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I had heard this many times before, from family, neighbors, basically anyone willing to listen to my summer vacation plans. I can’t remember how often I had to explain that my husband, Rick, and I were not actually driving to Alaska but rather flying there and renting a car. We preferred solitude and the thrill of exploring new places on our own.
My girlfriend was not convinced, so I babbled on about how you can’t really get to know the locals on a cruise nor can you truly get close to nature. Still nothing. I decided to pull out all the stops and tell her about how we crossed paths with a moose and her calf on our last trip. The baby animal angle usually works and, as my friend let out an “Aaah,” I knew that she was coming around. This time, I told her, we were going to explore Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.
Situated south of Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula is a wonderland of mountains, fjords, streams, waterfalls and all things majestic. Separated from the mainland on the west by the Cook Inlet and on the east by Prince William Sound, the Peninsula juts about 150 miles (240 km) into the Gulf of Alaska. At 7,000 feet (2,130 m) high, the Kenai Mountains dominate the landscape and, on the south coast, glaciers cover the mountains of Kenai Fjords National Park.
Due to its mild climate and abundant rainfall, the peninsula is blessed with a large variety of lush vegetation and fertile soil. Excellent fishing for trout, salmon and halibut make it a vacation destination for both visitors and Alaskan residents. Accommodations ranging from rustic cabins to luxury resorts are available in the numerous towns located throughout the peninsula.
We flew into Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, and were immediately impressed by its stunning location. Nestled between the waters of Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountain range, it offers a unique blend of native culture and urban amenities. Its downtown area was bustling with visitors to its many shops, galleries and restaurants, and we enjoyed shopping for distinctive native-made crafts.
The evening was spent relaxing on the banks of Ship Creek watching anglers fish for salmon. Its pristine waters flow through downtown Anchorage and empty into Cook Inlet in the city’s harbor area. As the tide quickly rose, we marveled at both the serenity of the spot and its convenient, in-town location. An avid angler could leave their office and be fishing in a 10-minute walk. The look of longing in Rick’s eyes was unmistakable and I knew that he was itching for a rod and reel.
Ride to Kenai
Our journey to the peninsula began the next morning and, as we made our way down the Seward Highway along the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, we stared in amazement at the scenery around us. To our right, as the tide quickly rushed out from the narrow arm, the water looked so shallow in some spots that it seemed as if you could almost walk across it.
The peaks of the Chugach Mountains on the left were still covered with snow in the midst of summer and, as we drove along, we saw numerous cascades of water rushing down their sides. In the lowest areas are lush marshes and we made a game of spotting bald eagles perched on branches protruding from the emerald green water.
After the top of the inlet, the road travels inland and enters a region of streams, lakes and pristine forests that range in color from the palest to the deepest of greens. We continued driving south on the Seward Highway until its junction with the Sterling Highway, about 89 miles (143 km) from Anchorage, then headed west towards Soldotna.
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Our final destination for the day was a log cabin overlooking West Mackey Lake near Soldotna, a picturesque town located in the heart of the Kenai Peninsula 145 miles (233 km) from Anchorage. That evening, we feasted on fresh salmon from a local market that Rick had grilled to perfection, and then settled in to watch the sun setting over the lake.
Over the course of my life, I have witnessed thousands of sunsets but I can honestly say that I have never seen one as unusual before. Rather than slowly moving straight down to the horizon as I expected, the summer Alaskan sun moves in an elliptical pattern, barely dipping below the earth before appearing again in the east.
This is due to the fact that the plane of the earth’s equator is tilted to the plane of the apparent path of the sun through the sky. Locations above the Arctic Circle remain light throughout the summer, giving Alaska its nickname “Land of the Midnight Sun.” Soldotna lies at approximately 60.48° North Latitude, about six degrees below the Arctic Circle. We had been told to still expect close to 20 hours of daylight, which for me meant at least four hours of darkness. When we looked at the clock around midnight, the sky seemed to be trapped in a permanent state of twilight. Tacking up a blanket over the bedroom window, we decided to call it a night.
A stop the next day at the visitors center in the nearby town of Kenai yielded a wealth of information on local attractions, shops and restaurants. The personable staff there suggested a scenic drive to Captain Cook State Park, where whales might be spotted from a cliff overlooking the ocean.
It was well worth the drive since, as soon as we pulled into the dirt parking lot, a cow moose and her two young calves walked right in front of our car. As I am a lover of all things moose, seeing them so close was the thrill of a lifetime. I was able to take one photo before they moved on, completely vanishing into the dense forest as if the trees had swallowed them.
Only a few minutes later, while relaxing at a rustic picnic table, another moose and her calf walked within a few yards of us. Armed with a video camera, I captured mother and baby as they turned from us and made their way back through the thick grass into the woods.
From our vantage point atop the bluff, we had a spectacular view across Cook Inlet of one of Alaska’s active volcanoes, Mount Redoubt. With its snow-capped peak breaking through the clouds, Redoubt dominates the landscape at 10,197 feet (3,108 m) high. Its eruptions in late 1989 and early 1990 covered parts of the Kenai Peninsula with ash and interrupted oil production in Cook Inlet.
