[by Dave Zoby]
“There cannot be good living where there is not good drinking.” –Ben Franklin
WHEN I WAS YOUNGER I USED TO CONFUSE THE FREEDOM I FELT WHILE DRINKING WITH THE FREEDOM I FELT WHILE FLY FISHING. Alaska is where I believed I could merge these two forces and double my happiness. The most obvious drinking spot in Homer is The Salty Dawg, located out on The Spit, right where you gather to meet your charters for the day, and where, eventually you will return, wobbled by four-foot seas. “Born to be Wild” is always on the jukebox, or so it seems; people are taking selfies, and dollaring up for hoodies and swag that depict the Dawg’s unique rooftop lighthouse. The owners haven’t made any overtures to craft beer or boutique wines. The going drink seems to be a Jack and Coke. Bars like this celebrate a type of shabbiness that pervades fading rural towns of which I am acquainted. In the summer of 2006, exhausted from a brutal day of trolling for kings, I put my head down on the bar and shut my eyes just for an instant. I considered myself a poet back then, and I thought it would be okay, that poets and Spit Rats were afforded such luxuries. I was immediately thrown out. “I’m meeting friends here,” I squeaked. The barmaid wasn’t hearing any of it. She handed me my bill and told me to beat it. I did. But first I picked up a sweet new Salty Dawg t-shirt for a girl I knew in Denver.
There are other drinking places that hold the same authenticity as The Dawg. And I have come to know the Kenai Peninsula for more than fishing. It’s a fantastic place to eat and drink. This is hard-fought knowledge, and if I can’t spend it on you, I don’t know who else.
- Homer Brewing Company—You’ve caught a fine king salmon on a fly at the Fishing Hole. (Right when you were thinking of giving up.) And though it wasn’t a true wilderness experience, you want to celebrate. Drop that Chinook off at Homer Fish Processing. Just a few blocks down Lake Shore Drive you’ll encounter a barn-like building. The pleasant wheaty scent of fresh beer is on the breeze. Cars are parked willy-nilly along the avenue. Float planes struggle up from Beluga Lake. The HBC is my go-to drinking place, a place I take people when I’m trying to showcase Homer, or get in good with them in case I need to borrow, say, several double-bunny streamers or size four sculpzillas. For years I’ve been drinking the same four flagship beers offered at the brewery. These beers range from five to six percent in alcohol, so they don’t interfere with life’s requirements. I recommend the Old Inlet Pale Ale. In the waning afternoons, Kachemak Bay Oysters are available at the wooden shack adjacent to the brewery. There’s outside seating where someone eventually picks up a six-string and practices an Avett Brothers tune. You’re less likely to meet bloggers and influencers here, but occasionally there are celebrities. For example, while I was fuming about a losing a fly box on Deep Creek, I met television personality Buck Wilde (not his real name, of course) of Animal Planet and the BBC fame. A bear and wolf behaviorist, Buck was not shy about telling me what mattered in the world of wild animals and dwindling wilderness. “We get so close to bears over there, you could nearly reach out and touch them. But that’s taboo. The ancient people who lived here long ago—the Aleut, the Yupik—they understood this,” he said. He was irritated and the pint of Red Knot was tranquilizing him a bit, but not fast enough. Something had unnerved him during this last trip into the bush. His eyes were glacier blue. When I went to pick up my beer, he snapped out of the trance. “Who would want to touch a wolf or a bear just to rob its wildness? Who does such things?”
- St. Elias Brewing Co.—Located in Soldotna, this brewhouse/restaurant is the last place I hit before I descend on the Russian River to do battle with the sockeyes, bears, and Texans who have appeared in earnest by late June. There is a civilized atmosphere here, and not everyone is talking fish. St. Elias is the last bit of comfort I get before I pull on my wet waders, tie on my pencil weights, and get to doing what I do best. On the Russian, flossing isn’t a new dance craze perfected by tweeners; flossing is the method used to catch fresh sockeyes. You use a heavy weight and about two feet of twenty test leader. Your “fly” is a fifty cent buck tail purchased at Soldotna Hardware. It doesn’t matter what color it is because the fish–heads facing upstream–are “flossed” when the leader gets in their teeth. You’ll swear the fish took your pattern, but you’re wrong. It took me five years to perfect this technique, to understand the methodology. When I was a mere Spit Rat, sleeping in my truck and showering in the bathroom of the visitors’ center, I referred to it derisively as snagging, and acted like it was beneath me. But once I got good at flossing, I sung its praises. I stowed a growler of St. Elias’ Island Girl in my cooler, iced to the max, and though it’s a fruity beer, a bit effete, I drank it openly in the Pink Salmon parking lot, and yakked with the locals about the strength of this year’s salmon run. There were mountain goats up on the distant peaks, and we shared a pair of binoculars looking at them until the growler was empty.
