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Wizards in the Mists: Halibut Cove, Alaska

semi-overcast 13 °C

BGM: Aerial Boundaries by Michael Hedges

When I was a kid, I used to believe that Halibut Cove was an elusive fairytale created to both inspire and frustrate me. It was a land of floating palaces, lush green valleys and eccentric artists hiding in the foreboding devil's club. Like Avalon, it would disappear into the mists of Kachemak Bay, inaccessible to the average mortal except for summer (that is if you could book one of the only two boats out there).


Believing I would never live to see this land of mystery, I was skeptical when Mom and by best friend Tom told me we were going somewhere "very cool. " Everywhere in Homer was cool! How could anything top that? But instead of driving all the way down to the end of the Homer Spit, Tom steered us over to the left and we parked in front of the Small Boat Harbor. What's that boat he's walking towards? The Danny J? Could it really be? Were we crossing over into Avalon?


Since that fateful day, I was lucky enough to make two more pilgrimages to that fabled land, both times with family from near and far.

The Danny J quietly glides back and forth across Kachemak Bay several times a day, passing a kelp bed with lounging sea otters and circling the stinky but fascinating Gull Island -a dizzying sight teeming with thousands of screeching and flapping gulls, kittiwakes, puffins, auks and pelagic cormorants. Gull Island resembles a collection of giant weather-beaten Chinese garden stones, gnarly and carved with caves and natural arches. Ungodly smelly streaks of white guano anoint the black igneous rocks, warding off the common traveler with noxious blasts of ammonia. But like Jason searching for the Golden Fleece, one must not be daunted by mere bird poo, for across these waters of fate, the Wizards of Halibut Cove await.

Since most of the island is private property, tourists are advised to stick to the boardwalk or the gravel beach before they're let loose to wander. Halibut Cove has under 40 residents, though it used to be a booming herring fishery until 1930 (the herring are no more). Exploring Halibut Cove is a joy for the senses with its many environments. Scoping out the landscape, one sees houses and rental cabins built up high on massive pilings, separated by a wide expanse of seawater which the locals cross by boat. The boardwalk path climbs up and around the cliff faces, over sandbars, through tunnels of overhanging greenery and through what looks like people's tool sheds and garages. Each step on the boardwalk makes a pleasing ka-thunk, ka-thunk sound and the water below it so clean, it's like a huge intertidal aquarium. Stepping around the crab baskets and oyster farms, I found myself hypnotized by the calming dance of different sized jellyfish scooting around in the kelp fronds -tiny, iridescent Halibut Cove performance artists. But more inspiration awaited my discovery!

Art legends old and new display their wizardry in the tiny galleries dotting the boardwalks. When I last went there, I was blessed to have an enlightening conversation with octopus ink master Diana Tillion, one of the pioneers of Halibut Cove. Her serene landscapes, deep love for all Alaska and childlike sense of wonder for the world around her made that short visit feel more like day at the feet of a guru. A great fan of Oriental brush painting, she personally encouraged me with sparkling eyes to achieve my Japanese dream. She passed on in 2010, two years after the untimely death of her friend and fellow art legend Alex Combs, one of the "founders of Alaskan modern art" -a necromancer of paint, clay and dreams. Their spirits live on eternally in their works, now enshrined at the Halibut Cove Experience Gallery.


When the sky blazes raspberry and creamsicle orange, it's time to head down past purple harebells and bright red berries to The Saltry, the 'Cove's only restaurant. Resting high above the water overlooking the tiny harbor, The Saltry can take great pride in the fact that all their salads are hand-picked, their plates hand-thrown, their bread home-baked and their fish locally caught. Their menu often changes with their chefs, so it's tough to get the same thing twice.


Aside from that plate of juicy, fragrant Kachemak Bay oysters you're gawking at (so naturally sweet they didn't need the marinara sauce!), I can't recall having any favorites at The Saltry. Just knowing that everything was locally grown and harvested was enough to make me appreciate each vividly colorful, nutritious offering. And who could resist that view?! Up in the air, savoring from my table the spectacle of the harbor's crystal waters, I was entranced. The perfect balance of art, wood, water, plants and sea, the comforting aroma of fresh-baking bread in the kiln, a tickle for a fluorescent red hermit crab in the restaurant touch-tank, each little detail comes together in the harmony of a moment well-lived.
But taking the time to look carefully, I can't help but notice how strongly the voluptuous mermaid looming over the deck resembles images of Mrs. Tillion in her younger days. I can only imagine how much fun she and the others in this tiny artists' commune had over the years, drawing sustenance and inspiration from land and sea, transmuting it into visual expression and enjoying this Avalon with family and friends. How gracious of them to share it, and their legacy, with all of us.

Do come see this bewitching realm of wizards and wonder, for yourself. You're sure to be inspired!

(In loving memory of legendary Alaskan artists Diana Tillion and Alex Combs).

Posted by GenkiLee 23:35 Archived in USA Tagged alaska artists diana_tillion halibut_cove alex_combs the_saltry danny_j

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