago, as a means of taking advantage of these public land set-asides and to create even more opportunities within the marine waters of the Bay, recreational lovers in the local community established the 125-mile Kachemak Bay Water Trail from the Homer Spit to the City of Seldovia. One of only a handful of such trails in the country, and according to the Water Trails’ website, the “vision is to promote ‘adventure beyond the end of the road’ and our focus is to support the exploration, understanding, and stewardship of the natural treasure that is Kachemak Bay.”
After the Water Trail was up and running, founder Dave Brann and a hardy crew of volunteers with tools in hand began building campsites, painting outhouses, installing interpretative signs and bear boxes, offering educational activities, and working with land owners on access. The genius of this recreational infrastructure is that, not only does it allow for increased non-motorized access throughout the Bay, but by providing a network of camping, hiking trails, and interpretive sites that now stretch throughout the length of the Water Trail, quite recreationalist have better access to hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness beyond the marine environment and rugged coastlines of Kachemak Bay.
Over the past several years, thanks in part to the Water Trail, my wife Jessica and I have taken numerous paddling excursions across the Bay to visit remote places like Mallard Bay, Aurora Lagoon, Chugachik Island, Battle and Humpy creeks, China Poot Lagoon, Haystack Rock and other locations. In my opinion, there is no better way to explore the Kachemak Bay ecosystem than from the cockpit of a sea kayak, and allows one to hear hump-back whales blowing in the distance, get close to sea otter nurseries and shore birds, and paddle into shallow sites to explore the unique geology of rocky cliffs and tide pools.
On this latest trip, exhausted on the return to the Rock with limbs that felt like spaghetti after paddling for 6 hours, Todd and I were so thankful for the high tide this time around and hauling equipment and boats back to the vehicles. Despite our weariness, however, we were already talking about future trips, the Water Trail, and all that Kachemak Bay has to offer.
If you’re looking for a wilderness experience that is easily accessible, you can do the entire 125- mile Water Trial in a few weeks or, like I do, divide it into several day excursions by water taxing or paddling from access points to the various sites. Always remember paddling in open water can be hazardous, especially when the weather suddenly changes or there is a lot of boat traffic in the area. Also, there are several locations on the other side of the Bay with serious rip tides, so always be prepared and know where hazardous conditions are.
Izuma Guideworks offers a good class on kayak basics. These are sponsored by the Kachemak Bay Water Trail each May.
For more information: www.kachemakbaywatertrail.org. See you out there!