Karen Hamm is walking along the tide line at a popular beach on the Homer Spit, five gallon bucket in hand. She reaches down to collect chunks of coal. Some are pebble sized. Others are a large as a loaf of bread.
Hamm says it’s not an ideal day to scavenge.
“It’s always better after a storm first of all,” Hamm said. “Secondly, the wind has to be coming from the west because if it’s coming from the east, it’s going to blow it out instead of in.”
Hamm would know. She’s been scavenging for coal with her husband for seven years. The coal that washes up on Homer beaches comes from veins in the bluffs that line Cook Inlet and overlook town. Boulder-size sections of coal break off the cliffs, are churned up in the ocean and wash onto area beaches in smaller pieces.
And Hamm needs about 9,000 pounds of coal to heat her home every winter. She and her husband typically drive onto the beach and fill the bed of their truck about nine times every year.
“You go to the beach, you get cold and you come home and stand next to the coal fire,” Hamm said.
Back at her home, Hamm pulls brick size pieces of coal from a trailer and brings them inside.
But before Hamm burns anything, she needs to empty out the ash box. She says it’s not exactly a clean fuel.
“There’s a lot more ash with coal than there is with wood,” Hamm said. “Not only that, but it gets in the air. It’s messy.. but it’s cheap. You can afford to hire a maid.”
Those savings drove Hamm and her husband George to ditch their wood stove and install a coal stove instead.
George Hamm, who is 80 years old, used to gather wood and says it would take about five cords to heat his 2,500 square foot home each year. He also supplements with heating oil when they’re not home.
“You can just figure if you burn 100 gallons of oil, you’re going to burn a cord of wood or you’re going to burn a ton of coal,” George Hamm said. “Those are not accurate figure, but it gives you a round figure to work with.”
No one knows exactly how many people burn coal in Homer, but it seems to be getting more popular, likely because it’s free. After a big winter storm, you can see a number of people on the beach collecting coal.
Karen Hamm says there’s been more competition on the beach recently.
“I think it has a lot to do with our economy right now,” Hamm said.
For Laura Upp, the economy was certainly a factor. She switched to a coal and wood burning stove about five years ago after wood became too expensive.
“Cords of wood, cut and split, for you are almost near $200 delivered anymore,” Upp said. “So, that’s a lot of money… if I was only burning wood, I would go through a cord of wood in a month.”
Upp still uses some wood and supplements with oil.
Both Hamm and Upp acknowledge that burning coal isn’t ideal. They worry about the air quality. But they say the savings and convenience drives them and others to the beaches.
“I think people are just trying to find cheaper alternatives,” Upp said. “I know it’s not the best thing for the environment, but right now, it’s just what I have to do.”
Upp says she would consider other options such as natural gas if it was available, but for the foreseeable future, she will continue beach combing for coal.