Homer ski tour brings reminders of what makes Alaska special

Posted: Friday, February 15, 2002

As I hurtled toward Homer on a crisp and clear morning last Sunday, carefully navigating rutty and icy curves, a nervous anticipation sapped my body for a reason other than the bobsled-run road conditions.

I was headed to the wine and cheese tour, an annual event in which a ski tour in Homer is broken up by two stops for wine and cheese tasting.

This would be my second tour, and it was the memories of the first that had me edgy. Last year's tour started as a day seemingly devoid of possibility -- not unlike the one that was unfolding before me Sunday. Content with wine warming my belly, fire warming my face, and conversation and a stupendous view warming my heart, I had done my best in-law impression and stayed a little too long at the second stop.

By the time I thought about moving, I was in the midst of a sticky squall that would make skiing back to the car a white nightmare. When I finally reached Soldotna, more than a foot of snow had fallen on the peninsula, I'd somehow managed to split a pair of moose -- Vinatieri-like -- that I encountered on the highway, and I'd pulled over twice to aid stranded motorists.

These harrowing memories left me with the dilemma of my current Bacchic biathlon. Could I have a meaningful time without having another harrowing and legendary episode that I could regale friends with for months? I wanted to have fun, I just didn't want to have too much fun.

When I got to Homer, I got right down to the business of having fun. The newsroom keeps up a regular trade of 64-ounce growlers with the Homer Brewing Company, and I stopped in to fill up.

My intent was a quick splash and go that would have made Jeff Gordon's pit crew proud. That was until the cashier fell into using "I don't want to get you drunk, but you should try " in the same manner my high school calculus teacher used to say "I don't want to ruin your evening, but for tomorrow do "

Not that I'm faulting the cashier. After some hits and Celestiale misses, he played Cupid and introduced me to a Royal Russian Imperial Stout that, like Mike Tyson, is dark and flavorful in character with a nice bite.

Many would call sampling beer before embarking on a wine and cheese tour a sure path to self-immolation. I call such sampling carbo loading.

As I coasted across Beluga Lake and saw a kid either flying a kite or performing some type of weather testing in the sterling morning breeze, I was beginning to detect the day welling with a delicious and heroic volition.

That was until I reached the ski trails and ran smack dab into the rub of the wine and cheese tour -- I was now expected to mix skiing in with my drinking and eating.

Ever seen a dance number in a musical that's not quite up to snuff? The combination of disharmonic singing, disjointed dancing and a slightly shoddy stage can be painfully disorientating for the body to behold. It's the same thing with the amalgamation of wine, cheese and skiing.

Cheese is a dairy product, meaning it takes forever for the body to digest and creates an impermeable lump in the stomach. As one tries to cajole the body into aerobic activity, gripping and protesting pain tends to emit from that lump in the abdominal area.

Wine, with the relevant ingredient here being alcohol, only increases the pain -- amplifying the ugliness like a microphone in a karaoke bar. Alcohol also sends blood to the capillaries, making one more vulnerable to hypothermia. All of this explains why there's usually a couple times during the tour where I'm not sure if I'm having a jovial time or slowly slipping into a diabetic coma.

It also explains why I decided to simmer down my act at the first stop. Instead, I soaked in the scene.

The stop was at the bottom of a steep hill covered with fresh snow. The longer it took skiers to get there, the more likely it was they were less skilled and thus more likely to make their grand entrance with a dynamic and powdery splat at the bottom of the hill. This coalesced beautifully with the increasing vivacity of the imbibing crowd.

For a while, rare falls were drawing sympathetic "Oohs" and "Are you OKs?" from the crowd. By the time the red wine was gone, though, face-washed skiers were hearing merciless and giddy shouts of "That's a 10!" as they scooped snow from their eye sockets.

Having had enough of that silliness, and, more importantly, having noted the red wine was gone, I moved on to the stellar view of the hills above Homer that the second stop provided.

After enjoying conversation on everything from antique wooden skis to the recently completed crabbing season to how to get a cheap hotel room in Anchorage, I was whisked from the exposed hill by a closing-time wind that screamed, "You don't have to go home, but I'm going to make it awfully uncomfortable for you to stay here."

I skied back to my car, and, after a brief episode of the above-mentioned diabetic-coma effect, where I swore my gut was about to hatch an alien, started a peaceful drive back to Soldotna.

Had it been worth it, at least beyond the fact that I had fully replenished my supply of growlers? It hadn't been a great day of skiing because the trails were a little soft. It hadn't been a great day of wine tasting because the varietals were too cold to properly sample. And only a couple of the cheeses had really caught my Wisconsin-bred palate's attention.

But none of the above changes the fact that there's no place else one could have an experience like the tour. The views, the conversation and the intense judging of face-wash falls make it an event all its own.

As the rolling panoramic of the Chigmit Mountains that is the drive back from Homer came to a close, I realized an adventure doesn't have to be harrowing or legendary to serve as a reminder of where one lives, and why one lives there. The tour is purely Alaskan, and on Sunday it was good to be Alaskan.

This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms can be directed to clarion@alaska.net.

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