A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Anchorage: 58°/81°/Partly sunny
Fairbanks: 59°/85°/Mostly sunny
On and off the road system, Alaska is dotted with cities, towns and villages that give the state its real character.
Luck struck around 6:30 a.m. Sunday -- less than nine hours before the end of the 10-day Slam'n Salm'n derby -- when Robert Hayes hooked a 40.97-pound king salmon that made him the winner.
Summer solstice marked the beginning of the warm season last week, but two Anchorage fly-fishermen discovered Monday morning that winter still lingers deep in the Chugach Mountains.
The Kasilof beach is cool and calm at 10 a.m. on Monday as Yolanda Thomas emerges from her family-sized tent for a morning of dipnetting on the shore of the Kasilof River.
The Homer Spit beckons visitors with arts, shopping and adventures
Topping Baycrest Hill on the drive into Homer, it's difficult not to get hung up on the mountains. The giant, jagged sentinels rimming Kachemak Bay are strewn with glaciers and trimmed with ice and snow, cutting an impressive visual skyline between the blue sky above and blue-green water below.
They're certainly worth a look, especially if you stop at the overlook pullout atop Baycrest Hill with its viewing machines and its interpretive signs pointing out the different peaks. It's also worth taking a water taxi across from the Homer Spit to Kachemak Bay State Park, where hiking trails lead visitors up to glaciers, lakes, cabins and campsites.
But don't get so hung up on the mountains that you forget to look down. The community of Homer stretches out beneath the hill, with the Homer Spit jutting out into the bay, beckoning visitors to come explore.
Homer is an eclectic mix, part blue-collar fishing village and part artist retreat. A robust charter fishing fleet, water taxi service and kayak rentals are geared toward helping people play in the bay. And when they make landfall again, there are unique shops, funky cafes, gourmet restaurants, bars grooving with personality and a diverse arts, theater, music and cultural scene to attract attention.
But look beyond all that, beneath the mountains and past the lively life on land, and there's yet another side of Homer to discover in the bay itself.
"Kachemak Bay is an absolutely incredible resource for anything from adventures to learning opportunities," said Dan Pascucci, a field coordinator for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.
CACS operates the Carl E. Wynn Nature Center on East Skyline Drive on the bluff overlooking Homer, with an interpretive log cabin and trail system. And it has the Peterson Bay Coastal Science Field Station across the bay from the Homer Spit, where field coordinators lead forest walks, science camps and beach excursions to explore the bay's marine ecology.
Kachemak Bay has a thriving and diverse marine ecosystem and a large tidal range, so when the tide is low, beach explorers have a chance to see what's under the sea.
"It's amazing to people who have never been to a beach to go tide-pooling, and people who have been to the beach to go tide-pooling. We've had doctorates in ocean science come out and have their minds blown because it's such a spectacularly diverse area," Pascucci said.
"The hope is the experience and the understanding will create an appreciation for that space, and that the appreciation they get for Kachemak Bay is something they can carry with them after that, back to Florida or Germany or wherever, and say, 'Wow, that place was really cool. Maybe I can learn more about the place I'm coming from.' "
Homer offers myriad opportunities for learning. Along with the facilities operated by CACS, the Pratt Museum on Bartlett Street is a must-see destination, with exhibits that examine the culture, history and ecology of the area in interactive, thought-provoking and ever-developing ways.
The Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center along the Sterling Highway is a great spot to while away an hour or an afternoon.
"We've always got something going on," said Marianne Aplin, visitor center manager. "There are outdoor hikes and activities, but also indoor talks and some great films by Alaska Geographic. There are lots of high-tech and hands-on exhibits that are an interesting way to spend the afternoon, no matter what the weather is."
The center has art and interpretive displays to wander through, highlighting the history, culture and ecology of both the local Kachemak Bay area and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, stretching all along the coast of Alaska.
A summer photography exhibit, "Islands of Life," celebrating the centennial of the maritime refuge, will open May 21. Birders will especially enjoy the Seabird Experience Theater and seabird informational displays, highlighted because the maritime refuge is the largest seabird refuge in the world and Kachemak Bay is home to an impressive quantity and variety of seabirds.
"There's just a great suite of programs -- beach walks and intertidal walks to slide shows, discovery labs and estuary walks," Aplin said.
Outside the center are trails leading through wetlands to Bishop's Beach, and regularly scheduled interpretive tours point out the wildlife, marine and plant life that can be seen along the way.
"There are pretty fabulous things to see. When 20 feet of seawater gets drawn back and you get to walk on the bottom of the ocean and see anything from sea stars to octopus, it's pretty amazing," Aplin said.
Discovery labs offer a hands-on look at the research that goes on at the center.
"It's just a wonderful interaction," Aplin said. "We always have something for very young children, and some stations offer more cerebral material. You get a whole menu of activities and tables to choose from and can decide how long you want to spend in there. Some people may spend five minutes, some folks spend an hour."
The biggest challenge in Homer isn't finding something to do; it's finding the time to fit in everything there is to do.
"There are a lot of great places to eat, and music and incredible artists," Pascucci said. "Everyone who lives there is so impacted by the mountains and the bay and people are making beautiful art and music. It's a place that knows what to do with its beauty."
Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby
The largest and longest-running jackpot derby in Alaska awards more than $190,000, including prizes for the overall winner, monthly winners, tagged fish, a drawing among released fish and kids' winners. Last year's overall winner, Thomas Youngblood of Homer, got $40,440 for his 354.6-pound fish.
WHERE: Leave from and return to Homer Harbor
WHEN: May 1 to Sept. 30
COST: $10 daily; 10-day ticket for $75
Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival
This four-day festival has gone to the birds, with birding expeditions on both land and sea, workshops, writing events, music, kids' activities and entertainment. Keynote speaker will be Peter Harrison, a professional birder, artist, screenwriter and author of "Seabirds: An Identification Guide," who was honored by Queen Elizabeth II with the title of Member of the British Empire for services to natural history.
WHEN: May 6 to 9
COST: Varies by event