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Edenic Homer, Elysian Seldovia: Alaska's Volcanic West on the Looney Front, Part 1

The panorama from the tiny 19-seater Beechcraft turboprop for the half-hour hop to Homer from Anchorage is magnificent.
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The panorama from the tiny 19-seater Beechcraft turboprop for the half-hour hop to Homer from Anchorage is magnificent - the wide glaciers and snow-capped summits of the Kenai Peninsula on the left, the gilded craggy cone of 4,134-foot Augustine volcano, part of the Pacific Rim of Fire, on the right, and once again my late-May luck with the weather - brilliant sunshine all around.

A small spread-out town of some 5,000, Homer is in a superb setting amid emerald marshes and deep green spruce forests, with snowy peak after snowy peak and glacier after glacier towering across the waters of Kachemak Bay.

Views of and from Homer
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It's on a major bird migration route and I've just espied a wondrous creature in the marshes with tall spindly legs, a long neck, a blood red crown on its head and long beautiful golden-brown feathers on its back. No, it's not a drag queen. It's apparently a sandhill crane.

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Watch the birdie

One of Homer's major attractions is swanning round Kachemak Bay looking for sea otters, birds and other wild creatures. The harbour, said to be the largest small-boat marina in the world, spreads along six-mile-long Homer Spit, a greyish strand of gravel extending into the bay like a tongue stuck out at the peaks and glaciers on the other side.

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Homer Spit from the air

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Part of the marina

The spit is honkey-tonk, full of wooden huts and kiosks selling souvenirs, food, bear-sighting plane tours, halibut-fishing boat tours. Ugly RVs are parked everywhere. Commercialism reigns supreme; but again the beauty of off-season travel - there are plenty of people but it's not too crowded.

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Fishing along the spit

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Honkey-tonksville

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Another view

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And another

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Yet another

Mother Nature's not far behind, though: on one side you have tsunami evacuation signs with a curling blue wave crashing down, on the other Pacific Ring of Fire volcanoes, and under foot you've got Mother Earth's potential dyspepsia as evidenced by the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964, the most powerful in North American history.

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Watch out

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Hotel at end of spit

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Close-up

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Near the hotel

A trip around Kachemak Bay aboard the Rainbow Connection, one of several tour boats, which last week welcomed King Harald V of Norway for a little spin, is anything but royal - more like the Geriatric Express, although there are a few children about. Yours Truly is up to his usual animal-spotting tricks, failing to see the sea otters when everybody else does.

Views on Kachemak Bay

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At last I can hardly miss them, there's a whole platoon of domed heads bobbing about. But I do fail to photo every last one of them as I fumble with the frigging camera.

At last even I can't miss, there are so many of them. A lot of them go belly up, literally, bobbing along on their backs, paws protruding upwards as they use their bellies to park their babies, then grab them by the scruff of their necks when they dive. If not, the infants would pop back up to the surface as they're still very buoyant.

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Sea otter carrying baby on belly

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Diving with baby in mouth

Sea otters also use their chests as food preparation and picnic tables - placing stones on them, then smashing shells against them for lunch.

They're amazing creatures; they have up to one million hairs per square inch and eat 25 percent of their body weight daily - the equivalent of an 180-pound human consuming 45 pounds a day. Of course the fur trade very nearly drove them to extinction.

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How sea otters use chest as work station - Baranov Museum, Kodiak

Kachemak is replete with islets carpetted wall to wall with birds - gulls, puffins, black pelagic cormorants, too many for even my fumbling camera fingers to miss. Miracle of miracles, I also manage to snap a bald eagle at the top of a tree, as well as kayaks and island holiday chalets though, to be fair, the latter two are hardly moving objects.

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Island of birds

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Close-up

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Bald eagle

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Kachemak island view

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Another

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Island holiday home

There's a lovely forest trail above the tiny village of Seldovia, on the far side of Kachemak, and it must have the longest trail name anywhere - 'The we worked hard so you'd better like it trail,' the name chosen by the high school kids who upgraded it as part of their studies.

To give it a less cumbersome title, it's also known as the Otterbahn, after the school mascot. It's only about a mile and a half round trip through luxuriant spruce and lighter green trees and it's not difficult although it goes up and down a bit.

Seldovia views

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A board with pictures shows you what you might meet - black bear, wolverine, otter, and Steller's jay, a very blue bird. Of course, I see none of these. True to form I also go left instead of right near the end and have to retrace my steps.

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Trailhead

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Close-up

Indigenous people have lived in this corner of Alaska for millennia, as shown by archaeological finds. It was the Russians who brought in the first foreign invasion as they pushed up the Aleutian chain into the Alaskan peninsula in the 'fur rush' of the 1740s.

Later, fur companies pressed indigenous men into virtual slavery for trapping. A smallpox epidemic, against which they had no antibodies, decimated the indigenous peoples in 1838.

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The trail

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View from the trail

As the fur trade lagged, fishing and canneries took over, with salmon, herring and halibut foremost. In fact the name Seldovia comes from the Russian for herring.

Then the herring boom died in the 1920s because rotting fish discarded by salters killed the vegetation necessary for spawning. But the name and many newcomers stayed on, marrying indigenous women. The 1964 quake finally rang the death knell for the canneries.

Now, the picturesque little village, with a Russian Orthodox church dating from 1891 and a restored 1920s boardwalk with houses on stilts, has only 210 residents, according to the 2010 census. But it still takes pride in itself as the 'City of Seldovia.'

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Restored boardwalk

Its real pride of course is its spectacular location on its inlet beneath the snowy crags, glaciers and spruce-carpetted hillsides.

[Upcoming blog on Sunday: The gorgeous grizzly bears of Katmai National Park]

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The big city

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A little corner of Seldovia

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.