I climb into the two-engine aircraft at the Anchorage airport, ducking low and scooting onto a small seat next to a man in well-worn work boots and heavy winter gear. No armrest. I meld against my stocky flying companion. The cabin is chilly, and I can’t argue the benefits of this compact arrangement.
Tourists are initiated quickly to the Alaskan way of life when they climb into this puddle jumper. Comfortable in jogging outfits and still-clean white sneakers, they look surprised at the casualness, lack of personal space — and the banter of regulars returning from a two-week rotation on the “slope” — Prudhoe Bay oilfields that butt up to the Arctic Ocean at the top of Alaska.
I wear dark denim and a no-nonsense black jacket. There is no space under the seat and no overhead bins for carryons, so I clutch a tote bag on my lap.
For years, I’ve flown from Denver, “home,” to the Kenai Peninsula where I grew up, yet, I anticipate the thrill of taking off. Behind me, fishing poles flail about and tackle boxes slide across the floor as the plane climbs steeply into the air.
The plane gains altitude and the Anchorage shoreline disappears behind us. “There’s a fire extinguisher up here in the cockpit and one under the back seat,” the co-pilot calls back.
The flight will take us over the Cook Inlet, and he adds, “Your seats are flotation devices.” The murky water is frigid — no one would survive. But these planes haven’t fallen out of the sky yet.
I think back to 1961 when my parents moved to the Kenai Peninsula. My father, Elmer Gaede M.D., joined the medical practice of Paul Isaak, the only physician in Soldotna, and one of few on the peninsula. Back then, we didn’t make a quick 20-to-30 minute jaunt between Anchorage and Kenai.
Instead, we drove a pot-holed gravel road for three hours, a road that now has straightened curves, allowing travelers to relax and soak in stunning snow-capped mountains, blue lupines in early summer, or an autumn roadside of cottony, faded-magenta fireweed. Regardless of the season, you can see specks of mountain goats teasingly mixed with patches of snow along Turnagain Arm or round a corner to find moose foraging in the ditch.
The sound of the plane engines change pitch as we drop altitude. I can catch glimpses of the town of Kenai as it sprawls along the banks of the inlet. Low, flat buildings plopped down amid unplanned streets that showed up as needed.
Inside the small terminal, I look for my sister, Ruth, while the folks around me greet one another. They’re dressed in muted-color sweatshirts, jackets with wood-fire singes, flannel and sandy boots, with gloves sticking out of pockets. “Grunge” might be a descriptor, but they are Alaskans with no nod to fashion: realistic, make-do kind of people.
Just like my mother could, they can fix anything with fishing line, duct tape, baling wire or a piece of corrugated tin. Nothing is thrown away; all is saved “just in case.” They have their priorities: airplanes over SUVs, snowmachines rather than fancy or finished houses, mid-calf rubber boots in the summer rather than Teva sandals.
Just like the settlers who pioneered the wild west, the men and women in the rugged north work side by side, setting fish nets on a raw and blustery day; trimming branches on felled trees; stoking a brush pile until it crackles and the smell of smoke hangs in the air; slamming in fence posts to keep moose from munching on their cherished rose bushes; or landing an airplane on a sandbar.
They are independent, resilient, sometimes coarse, but always optimistic — or they wouldn’t stay in this Last Frontier that lures tourists in the summer and tests the strength of sourdoughs in the winter.
My parents were lured here — and tested. And as I leave the airport with Ruth — who still resides on the 110-acre family homestead and has earned the respected title of “homesteader” — I remember those early days in the ’60s.
At that time, more people lived on 40- to 160-acre homesteads than resided in Kenai and Soldotna. Many World War II veterans lived in simple, secluded log cabins that blended into the spindly black spruce forests. While veterans had no cultivation requirement, for others, “proving up” required clearing 8 to 10 percent of their land, which opened up the dark forests.
In 1955, Dad served with the Public Health Service in Anchorage. He’d eyed this area when he’d hunted moose. In 1957, the Swanson River oil discovery made headlines. The nearby oil wells were producing 30,000 gallons per day, and an oil refinery was scheduled for the next spring. Like others, he believed the boom could jumpstart the peninsula into the most rapidly growing place in Alaska.
Soldotna sat at the strategic juncture of two main roads: The Kenai Spur Road continued through Soldotna to Kenai and Nikiski, while the Sterling Highway from Anchorage traveled toward the coastline and connected Kasilof, Clam Gulch, Ninilchik, Anchor Point and Homer. There was no town center, just a collection of businesses tossed out along these primary roads.
In a durable, cinder-block clinic along the Kenai Spur Road, Dad delivered babies, performed tonsillectomies, stitched up people injured in chainsaw and oil field accidents, took fish hooks out of locals and flew to the Seward Hospital with emergency patients in his backseat.
When we first relocated to Soldotna, and before acquiring an 80-acre homestead off Gas Well Road, we lived along the Sterling Highway in a thin-walled white frame house. In winter, Ruth and I snuggled together in the middle of our bed — and in the morning found our sheets frozen to the wall. Dad landed his plane behind this house and tied it down near our front door.
After work, he took Ruth, our younger brother, Mark, and me across the highway and down a narrow path to the Kenai River. We pushed aside tall, damp grass and walked past orange-berried dogwood bushes blanketed with yellow-green moss. Except for the sounds of the river, everything was peaceful and silent.
Red salmon jumped above fast-flowing, milky-green water. They wouldn’t grab any bait, and could be caught only by snagging. Silver salmon were easier prey, although we fished mostly for Dolly Varden and rainbow trout.
