July started with a bang with a very spirited hometown parade in Kenai celebrating the fourth. No marching bands at the local schools but we were treated to some Dixieland music as well as a kazoo band. There were lots of floats – many with a fishing theme; politicians stumping for a local office; American Legion members; young Marines; race cars; fire engines; Harley motorbikes in formation—all watched by a large crowd waving small flags that were distributed at the beginning of the parade. Incidentally, there were no fireworks displays on the 4th. This time of year the sun sets after 11:00 P.M. and the sky doesn't get dark enough to enjoy fireworks.
After the parade, we went to Morgan’s Landing State Park as guests of George and Sherry, hosts at Pillars Landing, a state park boat launch, for a traditional hot dog cookout with other state park campground hosts – a fun way to end a festive day.
During July we visited:
Several people recommended we visit Nikolaevsk and, specifically, that we meet Nina. Located just outside of Anchor Point on the way to Homer, Nikolaevsk is a very small Russian community founded in 1968. The men do not shave and the women keep their hair covered. There is a small Russian Orthodox Church there but it wasn’t open to the public that day. The highlight of our short stop there was having tea and cream puffs at the Samovar Café and meeting Nina Fefelov. Nina is a former electrical engineer who has found her niche in running the café, museum, gift store and bed and breakfast. Proceeds from some of the products for sale go towards a Russian orphanage. Nina is quite the salesperson--we walked out with two bags of Russian tea, postcards, and a beautiful Russian-crafted barrette.
Seward is about 90 miles from Kenai, on the eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula and is accessed by the picturesque Seward Highway, designated a National Scenic Byway as well as an All-American Road. The City of Seward is named in honor of William Henry Seward who negotiated the United States purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. The Monroes had visited Seward in June, so the Ballentines and we took a four day mini-vacation. We found the City Campground that Ron and Donna had stayed at, having our choice of several empty sites. Both rigs got back-in sites, side by side, with a great view of Resurrection Bay and the mountain range across the bay. Immediately after getting set up, we saw our first sea otter as well as bald eagles, cormorants and gulls.
The Benny Benson Memorial is within walking distance of the campground. The memorial honors Benny Benson, a 13-year old Alaskan orphan who designed the Alaska flag in 1927. He explained his design: the blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, the official state flower; the North Star is the future state of Alaska, the most northerly of the union; the Big Dipper is for the Great Bear, symbolizing strength.
Also within walking distance is the Alaska SeaLife Center. “The Alaska SeaLife Center is dedicated to understanding and maintaining the integrity of the marine ecosystem of Alaska through research, rehabilitation and public education.” Ongoing research helps scientists discover reasons for the declining marine animal populations. This is Alaska’s only permanent facility designed to handle both injured and stranded marine mammals and seabirds. And it is a very fun and educational place to visit for both kids and adults and well worth the admission. All the exhibits were fascinating but we spent a lot of time watching the seabirds in their 105,000-gallon exhibit, visible both above and through windows in the lower level. Watching puffins swim underwater was fascinating, as were the common murres and kittiwakes on the surface. Other underwater tanks held a Steller sea lion and harbor seals.
We visited Exit Glacier, part of the Kenai Fjords National Park system. We lucked out by being there in time to take the Glacier Walk with Ranger Paul Ollig, lead ranger for Exit Glacier. We walked through the temperate rain forest and saw the progression of the forest as the glacier has retreated. It takes about 200 years for the forest to progress from its start with mosses and lichens when the glacial ice recedes, to a mature forest consisting of spruce and hemlock trees. We saw it from the glacier stage to its current age of about 100 years. The interpretive hike ended at Exit Creek, a braided river because of the way the river flows in and around the glacial rock. Chunks of ice floated by in the chilly 34 degree temperature water. We then hiked up to the overlook for an awesome view of Exit Glacier which descends 2,500 feet over its nearly three-mile length. The Harding Icefield, about 3.9 miles up a trail, is the source of Exit Glacier as well as thirty-seven others.
The highlight of our visit to Seward was to be a wildlife cruise on the Keet, a catamaran that promises smooth sailing, but Mother Nature had different plans. We signed up for the six-hour cruise through Renown Tours, leaving at 11:30 am. When we got to the tour boat, we learned from a couple taking another company’s cruise that the waters were rough in the Pacific and their tour might be cut short.
