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HOMER IS AT THE END OF THE ROAD

My problem in Homer wasn't the jaywalking moose or the cult of the halibut or the Spit Rats. It wasn't the lady who accused me of being Tom Bodett. All these things I came to understand as facets of life in what may be the most celebrated small town on America's last frontier. My problem was the summer light. I felt obliged to keep exploring as long as it shone, and it just kept on shining.

This was late July, and every day, dawn would arrive around 5, casting a gray glow onto the smooth stones, bleached driftwood and silvery tides at Bishop's Beach, a block from my bed at the Driftwood Inn. Then the sun would inch its way across the sky, the wind would snap and ease, and the 4,200 rumpled and sweater-wrapped residents of Homer would begin their busy summer lives: hauling in hundred-pound halibut, throwing pots, steering seaplanes over glaciers, tidying their bed and breakfasts, piloting ferries across Kachemak Bay to Halibut Cove or the old Eskimo and Russian settlement at Seldovia. On their way, they'd pass messages to each other via the five-times-daily "bush line" of the public radio station, KBBI-AM 890."To Natasha: Bears are on the trail between the head of the bay and town. Take the low road. From Boris."

"To Bethany: Reminder that you have an appointment Tuesday at Dr. Todd's office."

Ten hours would go by this way, then 15, giving me plenty of time to hit the usual tourist highlights. But then I'd find myself passing time, happy but unfocused, at just about anything. Combing the shoreline in search of a perfectly round stone. Hiking randomly amid the green shrubs and purple flowers atop Ohlson Mountain, which overlooks town. Taking a census of boat names in the Homer Small Boat Harbor. Watching the dock dogs snap for fish scraps.

One morning - or maybe it was afternoon - I was back at Bishop's Beach looking at driftwood and stones, and found Mandy Ewald, 13, Sarah Ewald, 14, Tara Guhn, 16, and Crystal Loop, 12, splashing in the chilly surf. But for them and me and a few distant specks about a mile along the shore, the beach was empty. Beyond the bay, peeking through swirling clouds, lay jagged peaks, monumental fiords, Kachemak Glacier, Dinglestadt Glacier, Dixon, Portlock, Grewingk, Wosnesenski and Doroshin glaciers. The girls had come by car from Fort Wayne, Ind., and this, they agreed, teeth chattering, was the best place yet - even better, they said, than the big mall in Edmonton, Alberta.

Late that night - or maybe it was early the next morning - I sat hunched in the din of the Salty Dawg (founded 1957, open until 4 a.m.), my shoes scraping in sawdust, my head surrounded by wall-mounted life preservers, my ears ringing with beer-fueled accounts of the day's fishing.

"Today was a big day," charter deckhand Dan Prisaznuk told me. "A friend of mine, the first fish on his boat was a 208."

That would be 208 pounds. The crew needed three shots to kill it. Large halibut are often subdued aboard ship by gunshots, lest their twitching tails break someone's legs.

Someone else had a story about another guy, a few days before, who didn't bother to spend the $5 it takes to enter the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby, then went out and caught a 300-pound fish. His fish was the biggest of the summer so far, which means the $5 the fellow saved might end up costing him a jackpot of something like $18,000. Hate it when that happens.

In this way I floated through the days and nights. Finally, each day, after 18 or so hours of light, around 11 p.m., the last direct rays of the sun would throw a warm pink glow onto the line of ragged peaks across the bay. Anglers would still be slouching around the Fishing Hole, and pre-teen kids were out riding bikes along the shoulder of East End Road, still sun-drunk.

Then would come a few hours of twilight, with the moon gleaming over the mountains and the still waters of the bay glowing like a great pane of glass, gas-jet blue. Then, around 2 a.m., a blink of darkness, under cover of which a high-living crew member could crawl home, change clothes, grab a bite and a quick nap, and head back out on another charter. Which could account for the bumper sticker I saw in the harbor lot:

"Have you flogged your crew today?"

Homer, which lies on the Kenai Peninsula, is southern by Alaskan standards. As the eagle flies, it sits about 100 miles south of Anchorage, and more than 500 miles south of Fairbanks.

Though the mountains along the horizon never lose their snow, and the 3 million-year-old Harding Icefield behind them never melts, Homer's location on the waters of Kachemak Bay keeps its temperatures moderate: around 60 degrees in summer, around 20 in winter, with regular runs of rain, clouds and wind to keep things interesting.

Moose roam freely. Bears across the bay swat at salmon in the cold river runoff. Whales, otters, puffins and scores of other birds live off the sea and shoreline, often within the protected territory of Kachemak Bay State Park. The halibut and salmon fisheries draw anglers by the thousands and sustain more than a dozen charter companies, which usually charge summer rates of around $150 per person a day.

This raw landscape brings in plenty of visitors, nearly all in summer. Some of them take a look around at the rich, unfinished nature of the place, decide this is where the next chapter of their lives should begin and cease to be visitors.

More often, of course, strangers spend a few days in Homer on the way to someplace else. About 115,000 tourists pass through Homer yearly, which puts tourism second only to fishing among local industries. (Sometimes, the two industries overlap more than folks here would like: The National Car Rental outlet levies $100 fines against customers who bring back cars with interiors reeking of fish.)

But there's a whiff of culture in Homer's air too, and here and there the twinkle of New Age crystals. More than a dozen galleries fill their shelves and walls with the work of resident artists and craft workers. The Smoky Bay Co-op stocks mango chutney and various organic wares for a large and devoted clientele. In October, 1989, voters declared the city a nuclear-free zone.

Just across Kachemak Bay lies Halibut Cove, an artists' community of about 160 residents (40 in winter). Halibut Cove is reachable only by ferry, but nevertheless pulls in dozens of travelers daily, most of whom leave the Homer harbor at noon and return at 5 p.m. (adult round-trip fare: $35). Crossing the bay, passengers get a close-up view of the murre, puffin and other birds on Gull Island, then watch as the ferry pulls into a charming inlet with houses on pilings connected by a winding boardwalk.

Homer's tourism and fishing industries both begin with a geographical oddity called the Spit, which reaches 4.5 miles into the waters of Kachemak Bay. From the lookout point by the satellite dishes on Skyline Drive, the Spit looks like a long finger of sand. To a walker on its millions of tide-worn rocks, it can sound as brittle as glass breaking underfoot. Some stretches of the Spit sank 6 feet into the bay in Alaska's 1964 Good Friday earthquake, but by then the local economy was built around it, and it continues to be the busiest place in town. It houses five boardwalks bristling with fishing charter services, tacky souvenir stands and seafood restaurants.

Nearby lie scores of RV camping spots, the Salty Dawg bar, a hotel called the Land's End Resort, Jean Keene's trailer and, in summer, hundreds of tent campsites along the beach.

Most of the tent pilgrims, who also call themselves Spit Rats, arrive with the warm weather after Memorial Day, and many take jobs with charter companies. Eager to underline the Spit's informal status as End of the Road, they tack up mileage signs announcing distances - to Paris, to Riverside (Calif.), to Oconomowoc (Wis.) - and give their settlements names like Freedom Beach.