- Fat Olive’s–He makes his own red sauce from scratch. He bakes his own bread. He has certain ideas about wine. So the fact that he thinks Fat Olive’s makes some decent food goes a long way with me. After a day on the Anchor catching sea-run dollies, Rich Chiapponne, author of essays, short stories, and novels, says he has to stop by his house before we have lunch. I’m not surprised when he comes through the glass doors with two signed copies of his recent story collection. One copy is for me, the other for Bill Mixer, who out-fished both of us. Fat Olive’s is a good place to day drink, the waitresses vaguely familiar from last summer. The long haired pizza chef—I can almost swear—was casting for salmon at the Fishing Hole the other evening. The beers slide down easily. Sunlight pours in from the large windows. The heat from the wood-fired oven seems to take the cold out of our bones after standing mid river all day. We talk about fish, and trips over to Bristol Bay. Rich says that the fishing only gets better as the summer ripens. There will be steelhead and silvers. Ravens walk right up to the open doorway and peer up at the pizza chef. They know him too. We talk about what we want to do with our lives. And then we realize this is it.
- Alice’s Champagne Palace—Can you dance in Xtartuf boots? Do you mind if others dance all around you in Xtratufs? Alice’s has a relationship with the annual Salmon Fest (“Three days of music, fish, and love.”) and books incredible musicians from all over Alaska and the Lower 48. The music leans Bluegrass; there is almost always a young man shredding a mandolin. Though I have never seen anyone drink champagne at this establishment, I believe, like faith and karma, it exists. The array of Alaskan beers bring me in. That and the garlic muscles. And maybe the long, solid wooden bar where you can talk to bush pilots and biologists. Let’s face it, your chances at romance went out the door when you ordered the muscles and the smoked porter from Kenai. You might as well sit back and enjoy the tunes.
- K-Bay Caffe—Sometimes I go for days without any alcohol whatsoever, a factoid that still surprises. And now that I bought a condo in Homer, can I call myself a Spit Rat? The freedom I once sought seems elusive. That’s what happens when you own property and no longer have sneak showers at the RV parks. But that doesn’t mean I let my standards slip. K-Bay is housed in a former garage that looks out on Kachemak Bay. Across the Bay, you see that the snowline has climbed a little higher. You see boats anchored at The Main Street Hole, a known location for “chicken” halibut. It’s full on summer, and it’s fleeting. Fireweed and lupine grow so burdened with their blossoms, that they nearly topple over. You can lounge on the wooden deck at K-Bay with a cup of shade-grown Ethiopian and watch tourists go by on wet roads. This establishment has a piano, and a guitar, just in case inspiration hits. And though it’s not booze, when I leave K-Bay I feel buzzed, ready to go back out, put on waders, and see what the day can bring. Freedom endures.
- Honorable Mention—Grace Ridge Brewery is a relative newcomer to Homer, but the brewmaster produces some interesting IPAs that remind me of the good stuff you find in Colorado. If you want something to take with you on your adventures across the bay, The Grog Shop, right in the heart of Homer’s decorous business district, carries everything from grappa to prosecco. (But I won’t, under any circumstances short of total depravity, drink prosecco.) They have a staggering wine collection and a growler station where you can fill up at reasonable prices. Slimed from wrestling sockeyes out of the river, Veronica’s in the Old Town section of Kenai is a picturesque, cabin-style restaurant that serves homemade soups and wraps. Surrounded by old Russian churches and other historical buildings that bring you back to the old days. You can sip a handmade Americano and watched the salmon dippers work the mouth of the mighty Kenia. And if you find yourself with a fresh salmon fillet, or a chunk of ling cod, you can take it to the Fresh Catch Café, where the chef with sear it and serve it to you on a bed of summer squash risotto. Sip on a craft beer and watch the last of the charter fleet round the Green Buoy and slip back into the marina. There are volcanos in the distance, and a dozen kittiwakes harassing a school of baitfish near the beach. Maybe the Coho have finally arrived. Never overlook the restorative powers of the Fred Meyer in Soldotna. When I was living in the bed of my truck with my black Lab, I often went to Fred Meyer’s to recharge my phone, wash my face with warm water, and eavesdrop on folks in waders who were between trout outings. The kiosk area is a no-holds-barred center where you can eat and drink, and replenish your soul to face the drizzle.