Upon boarding, we met our skipper, Mollie, who enjoyed going out and giving tours as much as the passengers on her ship. She stated that they never knew what they were going to see when they went out and that’s what made it so exciting. We spotted some harbor seals as we were leaving the harbor entrance, as well as an immature bald eagle on the rock levee. We learned that when bald eagle chicks are a year old, they are kicked out of the nest to make room for the next set of chicks. They are completely full-grown and actually look larger than adult eagles because their wings are wider. Their feathers also look scruffy. They will be about 4-5 years old before they get the typical white head and tail that we think of when you think of a bald eagle. The immature eagles spend about 90% of their time just sitting somewhere--on a pole, a pile of rocks, on a branch.
We soon spotted a pair of otters. Mollie told us that they do most of their hunting and fishing at night and sleep during the day. They have a favorite rock that they use to crack open shells and return to the same spot to retrieve their ‘rock’. They are very cute floating on their backs, snoozing away, but appearances are deceiving – they have a temper.
We also spotted several hanging glaciers – glaciers that are not connected to a body of water any more. All the time we were cruising, there was a light rain and the water was getting choppier, although we were still in the protected waters of Resurrection Bay. We spotted a pair of puffins flying off, and then later we spotted several of them in the water, flapping their wings across the top of the water to put distance between them and the boat. We learned they are so fat, it’s easier for them to dive than to fly. We also spotted harbor seal pups sunning on a rock, several eagles, a pair of which were guarding their nest, and a humpback whale feeding on salmon close to the surface. We did see his fluke out of the water a couple of times but he never really went down deep. Pictures were hard to take because of the rain and the increased choppiness of the sea. We cruised into a peaceful cove to spot a swarm of silver salmon, swimming in an ever-widening circle. Even Mollie was astounded, as she had never seen salmon do that. We cruised by a rookery for kittiwakes and puffins. When we did get to the Pacific, Mollie decided to curtail our trip and head back….much too choppy, very hard to stand still, let alone try to walk around. Our tour ended up being just three hours rather than six but we did get a partial refund.
The Kenai area
The Challenger Learning Center of Alaska is adjacent to Kenai Central High School. We toured this educational facility. The families of the Challenger spacecraft (that exploded in 1985) wanted to have a living memorial rather than a stone monument. There are over 50 Challenger Learning Centers throughout the US but the one in Kenai is the only one free standing. Most are attached to schools or museums. Before attending sessions at the center, students study space-related technology, engineering and math at their respective schools for about four to five weeks. Their stay at the center is a continuation of their studies, applying hands-on what they have learned. A partial list of the available workshops: rocketry, robotics, astronomy, physiology and space. Those that stay the week overnight in the ‘space’ dorms. Their final mission may be a space flight, with half the students working in a very realistic launch control mockup and the other half in the space shuttle mockup. To say we were impressed by the caliber of the program and its students is an understatement.
Jon Walters, pastor of United Methodist Church of the New Covenant in Kenai, took us on a tour of Kenai and the surrounding area. He picked us up at 9 am and brought us back at 3:40 pm – wotta tour! We drove through several of the neighborhoods not far from the school, including the block where the Habitat houses are located. We saw an eagle’s nest with a young eagle in it and one of the parents nearby. We drove through the area where two of the three canneries are located. Surprisingly, the canneries don’t can anymore – everything is frozen. We watched a few tubs of fish being weighed then loaded into a container for the processing plant.
We felt like we were on a Hollywood Stars tour, as he would pull in front of some of the homes belonging to members of the congregation. We’d get a little history of who lived there and how long.
Lunch was at the Nikiski Senior Center where we were joined by Jim and Nedra Evenson (more on them later). What luck--wild Alaskan salmon steaks on the menu. After lunch, we drove to visit a dock made by a Mr. Arness after several people said it couldn’t be done. He purchased two old Navy ships, sank them right at the shore, balanced them, and then filled them in with dirt. They were then turned into docks and are quite an unusual sight. We spotted several of the sixteen oil platforms in Cook Inlet with a suggestion to come back to this area and watch the sun set and see the flames from the oil platforms.
Jon drove us to Agate Beach where there are three large loading docks for tankers. Two of the three docks had tankers while we were there. Agates can be found at this beach if one wants to search for them.
