TAXI! Alaska Style
by Will Rice
Life on remote Kachemak Bay is diverse and challenging
The Danika Jaye, a 34-foot landing craft, glided smoothly onto the steep beach. The front end dropped slowly to the wet gravel, stabilizing the boat in the stiff chop. Three men emerged from the wheelhouse and began undoing the bridle lines on a half dozen llamas patiently kneeling on the deck. They led the animals up the beach and unloaded their guns and supplies.
“See you in a few days, Spencer,” they said to the skipper as he refastened the safety straps on the bow and backed off the beach. “With any luck, you’ll get your tip in moose meat.”
Taxis may be ubiquitous in places such as New York and London, but they don’t carry kayaks, four-wheelers, lumber or moose-packing llamas. In Kachemak Bay, and other coastal areas in Alaska, water taxis fill a role as important and as far more diverse than their urban counterparts. Many who spend time in the bay are as dependent on taxis as any Broadway theatergoer.
Kachemak Bay State Park encompasses almost 400,000 acres on the south side of the bay. Its waters are ideal for kayaking. There are hiking trails and clamming beaches. Summer cabins scatter throughout its coves and inlets. Today it is a playground for locals and tourists alike and supports a number of small lodges and recreational operations. However, until the early 1980s, access to most of the area was limited to those who owned a boat big enough to cross five miles of open, breezy water.
The other side of the bay has historically been inaccessible and a bit hazardous. In the 1930s, the highly respected anthropologist, Frederica de Laguna, wrote for a woman to visit the south side of Kachemak Bay, she needed “a boat, a man and a gun.” When Jim Landis, who has ferried me across the bay many times, heard that line, he said: “Things have really changed. Now all you need is a cell phone to call a water taxi … and if you don’t bring a man, you won’t need the gun.”
The change Landis mentioned began about 1982 when a local skipper named Phil Klobertanz painted his 23-foot skiff yellow with a black and white checker pattern on the bow and renamed it the “Checker Crab.” Klobertanz started carrying many of us to destinations up and down the south side of the bay. An industry was born, and the recreational opportunities of the bay were opened to anyone with good raingear.
Those were the days when the only way to get a message to someone on the far side of the bay was to call the Homer public radio station and have them read it over the air during the thrice-daily “Bushline” program. We all relied on the fact that every AM radio on the south side was tuned in to the show. There was rarely any confirmation the message had been received, but somehow, reasonably close to the appointed time, Klobertanz’s boat, with its puffin figurehead, would appear to pick us up.
Within a few years, several skippers joined Klobertanz. The early taxi operators tended to be iconoclastic loners who saw ferrying a few tourists and cabin owners as a way to fund a low-income lifestyle. Several of them started as wooden-boat builders. Landis lived in a tepee in Sadie Cove for two winters while he built a house and a boat shop. Once he settled in, he designed a boat specifically for the area’s steep beaches and short chop. Dick Dunn built his pretty lapstrake skiff, Goldeneye, at his home in Tutka Bay. These skiffs could carry six passengers and a small load of supplies or building materials. Helly Hansen raingear and Xtratufs were the mandatory outerwear, and dry bags made the best luggage. The early boats were small, slow and wet, but they served a need.
Within a few years, Marsha Million and her husband, Tom Hopkins, commissioned two boats, the Mainstay and the Beowulf. With traditional wooden hulls, both boats were designed and built in Homer specifically to work as water taxis. Larger, faster and with an enclosed cabin, they quickly became the standard for most people. The open skiffs of the early taxi operators soon went the way of the eight-track stereo.
Million tragically passed away a few years ago, but Hopkins still runs the Beowulf, and it is the prettiest taxi in the area. On a recent trip aboard the Beowulf, I rode with Ellie Huffstutler, one of Tom’s substitute captains. Huffstutler is one of five women skippers who operate water taxis in the bay. It is an indication of the maturity of the business that Captain Ellie began her career as a teenager working as a deckhand aboard the Mainstay.
The busiest operator is Mako Haggerty, a former commercial fisherman who has run every type of gear used in Alaska, but now prefers to spend his summers on Kachemak Bay. He has an office on the Homer Spit that manages three boats and keeps all of them busy.
Most of the taxi operators will provide a tour of Gull Island, but if you are a serious birder, the man to ride with is Karl Stoltzfus of Bay Excursions. Stoltzfus is the acknowledged expert on the birds of the bay and provides transportation for a number of serious birders and birding groups. When I last rode with him, he proudly said he had just shot a picture of a long-billed murrelet, only the fourth confirmed sighting in Alaska.
Stoltzfus’ best story was not about the birds, though. A couple of weeks before I was aboard, he spotted two female orcas with calves. He stopped a couple hundred yards away to watch them, but both cows turned and headed straight for his boat. They bumped the boat, and then proceeded to use the hull as a scratching post, turning upside down and rubbing their bellies on the bottom, almost close enough to touch. A passenger had the presence of mind to record the entire proceeding on her iPhone and it is now circulating on YouTube.
There are moments of magic on the water, and the skippers of the taxis see more than their share. Flickering pillars of rainbow-colored light that resolve themselves into the backlit spouts of a pod of orcas; a young humpback breaching continuously for half an hour; salmon sharks lolling on the surface. But it is the day-to-day beauty of the place that is truly magic, and photographers love the mountains, sea and slanting light they find while cruising the area.
Birdwatching and photography are all well and good, but the taxis provide a more fundamental service to those of us with cabins on the bay.
For example, one day the Danika Jaye showed up at our neighbor’s cabin with a load of building supplies. The maritime version of Murphy’s Law was in force: “All heavy loads arrive at low tide.” We humped the lumber, windows and propane up the beach and made sure the beer stayed close at hand. It was hard work, but the open ramp of the landing craft was a far cry from those early days of moving materials off a bouncy skiff or some chartered fishing boat.
The water taxis have opened up the bay and become an integral part of the economy. But they are more than just a convenience for tourists and a boon for the residents. They have become a unique part of life on the Alaska coast. The next time you get an opportunity to visit Kachemak Bay and want to see more than Homer and the Spit, don’t hesitate. Just call a cab.
Will Rice took a summer job in Alaska in 1971 and never went home. He lives in Anchorage and is a frequent contributor to Alaska Magazine.