Monday, February 27, 2017

Alaska by Post Office: The Halibut Capital of the World

Welcome back! In the first installment of our Alaska journey I detailed facts, figures, some mail transportation processes, and photos of a handful of Alaskan post offices in the most populated corner of the state. Let's head out a bit further to the Kenai Peninsula. It's located south of Anchorage and is one of the parts of Alaska you can drive to on the primary road network. We'll take that path and head beyond the automobile's realm to some villages accessible only by air or by sea.

The Kenai

Welcome to the Kenai Peninsula sign

The Kenai Peninsula juts from south of Anchorage 160 miles toward the Pacific Ocean. The peninsula proper (not the area of the Alaskan borough—think county—of the same name) is about the size of New Jersey, but instead of low coastal plains here a range of mountains rises as high as 6,600 feet. Yep, even this small ocean-lined corner of Alaska has its own mountain range, and it makes for a stunning backdrop to travels around the area. So imagine New Jersey with colder boardwalks, mountains and glaciers, and about 99.4% fewer people. That's the Kenai Peninsula. Got it? Great, it's nothing like that.

But here's what we have got: one primary road (AK-1) connecting several towns, many quite a few miles apart, and several "spurs" taking you to communities like Hope, Seward, Whittier, and Nikiski.

The coastal villages on the southwestern tip of the Kenai, home to Kachemak Bay State Park, cannot be reached by car. Those were the fun ones to visit. But let's see a couple more 'standard' post offices first.

Bigger Town Post Offices

This might look familiar to you at this point. The post offices in Soldotna, [the City of] Kenai, Seward, and Homer bear the same design we saw on a number of facilities in our last post re: Anchorage. Three of the four feature a circular window in the front, which the Homer post office makes great use of. Here's the exception as far as windows are concerned, the Kenai post office:

Kenai, AK post office. And a reference to Sherlock, because why not? This is alt text.
In case they're reading this, the clerks at Kenai were very awesome.

"Log Cabin" Post Offices

Two of my favorite post offices on the Kenai Peninsula were Cooper Landing (leased; occupied 2003) and Kasilof (owned; occupied 1988). Both are log-sided and look as though they could have made Honest Abe proud. The first photo is of the Cooper Landing post office, whose roof at this angle resembles the peaks of the surrounding mountains.

Cooper Landing post office

Here's a trio of photos of the Kasilof post office, which features one of the most striking P.O. Box areas I've seen. (In case she's reading this, Michelle was also great at the counter.)

Kasilof, AK log cabin-style post office
Kasilof, Alaska post office sign
Post Office box lobby

Cooper Landing straddles stunning turquoise blue rivers, and fishing is a popular tourist draw. Isn't this a fantastic color?

Kasilof lies on the western edge of the Kenai. I captured this late-afternoon scene overlooking a beach in Kalifornsky, just north of Kasilof. The horizon is lovely there.

Kalifornsky, Alaska


Four hours and a 220-mile drive south on Alaska 1 from Anchorage is the city of Homer. With a population of 5,000 it's rather large by Alaska standards. It's also quite hip! I came across multiple nice restaurants of varying cuisine; a positively fascinating bar; a post office with a rather nice touch to it; and, most importantly, the airport and marina from which to depart for some more remote postal facilities.

Homer's is a rather standard-looking post office by our thoroughly established Alaska standards. From the front the building is nothing special compared with its ilk...

Homer, Alaska post office

Look more closely, and step inside, and you might be floored by the stained glass artwork that adorn that circular window in the entrance.

Homer, Alaska post office artwork, front entrance:

Homer, Alaska post office art

According to very friendly USPS personnel who were gracious enough to follow up with my query as to the Homer Eagle's provenance two postal workers "made a piece for the eagle" with some assistance. The larger work was "a community college effort with supplies donated by the community." How awesome is that?

I enjoyed some great food in Homer, especially at AJ's Oldtown Steakhouse & Tavern. I was regaled gastronomically and musically. Here's a view from my seat.

Relaxing evening at AJ's, Homer, Alaska

Among the more interesting facets of Homer is the Homer Spit, a four-mile-long sliver of land that juts from Homer out into Kachemak Bay. The end of the spit hosts a large marina, Pier One Theatre, a sizable collection of restaurants, and other attractions. Homer is known as the Halibut Capital of the World, and you can set out on fishing charters (think: $200+ per day out) to prove your mettle. We'll be seeing more of Homer Spit when we head to the mail boat to explore Halibut Cove.

Let's fly!

First, I must say this... If you read my first post you know how frustrated I was about my inability to get an airline to promise me a few minutes on the ground without leaving me for an entire day. (I'm still looking at you, FlyRavn. Help a guy out here?) By contrast, I could not be more thankful for the professionalism and time dedicated by Homer-based Smokey Bay Air for working with me to make my, shall we say, unusual itinerary a reality. The company books bear viewings and volcano tours, but not generally a string of dropoffs and pickups for each of the villages they serve.

Special thanks to Lukia at Smokey Bay, who held several conversations by email and phone to ensure that a) we could create a schedule that worked for both me and the company's standard commercial operations; and b) put me in contact with Village Agents in two villages to ensure that I had a warm welcome and even a full-out tour when I arrived.

