Beyond the end of the Road: Kachemak Bay Tide Pooling for RoadTrippin' 2020
As the coronavirus pandemic has changed travel and business plans for people across the world, here in Alaska, we have the opportunity to have a little more open space during the traditional "tourist season."
I've lived my whole life in Alaska and for years my in-laws lived in Homer, where my husband spent most of his childhood, but our Homer adventures were all self-led, and most often involved a fishing pole. This year, for RoadTrippin', I was able to include my family in our Kachemak Bay Tidepooling adventure.
Our kids are 5, 3 and almost 1, so a day wearing puddle boots looking for small slimy creatures sounded like a great idea!
I called the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, based in Homer. The group, which many Alaskan families are likely familiar with for hosting field trips of elementary and middle-schoolers each spring, hosts tide-pool excursions and nature hikes across Kachemak Bay from Homer at its Peterson Bay Field Station. For this story, I booked a tour before their season opened -- COVID-19 delayed their usual season start by about three weeks. Luckily, the day we were aiming for had a very low tide, and the Center would be traveling across the bay to survey for sea stars and other species.
"As you get into the extreme low tide, it uncovers the low tide zone, and even on a low day like today, the subtidal zone," explained Katie Gavenus, Program Director for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies. "So there you start to encounter organisms that really need to be in the water most of the day and so it can be some things you don't typically get to see on a normal low tide, sort of get stranded by the low tide. they can survive it for a few days a month, but they can't survive it on a daily basis."
Some of the cool creatures we found: Sea stars -- lots of them. True stars, ochre stars (bright pink with bumps in the shape of a star); leather stars, sunflower stars. Moon snails -- if you find a clam shell that has a perfect little hole drilled in it, one of these predatory snails is probably to blame. We even found a juvenile octopus, and a Christmas anemone.
Like any family with kids, packing and planning for the adventure seems like half of the "adventure."
We decided to camp in Homer the nights before and after our excursion. Some campgrounds in Homer take reservations, but we chose to camp at the Karen Hornaday campground, run by the city of Homer. The biggest draw -- an amazing nautical-themed playground at the base of the campground, and a great view of the Homer Spit, without the wind of camping right off the water.
Our kids are at varying stages of mobility, particularly when it comes to uneven, slippery rocks and kelp. And, this is Alaska -- the weather can change, or just be less "warm" than a full sunny day may appear on its face. So we packed layers. Water boots for all.
Our oldest wore a combo jacket with a fleece liner and waterproof shell, and rain pants. Our 3-year-old started out in his full-body rain-and-mud suit. We outfitted baby in a fleece bodysuit because we know how cool the wind can get. He also got the royal treatment, meaning a ride on mommy's back. We went with a soft carrier rather than our hard-framed carrier backpack, largely for the amount of room in our vehicle and on the water taxi.
We ended up bringing a whole drybag full of gear (including extra clothes for our potty-trainer and diapers for the baby), but trust me, that helped ensure comfort for the kids, we had a place to stash layers when it did get too warm, and was a reasonable path to success!
Our kids are road warriors. We have been taking them on long drives across Alaska (often to Homer to visit Grandma and Grandpa) their whole lives. So at this point, the driving isn't the worst part. We make sure to have lots of snacks and water available in the cab of the truck, and often use a road trip as a reason for a fast-food easy-to-clean dinner, which for the kids is always a treat.
Be sure to check for road construction closures. We drove down on a late afternoon after work, but sometimes a late start after work risks running into overnight road closures due to the construction.
We were really excited to get out at a really low tide. Even the night before, when we'd arrived in Homer, we went to the beach at Land's End Resort and saw dozens of bright pink ochre stars. They're really pretty, with an orangeish underside, and their spiky bumps on top form another little star in the center of their body.
We were welcomed to Otter Rock by a harbor seal, who was lying on a rock pretty much the whole time we were there. It was the staff's first time across the bay too and their interns were really excited as soon as we got off the boat. Between Moon Snail egg pouches and crabs, we had to pick up the pace to make it out to the main rock formation while the tide was still low.
