Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Family Camp: Across the Bay, a World Away

From the very first day we arrived in Homer, I have been mesmerized by the view from my living room windows of Kachemak Bay and the mountains beyond.  After we found out that most of the hiking in the area is located in Kachemak Bay State Park, which encompasses much of the vista that I enjoy, we started researching how to go about getting there. The only means of travel across the bay is water taxi or float plane.  Although it appears to not be very far to the other coast, it is in fact a 5-7 mile boat ride that costs about $65 per person round-trip.  Add that up for a family of four, and you get quite a pricey day of hiking.  Not having access to a boat of our own, we looked at other options.   We learned a couple of moves back that the local nature center is a great place to start when trying to find family activities, so our first stop was the Center for Alaska Coastal Studies.  Turns out, they have a field station in Peterson Bay and offer a "family camp" weekend twice during the summer.  For about the cost of taking a water taxi across the bay twice, we could spend an entire, all-enclusive weekend at the field station with a naturalist as our guide.  Needless to say, we signed right up!

Upon arriving at the center's Yurt on the Spit (which deserves a blog post of its own) we met our fantastic guide, Joanna, and learned that we were the only family signed up for camp.  While we were hoping to meet other adventurous families on the trip, we were excited at the prospect of having our own personal naturalist for the weekend.  It was a particularly windy day (but really, what day in Homer isn't windy?), and we loaded up the kids and a weekend's worth of supplies on the Sea Bird, charted by the center through St. Augustine's Kayak & Tours.  The ride was more than a little rocky, and Joanna later told us that it was the roughest trip she had ever had across the bay.  The kids thought it was fun, but I had to keep my eyes toward the floor to keep from feeling like we were going to get dumped into the very cold (47 degree!) bay.

The adventure continued when we arrived in the field station's cove.  Due to the huge tidal ranges in the bay and the steep bluff where the field station is located, there is a floating dock moored in the middle of a small cove, with a raft on a pulley system to transport people and supplies to shore.  When we finally hauled everything up the stairs and to the field station's main building, the kids were excited to see a fire pit with a beautiful deck built around it.  The LT and I were surprised to learn that we wouldn't be roughing it as much as we thought.  We knew we were sleeping in a yurt, but we had no idea that it contained bunk beds and a heater, nor did we realize that Joanna would be prepping our meals in an actual kitchen inside the field station.  There were indoor composting toilets, running hot water (but no shower), and an all-purpose room for eating and crafting.  Maybe we weren't camping after all!

The raft 

Otter Rock...if you've ever seen an otter floating around on its back, you know why it's called that! 

Our yurt, one of 4 at the field station

After a dinner of hot dogs cooked over the fire, Joanna took us on a short excursion to collect a few flowers for the kids to press and turn into bookmarks later in the weekend.  That's right, she had crafts planned, too, for a true summer camp experience! We then turned in for one of the least restful nights of sleep we have had since Little Man was an infant.  With the skylight in the yurt's ceiling and the Alaskan summer sun, it took forever for the kids to fall asleep.  We ended up each sharing a bunk with a child, meaning that we all were restless. Thank goodness for the windows in the yurt's door, allowing us to wake up to a view of sunshine and fireweed in the morning.  It made up for the lack of sleep and had us eager to get outside and explore.

Morning view from my bunk

Saturday was spent experiencing everything the field station and surrounding trails have to offer.  We started off the day with a hike to Lost & Found Lake.  The trail led us through the forest (where I was excited to discover salmon berries, which I thought did not grow around here!) and looped past the lake and through a great overlook of China Poot Bay before leading us back to the field station.  No need to bring snacks, because along with the salmon berries, the trails were overflowing with other edibles that the kids nibbled on the entire weekend: watermelon berries (who knew such a thing existed?), blueberries, crow berries and two types of currants.  Needless to say, we weren't the only ones enjoying the summer's bounty.  We saw evidence of bears everywhere, even steps from our yurt.  Thankfully, the kids are noisy hikers and probably scared away any bear that would have crossed our path.

Lost & Found Lake...found!

Monkeying around

Salmon I wish there were enough of you for jam!

Watermelon berries


After lunch, the tide was low enough for us to set out on a tide pooling adventure.  We made our way to Otter Rock and discovered anemones, sea stars, and lots of other tiny creatures living on the shoreline.  When the wind and rain rolled in, we headed back to the field station for an afternoon of creating our own sea creatures out of clay and meeting the residents of the station's touch tanks.  We also created candles containing shells from our walk on the beach.  After dinner, we headed out in the pouring rain (glad we packed full rain gear for everyone!) to pick blueberries for pancakes on Sunday morning before turning in for the night.  Our second night yurting it was much better, mostly thanks to a very worn-out family.  The raindrops on the canvas roof made for a very peaceful evening.

Learning about the creatures in the tide pools

Six-rayed sea star

Christmas anemones

Sunday morning, after waking up to the promised blueberry pancakes and bacon cooked by Joanna,  we set out on another hike.  This time we went by a native home site, where we learned how people fished long ago, and then we made our way to a small beach on China Poot Bay.  We spotted otters and even a huge gathering of seals on the opposite shore.  Then it was back to the field station for one more round of crafts before packing up and heading back home.  We all decided that we could have spent another day (or three) exploring more, but we were ready to be back to our own beds.

China Poot Bay

Mega-zoomed and cropped view of some seals across the bay...the wonders of technology

We made our way back to the floating dock via the raft and met the Sea Bird.  Making a pit stop to pick up some kayakers one cove over before heading back to Homer and were in for one more treat.  There was a seal sunning on the kayak dock who wasn't bothered at all by all of the people nearby.  According to the tour operator, it is the sixth year the seal has stationed himself there.  The ride back across the bay was much smoother, and in no time we had to go back to reality.  We now know where we would like to have a retirement cabin, but hope to get back across the bay much sooner.  In fact, I think we just may sign up for family camp again next year...and hope that other families do, too.

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