Jon gives a fabulous tour, taking his guests to places a normal tourist wouldn’t ever see, sharing his knowledge and history of the area. When he hangs up his robes, he should consider a job as a tour guide!
One Sunday, we joined others for the annual church picnic at the Evenson Homestead, hosted by Jim and Nedra Evenson. Their home is located at the end of their road, situated between two beautiful lakes, one of which is primarily used for recreation and the other for fishing. The Evenson story is fascinating and representative of those who came in the 50s and 60s to homestead. Their courage and ingenuity remind us of what it must have been like to settle the Wild West in the 1800s. Fast-forward over a hundred years, though….
To claim property through the Homestead Act back then, you found land that you would not only put up a home but would have the wife of the household live in the home and on the property continuously for a year. You were allowed to stake a claim on 160 acres. The acreage they found is less than 10 miles from Kenai but is surrounded by wilderness, including two lakes. Jim was teaching at the high school in Kenai, where their son Thor was a student. Arrangements were made for them to stay in town during the week but return to the homestead on weekends. In the meantime, Nedra stayed on the property, fulfilling the homesteading requirements. We asked her how she spent her days during the long winter days. There was no electricity and primitive plumbing. Mondays were spent bringing more wood into the house and refilling the oil lanterns; Tuesdays were laundry days—after washing the clothes using a gasoline powered washing machine, they were strung all through the house to dry; Wednesdays, clothes were ironed, using flat irons warmed up on the stove; Thursdays, Nedra would snowshoe three miles one way to check up on a neighbor woman, also homesteading; and Fridays were spent baking so her weekends would be free for when her guys came home. Nedra told us she was never bored…their hard work and dedication paid off. Their home and surrounding land are like a picture postcard.
Besides being a teacher for 25 years, a commercial fisherman for 40, Jim has been an artist since childhood. His finished pieces can be found in private collections, in museums and educational facilities in Alaska, and in their home and studio. His talent is showcased in the watercolor and oil paintings throughout. We were particularly fascinated by a printing press in the studio. While on sabbatical in Spain 1969-1970, Jim experienced a new medium in art-- stone lithography. Lithography is a fine art printing technique and is a multi-step process. First is drawing on special limestone or plates, then chemically etching the stone, and finally, printing by hand on his own press. It’s very labor intensive but each print in the edition is considered an original work and is numbered and signed. Lacking wall space for any of his framed art, we bought note cards that are copies of some of his lithographic prints.
Back to the ingenuity of the local residents…. Nedra is famous for her deviled eggs. One winter day, while delivering a batch of 12 dozen eggs (yup – that’s 144 eggs!) to a library fundraiser, she rolled her SUV into a snow bank while avoiding a moose in the road. Neighbors rescued her and arranged to have her vehicle towed into town. Picture 144 eggs splattered throughout the SUV – how best to clean them up? Someone came up with the idea of using sled dogs. One dog at a time was led into the vehicle, found and ate some of the eggs, then another dog, and so on until the SUV was licked clean, in every crevice that the eggs tried to hide. What ingenuity and what a great story!
Ron and Donna took a mini-vacation to Homer one week and the rest of us joined them for a trip to Halibut Cove on the Danny J, a conventional-style fishing boat that has served as both a passenger ferry for the island residents as well as a tour boat for visitors to the area. Halibut Cove is a charming village on Ismailof Island and was the scene of a thriving herring fishery in the early 1900s. At its peak, thirty-six saltrys operated there but the fishery collapsed in 1928. The island is now home to a few dozen residents, primarily fishermen and artists. Twelve blocks of boardwalk take you around and through parts of the island, with trails leading to beautiful views from the bluffs. We enjoyed dinner at The Saltry, the island’s first and only restaurant, before getting back on the Danny J for a return trip to Homer. On the way back, we passed by Gull Island Bird Sanctuary, a large kittiwake rookery. We also spotted some puffins and common murres.
Fish and Fishing in Alaska
Alaska claims to be the seafood capital of the US. Alaska yields nearly six billion pounds of wild seafood per year, caught from over one million square miles of rich fishing waters, more than all the lower 48 states combined. And if you fish, Kenai and Soldotna are where it’s at!
