Avid adventure traveler David Hanson sets out to discover coastal Alaska’s less rugged, more indulgent attributes: hot-stone massages, gourmet food, leather-bound wine lists, and complimentary bathrobes.
I come to Alaska on a strict mission: Find and partake in the comforts of our nation’s final rugged frontier. I will not sleep in a tent, fish or hunt game, or wait out a snowstorm on a glacier. If the bugs get bad, I will retreat to my lodge and sink into the nearest hot tub. I remind myself of these vows between bites of artisanal cheese and sips of white wine.
Blue-shell mussels call to me from their bath of olive oil, garlic, and a salty dollop of Kachemak Bay, the large body of water I hear smoothing out the stone beach below. The bay wedges into the southwest side of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, my wilderness haven for the next five days. My luggage consists of a computer and a medium duffel bag, which feels too light. I spend much time playing and working in the wilds.
First Stop: Homer and Kachemak Bay
The launching point for any Kachemak experience is Homer, a midsize (by Alaska standards) artsy town with one of the state’s best museums, the Pratt. I pick up an espresso at Mermaid Café and head down to the long, thin spit packed with fish-n-chips joints, bakeries, and fishing tour operators.
Mike McBride picks me up in his boat. During the 30-minute ride, he tells the epic story of how he and wife Diane built their Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge from the ground up as newlyweds in 1969. He’s as wild and adventurous as they come (commercial bush pilot, Coast Guard captain, yoga instructor, among other talents), and, uh-oh, he’s got my adrenaline going. Upon arrival, I’m quickly calmed by a soak in the wood-fired sauna, the mussels appetizer, and white wine.
Over dinner, Mike pulls out an accordion he and Diane picked up in Vienna on one of their travels. A wide window separates this warm dining room of worldly conversation, good wine, and the rise and fall of foggy accordion tunes from one of the wildest and most remote coasts in the world. I’m living what I fantasize about when stuck in the cold and wet of out there.
Bedtime, sort of. In my cabin I change into the plaid pajama pants that have previously never left my house and I plop down in the sunroom’s armchair.
Instead of opening my book, I gaze out the movie-screen window, through the tops of fir trees and over the bay.
The sun is still shining at 10 p.m., but the chunky log cabin walls make it feel dark, cozy, Alaskan in here. I doze off under a quilt and bolt upright to my alarm set at 11:30 p.m., the time I normally have to awake for alpine climbs. Tonight, however, I take a mellow 45-minute walk out to Moosehead Point and watch my first midnight sunset. As I wait, a sea otter floats belly-up in the kelp, looking as relaxed as I feel on my perch.
The next day I join Diane, naturalist Deb, and a couple from California on the boat tour to nearby Halibut Cove. We curve around the headlands enclosing China Poot Bay, pass Peterson Bay, and swing into the quiet waters of Halibut Cove. Wooden houses with pitched roofs and sundecks cling to the rocky shoreline, a few dozen feet above the high-tide mark. Snowcapped, glaciated mountains make the backdrop.
We disembark and stroll the public boardwalk that connects Halibut Cove’s first and only restaurant, The Saltry, with a few private homes and art galleries. One woman paints using octopus ink she harvests from live octopuses. We return to The Saltry for oysters on the half-shell and cold beer in the sun.
I spend two days here, and it’s so comfortable and authentic that it feels like a visit to my fictitious, eccentric aunt and uncle’s house. Mike and I take an early morning beach walk. A bank of fog rolls over us like an empty tidal wave. For now, I live vicariously through his adventure stories, banking them in the to-do catalog.
Back at the lodge, I treat myself to the sauna and take my first nap since college. Over more mussels that night, Mike points into the mountains where he and Diane have a small cabin on a remote lake. On my next trip here, I’ll ask him to fly me to the backwoods, as he does some guests. But now it’s time to leave the McBrides and board a boat taxi that carries me a few inlets away.
Second Stop: Tutka Bay Lodge
My adventure de luxe continues at Tutka Bay, and I’m growing concerned that I might not recover from so much relaxation. I drop my bags in my Alaska-size log cabin. The bathroom could host a small aerobics class, and I get to choose between the main floor’s king bed or the treehouse-like loft.
I have 30 minutes before midmorning yoga, so I walk the premises. The lodge owners opened Tutka Bay after a major remodel of what was formerly more like a good ole fish camp, the kind I’ve been told to avoid on this assignment. Not a morsel of saltiness remains, not even an old salmon net hanging from a hook.
The wood cabins glow orange in the increasing sunshine, and the dining room has a chef in a white coat who’s already preparing fresh-caught halibut for lunch. He greets me when I enter the dining room for a cup of coffee. Tutka Bay brews good joe, and brews it strong. Kirsten Dixon, one of the lodge’s owners, trained at Le Cordon Bleu and has no patience for the wilderness excuse of mediocre menus. I peek at the wine list and wonder if it’d be appropriately indulgent of me to order the $50 Pinot tonight.
The fog that escorted me across the bay has begun to burn off, and I look out from the dining room to see a few guests below setting their yoga mats in the sunny patches of the deck, which is also Alaska-size. This place makes Texans seem like minimalists. I head down and take my place on the deck for yoga and―to be extra comfortable―roll out two mats beneath me. Every time I look past my legs in downward dog I see, upside down, the towering ridgeline across the deep blue bay.
After namaste, I’m escorted straight to the spa. Have I spoiled myself too much by following yoga with a hot-stone massage
then a lunch of pecan-crusted fresh halibut? I ponder this in the 130-degree sauna made out of locally harvested cedar planks.
This is serious. I might have overdone it, and I have another day of the same. Could I be going soft? I break my vow of luxury,
leave the sauna, stagger down the lodge’s dock, toss my complimentary bathrobe aside, and plunge into the ice-cold water of
Tutka Bay. A true explorer must know his limits.
(Published March 2010)