In this series we look at an Alaska town, village or city and try to understand it as more than just a travel destination. We want to understand the attractions, sure, but also its people, its economy, and its rhythm of life.
This post is near and dear to my heart. Homer is the easiest to talk about in some ways and the hardest in others, because I've lived here for going on two years now. It is about as vibrant of a "small town" as you are likely to find in Alaska. Part of it is its location on the road system, part is how its economy developed (strong foundation in fishing/marine trades and not overly reliant on cruise ships in the tourist economy), and part is the weather, which is about as mild and enjoyable as you are likely to find in the whole state.
Location and Size
Homer is the southernmost city on the Kenai Peninsula which sticks out straight south of Anchorage. It is located in Kachemak Bay which protects town and harbor from serious sea swells and storms.
Officially Homer's population is right around 6,000, but its footprint is actually bigger than that. It has the only real grocery stores south of Soldotna so it serves the people who live across the bay in places like Seldovia and Halibut Cove, the closest towns up Sterling Highway like Anchor Point and Ninilchik, and even folks down the road east of Homer who aren't technically in city limits. My best guess (and it's just a guess) is that it is where about 8,000-10,000 people work and shop year round.
In the summer during tourist season that number about doubles.
On the surface Homer has a real dichotomy between blue collar/homesteader type people and a strong thread of granola hippie types that dates back to the 1970s. When you dig deeper you realize that that those "opposing forces" are blurred together more often than not - it's a place where old hippies raise their own livestock and young commercial fishermen go on yoga retreats in the off-season. Just don't bring up politics here.
It's admittedly a very charming town. Homer has been a magnet for artists for decades now, and has enough wealthy tourists and people with second homes to support multiple art galleries, a thriving summer farmers market, and installations and performances. The construction is decidedly Alaskan AKA "creative" but the buildings are often brightly and beautifully decorated.
That said, you cannot separate Homer from the sea. The sea is the economic foundation that Homer was built on and it can be seen in the people and the business names here - all with words like "captain" "bay" "mermaid" "driftwood" etc.
It's also important to note that while Homer nowadays has all the comforts of almost any small town in America - it's only one generation removed from being almost literally a one-horse town. In 2020 you can still meet and interact with the last vestiges of true homesteaders - who came here with nothing and for whom starvation was an actual concern.
Like many Alaskan towns it is sleepy in the winter and is very lively during the summer months.
Homer is accessible by car, plane, or, in theory, boat. Most commonly people drive or fly down from Anchorage. It's a 4 to 4 1/2 hour drive or a quick up and down 40 minute flight. Most of the time, especially in the summer, flights run from Homer to Anchorage and back multiple times a day. And they're 30-seaters! I'm grateful they aren't bush planes.
As I referred to before, Homer's economy is built on the sea. In the later half of the twentieth century any stable businesses or fortunes built here were more likely than not to be on the back of the commercial fishing industry, or any business that served it.
The biggest private businesses here - places like NOMAR or Northern Enterprises, Coal Point or Bay Welding, were started in the 70s and 80s by intrepid homesteaders.
Kachemak Bay is strategically located for commercial fishermen who work all over Southcentral Alaska. It is on the road system, so getting parts and supplies is relatively affordable (for Alaska), the bay doesn't freeze up in the winter (except for the one time...), and it's a decent location for salmon fishermen to keep their boats in both Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound, along with halibut and cod longliners and even some famous Bering Sea crabbers.
The skilled local workforce and Northern Enterprises - the local shipyard founded entirely on private capital - has helped cement it as a strategic location for smaller fishing boats to do repairs, maintenance, and upgrades.
Tourism is another huge industry in Homer - with the Spit being the main attraction.
Homer is objectively the most beautiful place I've ever lived - and maybe the most beautiful place I've ever visited. Most people remember the first time they drove down the Sterling Highway and came over the hill and saw Kachemak Bay stretch out before their eyes. The bay is surrounded by 4000-6000 foot peaks and has multiple inlets and fjords to explore.
A really interesting thing about Homer's ecosystem is that it is technically a boreal forest while right across the bay in places like Seldovia it transitions to a coastal temperate rainforest. You can be in a whole different ecosystem in a 20 minute boat ride! Might be hard to see but check out the Kenai Peninsula in the pic below. The green and teal split is right along Kachemak Bay.
The weather is fairly wet, but not too bad for this region of Alaska, and quite temperate. The average maximum temperature is 29.2 degrees F in January and 60.9 degrees F in July. The average minimum temperature is 16.7 degrees F in January and 46.3 degrees F in July. Average total annual precipitation is 24.4 inches, with 54.9 inches of snowfall, and 5 inches average snow depth in February.
So bring a hoodie and a rain jacket if you're planning on visiting in the summer! The great news about the climate though is you don't get nearly the amount of mosquitos and bugs and heat in the summer as you get in the interior in places like Denali National Park and Fairbanks.
This region is home to all sorts of creatures including bald eagles, moose, and bear, and is famous for its seabirds. If you visit you're more likely than not to see the eagles and moose and seabirds - hopefully you'll see a bear from a distance!
Depending on what time of year you'll also be able to see otters, porpoises, orcas, humpbacks, and seals in the bay.
In Pop Culture
The most famous Homer residents are the Kilcher family, who are the stars of the reality tv show "Alaska: The Last Frontier" on the Discovery channel. They are an old homesteader family that has ties to this area when they emigrated from Switzerland back before World War II. Many members of the family are involved in entertainment including the Grammy-nominated singer Jewel Kilcher who grew up here, and Q'Orianka Kilcher who starred as Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World with Colin Farrell.
What to do
This is the big question! Like most places in Alaska, and maybe even more so, the best parts of this region are only accessible by things with an engine. Bear viewing in Katmai Park is extremely popular and very worth it if you have the money. Charter fishing for halibut and salmon is really popular. Even if you don't want to fish, the best hikes are across the bay, so look into water taxis. And if you want to relax in town we have great restaurants, coffee shops, art galleries, and even a spa or two! Feel free to contact us if you want a recommendation.