Story last updated at 2:23 p.m. Thursday, May 30, 2002

Kachemak Bay mentorship comes to an end
by Joel Gay
Staff Writer

One cold, dark February morning about 20 years ago I accompanied ship pilot Ed Murphy on a liquifed natural gas tanker run to Nikiski as part of a story on vessel traffic in Cook Inlet. As we drew alongside the 800-foot-long Polar Alaska <> which was still traveling several knots <> Murphy offered some advice about stepping off the deck of the tiny pilot boat and climbing a ladder up the heaving tanker's hull.

"Just watch what I do and follow me," Murphy said. "But if you fall in, kick away from the ship. It'll suck you under."

Gulp.

I made it, and spent several hours learning about tankers, piloting, and Cook Inlet ice and tides. Then I joined Murphy and the ship's Italian captain for a five-course, white-tablecloth lunch.

"You Americans," Capt. Szalie cried after I <> a young reporter living in a log cabin without electricity or plumbing <> expressed amazement at the sumptuous meal. "You work 50 weeks a year and then go to Las Vegas and blow it all! We Italians, we're on vacation every day!"

Of all the stories I've written in nearly 1,000 issues of the Homer News, that trip on the Polar Alaska was perhaps my favorite <> and not just because of the free lunch. The captain's advice on living life well helped a young man adrift in the world decide to drop his anchor here, in Kachemak Bay.

And the Homer News has been my harbor <> or perhaps my launch ramp. It's been the place that two decades of adventures have started or ended. A phone call, a letter, even a glance out the window back when the newspaper office was on Pioneer Avenue launched me on stories that expanded my world. Though the pay never reached Davis-Bacon proportions, the benefits have been spectacular <> not the health insurance or retirement or the free passes to the Homer Family Theatre. The real benefits derived from getting to know Kachemak Bay and its residents.

Homer is a gold mine for journalists. The area attracts interesting people, from brilliant thinkers and creators to nuts who are honestly crazy. I've always thought of the end of the road as a nerve synapse, constantly firing. Those firings have made for a rich source of story material.

I've inspected tide pools with marine biologists and second-graders, walked through forests with loggers, and rumbled around on bulldozers, gravel trucks, fishing boats and helicopters. I've gathered marriage tips from homestead couples, learned the best times to plant potatoes, caught fish and butchered cattle. I've listened to master craftsmen discuss their work, politicians explain their plans, dreamers express their dreams and criminals profess their innocence.

But while it's been a delightful stay, it's time to move on. After some 25 years in Homer <> most of which included writing or editing at the Homer News <> my wife and I are off on a new adventure. Next week I start my new job as rural affairs reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. The position should send me around Alaska in much the same fashion as I got to see Kachemak Bay. I look forward to learning more about the state, in part because I expect to find people and stories much like those I've found here.

I'll miss Homer tremendously. It feels like I grew up in this town, having just turned 23 when I first hitchhiked into town so many years ago. Kachemak Bay and its people have been my mentors, the Homer News my anchor, and I suspect I'll have tears in my eyes when I look through the rearview mirror Sunday.

<> Joel Gay started working at the Homer News in 1978 as a designer, and has been a staff writer, managing editor or contributor ever since.

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