So what's going on and where are we going? There's a map for that. Here's our itinerary for our brisk late-October Saturday based in Homer: 9:00 AM, fly from Homer to Seldovia; Seldovia to Port Graham, tour; Port Graham to Nanwalek, tour; Nanwalek to Homer. Each hop would be on scheduled commercial flights lasting between five and 20 minutes; I'd be on the ground about an hour in each village. I'd also have an hour on the ground back in Homer before the mail boat (2:00 PM) departed to Halibut Cove. Later on it would be a private boat back. Busy day!

I met a Smokey Bay four-seater at Homer Airport, having checked my bag into the cargo area (read: space behind the seat). I think it's about time to show some more photos.

Taking off; looking south, past Homer Spit (with the lights), across Kachemak Bay:

Kenai Mountains:
Kenai Mountains

Tutka Bay in fog:
Tutka Bay in fog

Approaching Seldovia:


On the ground in Seldovia I had the streets all to myself. This population-250 community has a marina, summer ferry service, a museum / visitor center, and even a boardwalk. No, we're not talking Jersey Shore. With some of the highest tides in the world Kackemak Bay is Alaska's answer to the Bay of Fundy. You'll discover quite a few buildings on stilts in Seldovia.

Low tide, Seldovia:

From my brief time in Seldovia... 1) A really nice decorated fire hydrant; 2) Flower pot/shoes at a house on the boardwalk; 3) The boardwalk; 4) Stained glass window at the Seldovia Village Tribe Visitor Center.

Seldovia fire hydrant

Flower shoes!

Seldovia boardwalk

Seldovia Village Tribe Visitor Center window

Of course, here's the Seldovia post office (and yours truly at said). Located at 251 Main Street, the post office has been at this site since 1968 (when its building appears as though it would have been quite modern, indeed). USPS's rent is currently $25,000 per year. Operating hours are 9:00am - 12:00pm and 1:00pm - 4:30pm, weekdays. As for the rest of the post offices on this part of the trip (Port Graham, Nanwalek, Halibut Cove), operating hours depend on mail arrival schedules and they will not be daily.

Seldovia post office:

From here it's about a mile walk back to the airport. Here are some informational signs at the passenger terminal.

Gotta go. Here comes my ride!

You can find more information about the history of Seldovia here, and see more about what to do during the tourist season here. (Remember: I visited in late October, which is totally off-season.)

Port Graham

Port Graham is a native village; its name is Paluwik ("pah-LU-wig") in Alutiiq, the native language. The Port Graham [Alaska Native] Corporation describes the following features of its setting for potential tourism growth as follows: "High mountain vistas, tidewater and massive glaciers, deep fjords, protected bays and inlets, abundance of wildlife..." This corner of the country is beautiful; it's a bit of a shame the colors and trees for these photos were subdued in autumn fog.

The first thing one notices upon landing in Port Graham is that, like Seldovia and Nanwalek, Port Graham's airport features a gravel runway. Second is that fantastic sign above. As you can see the population of Port Graham is on the order of 150.

Port Graham runway

I was given a gracious greeting and a full tour by native resident Rich. I was picked up at the, shall we say, modest airport terminal.

Port Graham airport shelter

Here's an annotated aerial view (looking south) of the community we'll be exploring.

Port Graham, AK annotated map

Port Graham's Community Post Office (CPO) is a contract unit overseen by the Homer post office. Located at the tribal village offices, the CPO operates three days a week (when the mail gets flown in in, assuming the weather allows). Mail is brought from the airport to the post office by Pam, who we'll meet at the Variety Store—not to be confused with the General Store, which we'll see first. It was difficult to get a glare-free photo of the post office through the locked outer door, though I think the setting and sign are the most fascinating aspects of this P.O.

Port Graham, AK Community Post Office

Port Graham, AK Community Post Office sign

The Port Graham General Store is located by the water near the town's marina. It is bright inside and fully stocked with packaged groceries.

Port Graham General Store

Port Graham General Store

Here's a view from the marina:

By the water is the K-12 school in Port Graham. Recall, this is a population-150 town. There are but a couple dozen students in the community. Here is their modest, quaint playground.

Port Graham playground

In addition to the General Store, Port Graham has a Variety Store. The Variety Store has a fantastic hand-painted sign outside and, in addition to what you might expect sundry-wise, a sizable collection of DVDs. (Fun fact: There are still several Blockbuster stores in Alaska, among the last in the country! This is largely due to the fact that many home Internet plans in Alaska are not unlimited; rather, their cost is based on data usage, like your cell phone plan.)

Port Graham Variety Store sign

Here are Pam and Uncle Rich at the Variety Store. THANK YOU again to Pam for being available to allow me in the village, and Rich for driving me around town and showing me what the community has to offer on my admittedly unusual tour of Port Graham.

In our first post you saw groceries being handed off from plane to pickup in Port Graham. Here's one more image of the process in action. Once the groceries are out, the rear seats are pushed back and I'm in! And we're off to our next destination, Nanwalek.

As we head out of Port Graham we get another view of October Alaskan fog.

Nanwalek is just a few miles down the coast from Port Graham, though no roads connect the villages. (A four-mile walking trail does connect the two.) Here's another photo en route.

There's more to Port Graham's story. Read more about the community's history and heritage.

Next time we finish up our day in the air and on the water with a visit to Nanwalek, a village with a beautiful Russian Orthodox heritage and a crooked runway!

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