AK: Road Trip

Photo by Ariel Van Cleave, KBBI - Homer.
Photo by Ariel Van Cleave, KBBI – Homer.

There aren’t many highways suitable for road-tripping in Alaska, but the ones we do have are dotted with plenty of interesting road-side attractions.

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Since moving to the area last December, I’ve been making the drive from Homer to Soldotna and Kenai for all sorts of reasons, but usually I just get in the car and go from Point A to Point B.

Photo by Ariel Van Cleave, KBBI - Homer.
Photo by Ariel Van Cleave, KBBI – Homer.

Curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided I needed to visit three of the most interesting spots along the highway. So heading out on a recent Saturday, I made my way to the first stop at the Blue Bus Diner in Anchor Point and order a strawberry milkshake.

Diner owner Chett Seekins has been in charge of the place since 1997 and has made the décor pretty homey.

There are cookie jars on shelves; Chett says she’s been collecting them over the years and often trades a jar for lunch.

She also has paintings by her mom hanging on the walls, and there’s a piano sitting in the corner of the room that Chett bought from the old Ninilchik Baptist Church more than 20 years ago.

Chett: “I don’t necessarily play for people unless they ask.”
Shady: “Can you play right now, could you do that?”
Chett: “Oh really, what would you like to hear?”
Shady: “Whatever you want, your choice.”
Chett: “I don’t really have a… nah…”
Shady: “Just Amazing Grace? Quick little lick of that?”
Chett: *singing* “Amazing food, how great it tastes… how’s that?”

Chett says tourist-traffic is a big part of her summer business, but she says locals are loyal customers through the winter. And she will remember you – usually by your order.

“This one guy I didn’t know his name for years,” she said. “I just called him ‘Mocha.’”

Photo by Ariel Van Cleave, KBBI - Homer.
Photo by Ariel Van Cleave, KBBI – Homer.

After devouring a burger and saying goodbye to Chett, I head further north to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ninilchik. It’s a short drive off the Sterling Highway down a gravel road. Greg Encelewski meets me in the afternoon for a tour.

He tells me the original church was built and dedicated in 1901 and was actually located inside the village. But that building burned down and they put the next church on a bluff that overlooks Cook Inlet. Encelewski says that was intentional.

Photo by Ariel Van Cleave, KBBI - Homer.
Photo by Ariel Van Cleave, KBBI – Homer.

“I think that was the plan of all the Orthodox churches. If you think about it, travel to Seldovia, it’s up high on the hill. You go to Tyonek, it’s high on the hill. You go to Sitka, they built them in a beautiful place. A beautiful setting, a beautiful view, a beautiful reaching up. That’s part of the design. The community picked it out,” he said.

Encelewski has many ties to the church. His ancestor, Aleksei Oskolkoff, actually built the original church and his grandfather was a priest for many years. Encelewski says in the winter it’s typically pretty quiet, but traffic does pick up in the summer when tourists stop in to look around.

He says he doesn’t mind because he gets to share history and, at times, faith with them.

“We’ve had people that, it’s so neat to me, people just come here and ask if they can sit and pray just a little bit, or whatever, light a candle,” Encelewski said. “They’re down and out and we let them do it. They go about their business.”

After a short visit, I’m back on the road and onto my final destination: Three Guys No Wood, just outside of Soldotna.

Photo by Ariel Van Cleave, KBBI - Homer.
Photo by Ariel Van Cleave, KBBI – Homer.

This place has always intrigued me because of the giant wooden bowl that sits outside of the building. He and his partners Paul and Shanna Johnson make and sell things like bottles, vases and bowls. Gary Nelson is in the shop making wooden bowls.

“If you’d like to see how to make a bowl, I can show you in 15 minutes,” he said.

Nelson is a retired shop teacher. He uses a ruler to find the center then drills a shallow hole to get started. Nelson will use another machine to slowly shave away the wood and make a bowl.

As Nelson is explaining the mechanics of making the bowl, he’s interrupted by the doorbell. In walk Linda and Judy, they’d just finished lunch at Rocky’s Café in Kasilof and decided to stop at Nelson’s shop on the way back to Soldotna.

They both had driven by this place many times and decided that today was the day to come have a look around.

“You know, you’re always in a rush to get home.”

I’ll be sure to give myself a little more wiggle room from now on. It’s certainly nice to have the time for an occasional pit-stop.

Ariel Van Cleave is a reporter for KSTK in Wrangell.

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