Once there, we learned how to overturn rocks (not large ones) to find animals that had been sheltering under them. We also learned how to put them back carefully, as to not crush anything we may have disturbed.
The center gave us animal guides, which helped identify what we found. They can be found at the center itself or at a number of shops on the Homer Spit.
After almost two hours at Otter Rock, we broke for lunch. Our driftwood seats above the high tide line bordered a gorgeous plain full of sea grass and wildflowers. Then we crossed the plain (called "the running place" by most little kids, we're told, because it's flat and there's not much to trip on) and walked over to the Peterson Bay Field Station. The building was started as a home years ago, but the family was unable to finish it. With just the walls and roof built, the family gave the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies a great deal on the purchase, allowing the Center to have a physical base on the far side of Kachemak Bay.
The station is about three-quarters of a mile from Otter Rock, and three-quarters of a mile from another tide pooling location in China Poot Bay. "The nice thing about this location is it's also really close to the coastal forest," Gavenus said. "So we can move from 10 feet above sea level or even at a really low tide 5 feet below sea level, up through the beaches, and kindof dune ecosystem and then into a coastal forest and you can really see how all these different pieces are connected."
The Field Station backs up to about a mile and a half of hiking trails, which the Center uses in a partnership with the Seldovia Native Association, whose land they are on. If you come for the full-day's journey -- you get to explore the forest and learn about the different plants that grow there as well.
"The ecosystem that we have here is basically on the edge of where the temperate rain forest and the boreal forest sortof mix and meet," explains Shannon Moore, the Program Coordinator for the Peterson Bay Field Station. "That provides some really interesting ecosystems. We have some kinds of plants that we're kindof on the border of, so we can go out and there are plants that you might find a little bit further north than here and a little bit further south than here, but this is sortof that boundary and it's a really cool place where those habitats are mixing."
For the really adventurous, you can rent a yurt at the Station. There are five yurts available, though this summer they will be limited to single family groups in each yurt. If you stay the night you can use the kitchen at the Field Station, relax around a fire, and go back to Homer in the morning when the next day's visitors arrive.
The coronavirus pandemic is in Alaska, and even on a wide open beach, you can't escape the changes it's made to how we operate. Luckily, on a wide open beach, the necessity of physical distancing is easily maintained. We all -- except for baby -- wore masks on the water taxi. And once on the beach at Peterson Bay, Gavenus and other Center staff gave us their new guidelines: We were able to take our face coverings off until we all gathered closely to look at cool creatures.
Surprisingly, my young kids didn't mind the masks so much. My 5-year-old had hers on most of the time, even when exploring just with family, and My 3-year-old, who wears glasses, wasn't bothered too much by it, we just had issues with it falling down from his nose. Our facemasks tie behind the head, rather than loop around the ears, and I think that helped keep them secure.
When we stopped for lunch, the staff provided a squirt of hand sanitizer, and we ate separately.
While the summer is usually full of camps, the center is doing things a little differently this year. The summer tour season was pushed back by nearly three weeks. Late spring is usually full of school groups -- about 1,000 students in the months of April and May, Gavenus said. This year, due to the pandemic, that wasn't the case.
The Center will host fewer large groups this summer, and will limit the number of people on excursions. People who choose to stay the night will be limited to one family group per yurt.
Those cutbacks, in the name of safety, leave an uncertain future.
"It's a really important part of what we do the rest of the year," Moore said, referring to the camps and tours. "Because we really try to make our school programs as affordable as possible for children to come and get that experience so the way we are able to do that is by having really busy summers over here."
But the bonus for Alaskans, is if you're not a fan of crowds of tourists, now is your time.
"A core piece of the summer is really going to be working with local families and then folks from elsewhere in the state that are excited to come down and spend maybe a little more time in Homer and do some things maybe they haven't done before," Gavenus said. "Maybe they've gone halibut fishing but haven't looked for sea stars at a low tide."
"So we're excited, we're going to keep things small and safe, but we really are looking forward to getting to share this place with some of our neighbors this year."