In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 3:45 PM on Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Beluga Lake: Homer's human-made wonder

In our own backyard

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

A cow moose and a newborn calf walk through the forest below the Beluga Lake viewing platform at the end of FAA Drive near the airport.

From lookouts on Skyline Drive and other hillside spots, two features dominate the Homer landscape. The Homer Spit sticks out into Kachemak Bay, and just inland from the Spit spreads Beluga Lake and Beluga Slough. Nature made the Spit, but from the Lake Street causeway east, humans made Beluga Lake.

Before World War II, to get out to the Homer Spit, people drove over a bridge across Beluga Slough. A photo by Larry Slavin dated 1925 in the Sept. 18, 1980, Homer News shows a timber bridge crossing the slough. That washed out, and in 1932, the territorial government authorized spending $7,000 to make any necessary repairs — which meant building a new bridge. Tom Shelford, the man organizing construction, was told to hire as many men as possible to get people work during the Great Depression.

"They all needed it," Shelford told reporter Jan O'Meara in 1980. "So I hired 'em all. Gosh, we had a lot of men working."

In July 1941, the Alaska Road Commission went further and authorized a dam and causeway across the slough. In those days, people drove to the Spit by going straight toward the bay, heading to the beach on a sloping road. Munson Point, the name for the Ocean Drive Loop area on the slough, once had so much land cattle grazed where there's now nothing but sand.

To build the slough dam, the road commission mined gravel from high mounds at the mouth of the slough and at Munson Point. The Civil Aviation Administration also built a runway at what's now the airport. All that gravel excavation made air travel easier, but at a cost. Without protective sandbars and berms, the bay side of Munson Point started eroding.

"So much gravel was moved out of that area that the high tides, often 30 feet or more, and storms washed away the property of Mary Burns and other buildings along the beach," Arlene Kranich wrote in her section on Homer in "A Small History of the Western Kenai," edited by Elsa Pedersen.

Homer historian Janet Klein said one 1905 map calls Beluga Lake "Duck Lake." The explorer R.W. Stone in 1904 reported that it was called Beluga Lake then, but that may have been another name for Beluga Slough, which looked like a lake on high tides, Klein writes in her book, "A History of Kachemak Bay: the Country, the Communities."

After Beluga Slough became a lake, floatplanes began using it. In winter, residents quickly discovered that with a good freeze up before heavy snows, Beluga Lake makes a great skating pond. Historical photographs from the late 1940s and early 1950s show locals doing what they still do: having big skating parties. The Homer Ice Racing club has held races on the lake since 1955. Skiers and skaters can venture beyond where motorized use is prohibited, at the eastern end that's protected as the Homer Airport Critical Habitat Area.

While recreational use on the lake abounds in the winter, come breakup and when the ice goes out, Beluga Lake becomes a floatplane-only lake. Identified on aeronautical charts as "Homer Beluga Lake Seaplane Base," or BL5, in winter planes on skis can land on the lake, but have to watch for other users. In summer when the lake is opened, under Title 17 of the Alaska Statutes, the Homer Airport shuts it down to all other users.

"That's its primary activity," said Kevin Jones, Homer airport manager.

All that water sometimes tempts canoers and kayakers out onto Beluga Lake. The airport has an orange inflatable rescue boat, and when pilots report watercraft, officials will zip out and warn boaters. That happens about three times a year, Jones said.

"People just don't know," he said. "They're just not aware of restrictions in the summer months."

Floatplane takeoffs aren't the only thing to watch in summer. From viewing platforms at the Calvin and Coyle Trail on the north side and from FAA Drive on the south side, birds and other wildlife can be seen.

Last week, a cow moose and her calf delighted visitors from Florida looking down from the FAA Drive platform. A swan pair regularly nests in the lake, as do other waterfowl.

When freeze up comes, residents start sharpening their skates, ready to test the ice and start another season of fun.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at