In which we discover wormy volcanoes, investigate the biology of tidepools, and spend a day taking in an amazing view.
Sunday, May 27, 2013 –
I had never been to Bishop’s Beach before. The Kids© have attended school field trips there that The Wife© has joined them on, but I had been unable to partake. Growing up on the Kenai Peninsula, I’d made a million pilgrimages to Homer, but all those trips were spent on the Spit or in the Pratt Museum. I had no idea Bishop’s Beach even existed until a few years ago. Having some free time over the weekend, and accommodating tides, I was happy to indulge in The Wife’s© suggestion that we spend the day in Homer, Alaska to check out the beach..
With a -5.5-foot tide set for 10am, we left Towers de la Marquis at around 8:30am and set out on the 80-mile drive to Homer. Low tides, revealing hundreds of extra yards of gravel, sand, or mud (depending on the beach) aren’t exactly what most people have in mind when they think of prime beach-going times. When most lower-48 Americans think of a day at the beach, images of surfers, kids splashing in a gentle surf, sunbathing, and sand castles are conjured up. But in Alaska, think less sandals and more Xtratufs. A receding tide at Bishop’s Beach, in Homer, makes a seafloor world accessible to anyone not afraid to get a little bit muddy.
The drive between Kenai and Homer is generally enjoyable, with great views of Cook Inlet and the Aleutian Range visible for most of the drive. You’re all but guaranteed to see moose browsing alongside the highway, and a handful of immense eagle nests. This highway also takes you through Anchor Point, which marks the westernmost point on the US highway system. Another 20 minutes driving South brings you to the hill that descends to the City of Homer, but not before offering one of the most breathtaking Alaskan views.
It’s funny to think of local sign ordinances that prohibit signs that might be considered too distracting to drivers. I dare you to try and keep your eyes off of the road when confronted with the view above.
Once in Homer, we took the turn into “old town” and parked in the close-to-full parking lot for Bishop’s Beach. The especially low tide had brought out dozens of other tide-poolers as well. Almost immediately, we spotted a couple of small crabs, hardly bigger than a thumbnail, as well as various small shells. My 11-year-old, Jett, and I headed straight for the tideline, while my wife, Jan, daughter, Alexis, and niece walked north towards some larger rocks.
Jett and I quickly noticed small mounds in the sand that resembled small volcanoes. Looking towards the water, their frequency increased dramatically. Near the water’s edge, we were surrounded by a veritable minefield of these things. Not only that, but there were sounds accompanying them, a sort of sizzling, bubbling sound. A persistent white noise, clearly audible, yet hardly the focus. We noticed that many of them had small pink appendages poking out of them. At first, I believed they must be clams. Clams are prevalent–though populations appear to be declining–along the southern Kenai Peninsula; however, I’m familiar with razor clams which leave an indentation in the sand, not the opposite that these things created. Jett reached in to see if he could feel a shell surrounding this new specimen. He quickly took on the challenge of trying to get one of them out of the sand. In typical clam-digging fashion, he dug out the ground beside the mound and then cut in horizontally to get underneath it. The water table was so high and saturated that this become a lot more difficult than it sounds. As soon as he started digging, water began to rapidly fill up his holes. A number of times he was able to get his fingers on one of the animals, but it would quickly slip from his grip and disappear into the muddy puddle that remained of his digging efforts. After a number of failed attempts, he finally caught one and we realized we weren’t dealing with clams after all.
After this, Jett ran off to catch up with his mother and the girls. I continued skirting the water’s edge, looking for life, and snapping photos of the scenery.
I found another kind of worm and spent a few minutes watching it undulate in the shallow water.
The tide moved in quickly. While I’m used to big tides living next to Alaska’s Cook Inlet, which boast some of the largest on our planet, what was remarkable about the tides in Bishop’s Beach on this day were how quickly, yet calmly, they moved in. I’m used to the tide rising in waves; literally. Each wave comes in, breaks, and recedes. On the average, the breaking water comes further and further on shore, and recedes less and less, until the tide turns and the water goes back out. However, at this time and location, it acted in a way I hadn’t experienced before. First of all, the water was glass calm, both near the shore and across the whole of Kachemak Bay. Secondly, it appears the beach in this area is very flat. Both the calmness of the water and the vast flat plain for it to come in on, made for an incoming tide that was truly unique.
I picked up my pace to catch up with my family to see what all they had discovered, stopping a few times to snap some more photos.
I came across a large rock that was partially submerged. The water surrounding it and the depression it made in the sand created a well around it that became a prime habitat for tidepool organisms. A small hermit crab swim-crawled its way around the rock, eventually working its way under it and out of my view.
The rocks themselves were teeming with life. Barnacles, mussels, vegetation and other organisms lived in and on the rocks.
Finally, I caught up with the family and heard their stories about the crabs and sea stars they had seen; and no, they hadn’t seen any octopuses yet. As a group, we explored dozens of tidepools. They were more suited to the terrain in their waterboots; I, however, had to choose my steps deliberately, having only equipped myself with my hiking boots (Gore-Tex is great, but it can’t stop the water from coming in from the top). I too saw sea stars and crabs, as well as small shrimps, sea anemones, and urchins. By this time, we were more than a mile from our car. I noticed the tide was starting to come in with purpose (I wasn’t sure just how high it would end up and was cautious about becoming stranded), and we were all fairly famished, so we started back towards Carl (that’s the name of my reliable car). As we picked our route on our trek back, we crossed another tidepool that had a solitary silver fish swimming about in it.
After getting around the large rocks, streams, and pools, a stable rocky path skirted the bluff at the top of the beach and brought us back to the parking lot.
We left Bishop’s Beach and headed for the Homer Spit, a natural 4.5-mile-long strip of land extending into the ocean, for a much-needed lunch at Starvin’ Marvin’s pizza place, which very well might serve the best pizza and breadsticks on the Kenai Peninsula. After lunch, we cruised the Spit to the end of the road, which is the southernmost point in Alaska connected to the contiguous highway system. During the Summer months, the Spit transforms into a tourist mecca, with dozens of shops peddling their wares, foods, and other forms of Alaskana. The Homer Boat Harbor, along the Spit, is host to hundreds of personal and commercial fishing boats–including the Time Bandit, made famous on the Discovery Channel show, Deadliest Catch–and cruise ships.
If you happen to find yourself in Southcentral Alaska, a trip down the Kenai Peninsula should be a part of anyone’s itinerary.
And if you happen to be there on a beautiful day with a low tide, you may never want to go back home.