While our parents are no longer living, the Gaede-Eighty homestead is a gathering place for the four of us siblings. Ruth lives across the airstrip from our childhood home, and continues to tame the forest, remove beetle-kill trees, plant strawberries and repair fences. A colorful row of airplanes parks nearby, awaiting the services of her husband, Roger Rupp (Roger Rupp Aircraft Services).
I’ve flown for hours, yet the midnight sun shows no sign of ending its reign in the sky, and I’m surprised to see it is 10 p.m. As we pull up, Ruth’s husky greets us, wagging a curly, plumed tail. As we walk down the airstrip, we find a resident moose cow and rust-colored calf meandering out from behind Roger’s hangar.
Even though we’ve shared space with moose, we respect their 900 pounds, sharp hooves and antlers — and we’re as guarded as they are when a calf is involved.
In the morning, Ruth and I drive toward Soldotna on Kalifornsky Beach Road. Just past the dirt road to the Soldotna Historical Museum and Historic Village, we turn left on the Sterling Highway and pass the Soldotna Visitor Center, then cross the Kenai River Bridge.
We drive past where our “in-town” house stood. Ironically, that cold house blew up in a propane explosion, and was replaced by the Soldotna Emergency Services building. The strip behind, where Dad landed his airplane, is now “ Wilson Lane.” The Wilson’s owned a grocery store that let customers purchase goods on credit until after the fishing season, when debts were paid off.
A short distance farther is a large parking lot for Safeway, a pizza place, Blockbusters and McDonald’s. Seagulls dive-bomb among the vehicles and screech and fight over French fries.
At the “Y” of Sterling Highway and Kenai Spur Road — at the heart of Soldotna — we stop at River City Books, in the Corner Stone Market, to check on the inventory of Prescription for Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor, the book I’ve written about my dad’s adventures.
Inside the market, Charlotte’s Café serves coffee drinks, sandwiches and homemade desserts, and across the hall, the Gourmet Garden Market & Deli offers a delectable selection of sandwiches, a “Daily Dinner-To-Go” and chocolate-dipped macaroons. Claudette’s Folk Art & Collectables, beside it, is rich with locally made jewelry and nostalgia.
Ruth and I resume our excursion, but turn off the Sterling highway and onto the Kenai Spur highway. Halfway through town, by Corral Avenue, a small, two-story cabin stands among modern, brightly painted buildings. This homestead cabin was Soldotna’s first post office.
From there, we drive to Kenai. Every time I come “home,” I stop at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, on the main road, an ideal launching point for explorations. The center shows and tells the stories of Kenai and Soldatna, and the fascinating history of the region’s Russians and Kenaitze Indians. Glass showcases display Native, Russian and early homesteader’s crafts, clothes, furnishings and artifacts.
I eavesdrop on an enthusiastic traveler who asks about the 1964 earthquake. I tell him about the captivating videotapes I’ve viewed here about Alaska’s history. Behind me, someone is talking about the Saturday Farmer’s Market, held in the parking lot, with plump raspberries and Alaska-size vegetables.
Ruth and I wander around the old cabins and tour the Russian Orthodox Church. Veronica’s Cafe, in the Oskolkoff/Dolchok cabin, has a cozy atmosphere, with homemade soups and quiches. Before we conclude our tour, we take time to sit on the bluff overlooking Cook Inlet and watch for beluga whales, listen to the seagulls and feel the sea breeze. Across the broad and mesmerizing expanse of water, Mt. Redoubt rises like a giant, brilliant white triangle across the inlet.
Ruth and I loop back to the homestead via the Bridge Access Road that crosses the swampy flats where the Kenai River spills into the inlet, and where herds of caribou can often be viewed. In spring, snow geese touch down here and feed, much to the excitement of the locals, as this indicates winter’s end.
“Ruth, let’s get our boots and grab the plastic buckets your grandkids use in the sandbox,” I say with excitement. I can’t come home without walking the beach, picking up rocks, hoping to find a seashell or two, and watching seagulls. Wearing a windbreaker layered over a fleece jacket, I can’t resist the nostalgia that reminds me of Mom, in her bright-red ski jacket — in July, coaxing a campfire in chilly wind with driftwood, and pulling out wire coat hangers to roast sooty hot dogs and puffy marshmallows.
To capture your Alaskan experience, be ready to make do, get dirty, layer up and go to the edges of the beaten trail.
If You Go
If you fly directly to Kenai, be sure your bags are checked all the way through and not unloaded in Anchorage. Era Airlines, operated by Alaska Airlines, is currently the only airline to the Kenai Peninsula.
Many of the towns on the Kenai Peninsula are along the coast, which means a chilly sea breeze. Wear layers. It also means the mosquitoes won’t be as pesky, but bring repellent.
June and July are the heavy tourist months, but my favorite time is from the end of August through the first half of September when frost nips the mornings, the autumn colors deepen from to wine with surprises of gold and the air is fresh and woodsy.
In Prescription for Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor, author Naomi Gaede Penner tells some of her father’s flying mishaps, medical emergencies, and hunting adventures. She has completed a not-yet-published book which adds the perspectives of her mother, herself, and three siblings. Watch for Prescription for Homesteading: Airstrip, Chainsaw, Rhubarb.For more details go to www.prescriptionforadventure.com.
Kenai Convention & Visitors Bureau
Soldotna Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Information Center
State of Alaska Travel & Vacation Information