A Kenai Fishing Day
Fishing day had finally arrived, and we drove south on the Sterling Highway to meet our guide, Reubin, at the boat ramp on the Kasilof River 20 miles (32 km) from Soldotna. Based on previous phone conversations, I knew that Reubin has worked as a fishing guide in the area for years and loved every minute of it.
In his late 30s, his sparkling personality made him well-suited to his profession. Once the introductions were made, we set off down the river in a drift boat to fish for King (Chinook) salmon. “Kings,” one of five species of salmon found in Alaska, begin to enter the river in mid-May and make their way upstream to spawn. The cold, murky water of the Kasilof River is a striking shade of aqua blue due to glacial silt, Reubin told us.
As we floated along, we were entertained with Alaskan tales of tall bears and giant fish. I was listening so intently to one of Reubin’s yarns that I was caught completely off guard when Rick yelled for me to look at my rod. With its tip dangerously close to the water and only the rod holder keeping it from going overboard, I knew that I had hooked a large salmon.
Panic-stricken, I stared blankly at the rod until Reubin shouted for me to reel it in. As soon as I took it from the holder, I could feel the powerful fish on the other end struggling to getaway. My adrenaline suddenly kicked in and I frantically turned the reel as my heart pounded in my chest. For what seemed to be hours, I battled the salmon until it was close enough to the boat for Reubin to catch in his net. My entire body was shaking as I stepped onto the shore and had my picture taken with the 25-pound (11 kg) King before gently releasing it back into the water.
Sportfishing in Alaska is actively managed and all Kings native to the Kasilof must be released. When I asked how to tell the difference between a native and hatchery fish, Reubin explained that the latter have a fin clipped near their tail before they are released into the river to mature. We fell into bed that night, exhausted from the day’s adventures and without noticing that the sky was still light.
When the Road Meets the Wild
After a restful night’s sleep, we headed back on the Sterling highway towards Resurrection Bay and the town of Seward, 95 miles (152 km) from Soldotna. The road to our destination is considered one of the most scenic drives in America, which I believe is an understatement.
After turning south onto the Seward Highway, we encountered rushing streams, waterfalls, lakes and meadows bursting with color. It was a calm, sunny day and the snow-capped peaks of the Kenai Mountains to our right reflected perfectly in the pristine lake at their base.
Our first stop was the small boat harbor in Seward where we embarked on a wildlife-watching cruise for the afternoon. During the four-hour narrated tour, we not only enjoyed the spectacular scenery but also learned about the history and geography of the area. The captain skillfully maneuvered the boat into a cove for a closer look at a fjord and we quietly passed by a rocky outcropping full of playful sea lions.
As an otter frolicked in the water nearby, we stopped at a rookery of various sea birds and the sound of their high-pitched calls from their cliffside home was overwhelming. We finished the day at a local pub, feasting on enormous halibut sandwiches and enjoyed a cold microbrew while listening to live music.
Our adventures the next day began with a tour of a sled dog training center in Seward, complete with an exhilarating ride through the forest. The excited dogs barked with anticipation as soon as we boarded the wheeled cart and, when our guide released the brakes, we raced off down the trail with amazing speed.
Our tour continued with an informative presentation on the Iditarod, and it was fascinating to learn how the driver and team prepare for this grueling 1,100-mile (1770 km) race. After petting the adorable puppies, we took a scenic drive along the Resurrection River to Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park.
A short hike led us to the glacier’s terminus and we both felt the air temperature drop as we approached the giant mass of ice. The overcast sky was ideal for viewing the brilliant shades of blue within the crevices of the glacier, a park ranger told us. We stood in silence for a long time, mesmerized by the powerful display of nature until it was time to return to Soldotna.
Relaxing in Kenai
We spent our last night at the cabin on West Mackey Lake, relaxing on the deck with our host, April, who regaled us with stories about her beloved state. As a native Alaskan, she possesses over 60 years of memories and we listened intently as she described her experiences during the devastating earthquake of 1964. While the area surrounding Anchorage was hit the hardest, tremors were felt throughout the peninsula, leaving the landscape of the region forever changed.
As the long day faded into twilight, a loud splash broke the stillness of the lake and, scanning its surface, we spotted four loons. The striking black and white markings of these northern aquatic birds with short tails and webbed feet are unmistakable and, as they gracefully glided through the water, their mournful calls echoed my feeling of sadness at having to leave this magnificent land.
If You Go
To save some money, don’t book your rental car at an airport location. Go off site. It will save you about 10 percent on the rental tax.
Alaska Tourism Office – www.travelalaska.com
Kenai Convention & Visitors Bureau – www.visitkenai.com
Soldotna Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Information Center – www.soldotnachamber.com
Alaskan Widespread Fishing Adventures – www.widespreadfishing.com