Ever since I moved to Homer in the late summer of 1994, I’ve been a dedicated beach walker. After settling here, it didn’t take me long to discover that hiking beaches not only can be fun — it’s also citizen science.
I am not just a beach walker. I am a CoastWalker.
Sponsored by the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, the annual CoastWalk program started in 1984 to haul trash off Kachemak Bay beaches. During the annual CoastWalk, volunteers choose a section of beach to monitor. A big part is picking up marine debris that’s counted in the International Coastal Cleanup’s annual effort. Volunteers also monitor changes in the environment, count and identify birds, and even note human use like four-wheeler tracks or campfire pits.
CoastWalk starts in September and runs through October. For more than 20 years I’ve been doing a CoastWalk of Zone 2, a nice little stretch of beach that starts where Diamond Creek meets the beach and runs to a point about 2 miles east of that point.
That’s how I found myself one Sunday earlier this month steeling myself for a forecast of cloudy weather with a chance of rain. I packed my rain gear, binoculars and notebook into a knapsack strapped to an aluminum frame, the kind hunters use to haul out moose meat. To bring out all that trash, I take a few big bags and lots of rope to lash it to my backpack.
Just getting down to the Diamond Creek beach shows how the coast has changed. To access the beach, you take an old subdivision road from the Sterling Highway across from Diamond Ridge Road in the Diamond Creek State Recreation Area. The gravel road ends at the trailhead.
Twenty years ago you could drive down the Diamond Creek Trail to the beach. A big storm in 2001 washed that road away, and the state used disaster funds to rebuild it to hiking standards. Now, parts of it are like a goat trail, with a steep hill on one side and a muddy bluff above. When the weekly trails report advises to “please take caution when hiking with pets and children,” that’s not to be ignored. I usually take trekking poles for the trickier stretches.
On a sunny summer day, Diamond Creek beach can attract maybe a dozen people. On my CoastWalk, I ran into three people and a dog walking ahead of me. I noted one guy picking up trash and approached him to see if he also was doing a CoastWalk. Nope — he just wanted to be a good citizen.
I grew up in Florida with wide, white sandy beaches. Not so at Diamond Creek beach. At low tide it has hundreds of yards of flat, gray sand, but when the tide comes in, you’re stuck with loose, rounded rocks between the bluff and the sand, what the British call a shingle beach. That’s where the trash winds up, stretched along the wrack lines along the base of the bluff. As I worked my way east along the lower wrack line, I tossed up any big trash to the high wrack line to pick up on my return.
In years past I remember clumps of alders that had slid down the bluff and taken up root along the beach. All those have gone. About a third of the way to the end of Zone 2 there used to be a pillar of clay and rubble maybe 200 feet high. That has collapsed into a low hill.
Several small creeks enter the beach from the hills above the Diamond Creek beach. Years ago near one creek mouth someone abandoned a truck, now just a frame and an engine block. Over the years I’ve seen that truck frame buried to the top of the engine. This month the whole frame was exposed, evidence of how the beach material ebbs and flows.
There’s a point about halfway down Zone 2 at the base of Bluff Point where the land stretches back to the bluffs. About 10 years ago a fault line shifted, thrusting the beach up toward the bay in what’s called an uplift. For about a year several small islands rose from the bay bottom, but those have washed away, too.
On my CoastWalk I noticed something interesting about that point: It’s building up. A bench of tan clay used to be bare there. Now shrubs and even trees have taken root. Nine years ago someone abandoned a red Ford pickup truck. Now storms have tossed gravel over most of the truck, with only the bed exposed, and shrubs grow on top of the cab.
My trash bag grew heavy as I walked back to Diamond Creek Trail. I picked up mostly plastic water bottles, but also fishing rope, a coffee mug, foam, and as a sign of these pandemic times, a disposable face mask. A lot of the bottles come from Asia. I recognized a distinctive Chinese water bottle with a blue cap I’ve seen on many CoastWalks.
The worst part of CoastWalk comes with the hike back to the trailhead. CoastWalk reminds me how my body has aged and the climb up gets harder. Every time I face that hill I sing, “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” the Black spiritual that seems apt with its words, “Keep on climbing, we will make it.”
CoastWalk ends at home with sorting and counting the trash, tabulating bird sightings — this year, lots of harlequin ducks — and filling out the forms. Sometimes I bring home cool beachcombed items, like a tourist’s lost jacket with his name in it that had drifted from Resurrection Bay over the summer.
I keep doing CoastWalk for the fun of such finds, but also to give back to this bay that I love so much. I also take home something that comes with living in the same land for decades: knowing and seeing change, not all of it bad, that transforms this coast.