Road's end to the West

Homer, AK

August 8th, 2002

On our last day in Kenai, we took off early in the morning for the town of Homer. This is at the western end of the road system in the State and home of Halibut fishing. It has two images, one of a quiet fishing village and the other of a Gatlinburg-like tourist congestion along the only road on what is called the "spit". We had to run out and get a picture of the end of the road with the water and mountains beyond, and then after a little lunch we headed out to find something else to report on. We found it at the Pratt Museum in the non-commercial part of the town. Each of the small local museums we have found has had something to offer toward a better understanding of the Alaskan scene, both past and present. One of the things at the Pratt Museum that interested me was the Bentwood hats made by the Aleut Indians. These hats are made of single piece of thinly sliced spruce wood and are steamed into a bill shape, like that of a baseball cap. Actually the whole hat is like a lady's open top golf hat. They are brightly colored with ancient Indian images. Then there was a wonderfully etched (scrimshaw) piece of Baleen taken from a Whale. Each Bowhead whale, which is found only in the Bering Sea, carries 660 long baleen plates which hang down from both sides of the upper jaw instead of having short baleen and grooved expandable throats like most other baleen whales, bowheads have very large mouths to maximize the amount of water taken in, that holds captured food. They feed by swimming open-mouthed and straining zooplankton out of the water with their fringed baleen.
Down in the basement was yet another little adventure awaiting our attention. Here we found a video style gaming station with appropriate joystick. However, this joystick controlled a video camera on nearby New Gull Island Bird Sanctuary some eight miles away in Kachemak Bay. Anybody could take his or her turn at guiding the direction of the camera and zooming in and out on the various birds that flocked to the rocks around the camera mount. There were at least a half dozen different species including the prized Tufted Puffin who hopped around for the enjoyment of all. Also in the basement was the epic story of the historic wreck of the Exxon Valdez off the Kenai Peninsula. On March 24, 1989, at 12:04AM the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling more than 10.8 million gallons of crude oil. Weather conditions were good the night the Exxon Valdez left port with 53 million gallons of Alaskan crude oil. All of the ship's mechanical systems were working properly. There was no single, simple reason why the Exxon Valdez crashed into Bligh Reef, one of the best-known hazards in Prince William Sound. In less then 5 hours, the wreck of the Exxon Valdez created the U.S.' largest oil spill. Eight of the 11 cargo tanks were ripped apart and 10.8 million gallons of oil spilled from the hull. A plastic "spill" model demonstrated the unbelievable size of the disaster. The 600 miles distance from the grounding, the 1200 miles of irregular coastline affected, and the 3000 square miles of water covered by the Exxon Valdez spill. The oil was not a solid slick, but varied from huge blankets of thick crude to thin patches of oil sheen. As soon as the oil spilled into the water, it spread quickly, moving through the environment and coating everything in its path. Some of the most toxic elements evaporated into the atmosphere or dissolved into the water within 48 hours. Sunlight, water, wave action, and oxygen broke down some of the oil. Storms and tides washed the shorelines, moving the oil and further dispersing it. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted 36,000 dead birds, but they estimate that between 260,000 and 580,000 birds were killed, more than from any other spill in the world. They also counted 1,011 dead sea otters and estimated that between 3,500 and 5,500 were killed. The estimates are much higher then the actual body count because they estimate that many animals probably sank to the sea floor or went off into remote areas to die. Federal government scientists now say that efforts to clean the Sound's shoreline with pressurized and heated water caused more damage to inter-tidal life than if the shorelines had been cleaned more selectively. More petroleum was consumed by planes, boats, trucks, cars and heating equipment during the cleanup effort, than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Exxon spent more then 2 billion dollars on goods and services for the cleanup in 1989. High school physics and chemistry students in Homer, Alaska, calculated the following comparisons to the oil spill: if you left the average kitchen faucet running on full volume, it would take over 9.7 years to equal the amount of oil spilled. The oil spill is equal to 8.8 million cars draining their oil. If oil was converted to gasoline, and the average driver, filling up his or her car once a week would take 15,800 years to use it up. (Although not stated it is assumed they meant the cars in Homer, a town of only a few thousand people.) Further along the way I found a gigantic Brown bear. Here I learned that Brown and grizzly bears are the same bear, (Ursus arctos). Many people call the bears from Alaska's interior, grizzlies to distinguish them from the coastal brown bears. The name "grizzly" comes from the silver-tipped grizzled hairs that these bears develop as the get older. Brown bears living in coastal areas generally are larger because of access to richer protein sources such as salmon. Not far from the bear I learned how the Indians created those marvelous clothes they wear in the winter months. The creation of skin garments begins with preparation of the materials. Fresh skins are scraped, cured and stretched. Although commercially tanned skins may be used today, traditional home-tanning methods used spruce bark, moss, fish eggs, oil, or smoke. Sinew thread is made from the back or leg tendons of caribou, whale, porpoise, or seal. In former times, girls learned to sew when very young. By age six, they polished thread, plait cords, and do so with sufficient skill observed a Russian missionary in 1804. Boys also learned to sew at least well enough to mend tears in clothing and boat covers. Like many of the stops in Alaska, Homer was not the most exciting place we had been in but it has a certain charm and there were a few things I either hadn't seen before or something that needed clarification in my mind.

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