In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 6:11 PM on Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Estuary Walk a short tour in a natural wonderland


By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

The estuary walk winds along Beluga Slough, top. Carmen Field, above left, leads the tour as visitors listen.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

A view of the Beluga Slough estuary from the trail.

Lots of people drive to Bishop's Beach, but getting there by pavement doesn't show the true marvels of the area. The popular beach sits at the mouth of the Beluga Slough, Homer's 40-acre local estuary where fresh water from Beluga Lake meets salt water from Kachemak Bay.

To appreciate the slough and beach and get a little walk in the process, why not start at Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center? Better yet, take one of the twice weekly estuary walks. About 30 visitors from Alaska, California, Florida, Michigan, Germany and Scotland did that last Thursday on a tour run by Carmen Field, a marine science educator for the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve.

The walk starts at the back patio of Islands and Ocean and goes down a path to a boardwalk along the estuary edge, ending up at the beach berm. In midsummer, wildflowers like lupines and Jacob's ladder bloom, and cow parsnip, wild celery, blue joint grass, arrow grass and Ramenski's sedge have grown to full height. Sandhill cranes with newborn chicks, called colts, and other nesting birds feed along the slough. Sometimes moose wander into the marshlands to nibble on tasty willows. The meandering slough, green grass and sedges, a forest at Munson Point and the Kenai Mountains beyond present a dramatic setting worth pausing to paint or photograph.

"We'll look at the estuary of Kachemak Bay — how things work," Field said at the start of the tour.

A fit walker could do the hike in 15 minutes, but the tour takes about an hour one way. An affable guide not afraid to stand off the trail in her XtraTufs and get her hands dirty, Field made frequent stops to talk about some amazing aspect of the slough.

As she led the group along the uplands from the patio to the boardwalk, Field discussed forest ecology. Pointing to a dead, beetle-killed spruce, Field mentioned how the spruce-bark beetle infestation killed 90 percent of the Kenai Peninsula mature spruce, and how that's changed the forest.

"You're witnessing a page in history in our landscape that humans don't usually see," she said.

Standing in the grasslands of the marsh, Field pulled up a stalk of yarrow.

"This plant keeps me from getting colds," she said.

When she feels a cold coming on, Field drinks a tea made from dried yarrow leaves. Yarrow has other medicinal uses, too. Chewing the roots numbs the mouth, "So youf talkth liketh this," Field said. A paste made from ground up leaves also stops bleeding.

Field frequently pointed out plants and their uses — or reasons to avoid them. Cow parsnip, known locally as pushki, can cause skin burns when fresh sap gets on skin and is exposed to sunshine. Arrow grass can be eaten by moose, but humans can't tolerate the cyanide in it. If we eat too much, well, arrow grass should probably be called error grass, because it can kill you. Sedges mark the transition from grassland to marsh. Animals like sedges because they have a lot of protein. Humans could live off sedges.

"You can tell sedges from grasses because sedges have edges," Field said, pointing out the three-sided shape of the stalk.

The interaction between slough and sea creates a rich ecosystem that feeds new marine life and migratory and nesting birds.

"It's a great place to grow up," Field said.

Standing in wetlands thick with mud, Field reached down with a trowel and dug up a handful of pungent goop she called detritus.

"This is the bottom of the ocean food chain," she said. "When a place like this gets developed or altered, we lose fertilizer."

The tour ends on the slough side of the Bishop's Beach berm. Waving at the grassy berm built up by driftwood, logs and gravel, Field noted how the berm has been restored after the city and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge — the landowner — restricted vehicle access to the slough.

"What you're looking at is a preserved estuary in downtown Homer," Field said.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.