A wilderness escape, just across the bay
During one of my most memorable visits to Tutka Bay, I was eight months pregnant with a belly the size of a yoga ball. My husband and I traveled in an open skiff he had rebuilt several years, ago and its flat, wooden bottom was meant for meandering in bays and calm water, not the wake- and wave-filled expanse of Kachemak Bay.
It wasn’t the most comfortable of rides – skidding over the waves and the bow landing hard when we passed larger-boat wakes – yet I hardly noticed. The sun was out, the temperate balmy, and I knew that on perfect-weather long weekends like this, I had absolutely nothing to complain about.
Tutka Bay is one of dozens of smaller bays fingering their way off the larger Kachemak Bay State and Wilderness Park. As Alaska wilderness goes, this place is practically a suburb. Compare it to such out-there locations as the Brooks Range and the Alaska Peninsula, and this just on-the-edge wilderness park seems tame.
But explore its vast forest and take in its serene maritime sounds and you may as well be in the middle of nowhere. It is the first spot in Alaska to be named a state park (in 1970) and its wilderness area, a result of conservation efforts of locals and experts alike, has helped it maintain an off-the-beaten path feel that relatively easy to access by Alaska standards.
“Locals in Homer just called it ‘Across the Bay,’ ” said Jeff Johnson, who in 1984 become the park’s first ranger. “They didn’t call it Kachemak Bay State Park, they didn’t think of it as a park. It was just ‘across the bay.’ ”
Kachemak Bay State and Wilderness Park is located at the southern tip of Homer. The town itself is worth exploring. Its mix of artsy galleries, unique restaurants and interesting shops lends it a touristy feel, yet the working-class predominance of fishermen keep it real. Over the near 20 years I’ve lived here, Homer has become a bit more tourist-oriented than my earliest memories, but that’s the way of all great locations – eventually they get discovered, and appreciated by all.
Once out of the Homer boat harbor, though, the crowds subside. Kachemak park encompasses some 400,000 miles of wooded forest, glaciers, shoreline and peaks. There are 80 miles of trails, dozens of public-use cabins and yurts, and endless shoreline to explore by boat. Kayakers are drawn to the protected paddling in the countless coves and inlets, and fishermen can take advantage of halibut and salmon fishing all summer long.
Amid all of these thousands of acres, is one special corner that has lured me back year after year: Tutka Bay.
It is not the most remote of the bays, nor is it the most visited. It lacks a tourist-overload feel, yet is far out enough to give you a sense of privacy and seclusion.
As our skiff motored toward our usual campsite – an outcropping of land that sticks out into the bay and affords an easy landing with the skiff – I sensed the weekend that lay before me. I’d do a lot of reading, writing and relaxing in the tent. We’d harvest mussels and clams (always check local fishing regulations for specifics on shellfish harvesting) to make our favorite seafood linguine recipe on our camp stove. We’d build a small campfire and talk about how so very soon our lives as a married couple would be transformed with the coming of this baby.
Perhaps that’s why this place is still so dear, so many years later – it’s forever linked to such a special time in my life.
On my last adventure to Tutka Bay – a three-day kayak/camping trip with my nephew – we camped by the Tutka Lake trailhead on a small beach surrounded by giant boulders. One day, we hiked the trail into Tutka Lake, just inside the wilderness boundaries. Another, we paddled into the former fish hatchery lagoon and watched as throngs of boaters reeled in coho after coho at the height of the salmon run. And one day, I told Zach, “We must return to my favorite spot.”
We paddled for a good 30 minutes, traveling deeper into the bay, keeping track of the tides so we wouldn’t bottom out at low tide. On the way, I saw it in the distance: the spruce-studded promontory, rising above the water. As we got closer, I motioned to Zach to follow me in. We paddled onto the rocky beach and tied our boats up. Not a soul was around, but in my mind I was back there, with my husband, my belly huge and our lives expectant.
Nearly 14 years had passed since that long, languid weekend so long ago. But time here had stood still. There was the fire pit, at the crest of the rise. And there in the trees was the flattened area where so many have camped, before and since.
There are so many indescribably beautiful places in Alaska, I thought to myself. I’ve seen dozens – hundreds – of heart-achingly serene places here.
Yet for some reason, Tutka Bay still reigns supreme: the first state park and wilderness area that offers so much to the visitor who takes the time to come here.