A quick introduction to the types of salmon found here. For some reason, salmon varieties seem to have two names??? King salmon, also known as Chinook, is supposedly the most prized and considered the filet mignon of salmon. Red (Sockeye) is the most prevalent, coming up the Pacific, into Cook Inlet, to spawn on the Kenai River. Silver (Coho) has a short run, as does Pink (Humpy). Alaska is very proud of its wild salmon that has no additives, unlike farm grown which are fed chemicals.
There are several types of fishing found in the area, with licenses required for all of them. There are rules aplenty, and they change frequently. To protect the area from over fishing and depleting future availability, the state Fish and Wildlife Department monitors the number of fish running and sets daily catch limits and even dictates which days to fish. The local radio stations keep everyone informed about these limits.
Dip net fishing is only allowed for an Alaskan resident, one whom lives in Alaska year round. Fishing can be done off a boat, from the dock or, as we saw, directly off shore by wading up to chest height, using a net that must be at least 5’ in diameter attached to a very long pole, in some cases, over 25’. There is a separate license for dip netting and is only allowed during a certain period in July. People come from all over the state. It can be done only on certain sections of the Kenai River or at the mouth where the river meets Cook Inlet. The annual limit is 25 fish for the head of household and 10 for each other family member. If you are over 65 and/or are disabled, you can have someone dip net in proxy for you. We understand that those in nursing homes sign proxy licenses for others to benefit from the limits. There were hundreds of people lined up in the water fishing, with several tents and screened rooms set up on the beach and motor homes in the parking lots – truly amazing.
You may have heard of combat fishing. Because of the short fishing season and salmon runs, fishermen and women line up on the banks or in the river in their waders, maybe about ten feet apart. By the time the fish are in the river, they are focused on spawning, not eating, so you can’t catch the fish with anything tasty looking on your hook. They basically are caught just by going by with their mouths open, and when they are running, it’s not unusual to be catching them as fast as you can throw your line back in. When someone feels a tug on their line, all nearby fishermen pull their lines out of the water, giving the lucky person space to reel in their catch.
Another method of fishing is set net fishing. We took a tour of a family-owned set net operation in Kasilof, the B.E.A.C.H.M. (Brian, Elizabeth, Aaron, Caleb, Hannah, Michael) Fishery. Their commercial license allows them an area ¼ mile along the beach and one mile out into Cook Inlet, using up to twelve nets that are 210 feet long, 9 feet deep. Every six hours during the six-week season they are allowed to fish, usually just on Mondays and Thursdays, harvesting the fish from the nets. They usually catch king, red, silver, some pink and flounder. Fish and Wildlife will occasionally let the set netters fish additional days based on how many fish are running. They can only fish up to 1-1/2 mile out. Liz (Elizabeth) gave a fabulous tour, allowing us to walk down to the shore and watch as that morning’s catch was offloaded into a tub, to be either sold right then or taken to a nearby processor. We (Monroes, Ballentines and us) decided to share a king salmon. Larry helped ‘catch’ a 44-pound king from the back of the truck into a bag. Out of that, we got 24 pounds of filets that have been flash frozen and vacuum packed.
From the 1.5-mile to the 3-mile mark, the seine netters fish in this corridor. Seine netting—a huge net that goes down a couple of hundred feet, is then hoisted up by crane into the boat, hopefully loaded with salmon. As with the set netters, they can only fish Mondays and Thursdays, and any extra days that Fish and Wildlife allows.
Any fish that are outside the 3-mile boundary make it up to the Kenai River for the dip netters and those that line fish from boats, banks and the river.
One Sunday afternoon, George and Sherry, camp hosts at Pillars Landing, took us on a quick boat ride on the Kenai River, showing us a side of the river we had only seen from its banks. Seeing combat fishing from the middle of the river was interesting.
Another afternoon we visited the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Soldotna, walking both the Keen Eye Trail and Centennial Trail. The Keen Eye took us down to a viewing platform on the lake. The other trail is a little less than two miles going through the forest. We spotted several signs of a bear or bears that had recently been on the path…we made this hike in record time!
Our friends Sam and JoAnn, whom we had met at the Alpena, MI Habitat for Humanity build last August, stopped by for a quick visit while they are touring Alaska. The Challenger Center gave them permission to park in their lot, so we visited often the few days they were here.
Reluctantly, we are starting to wind down our stay here in Kenai. The school district is hosting a picnic for the school grounds host the first Friday in August. Ron and Donna will head out afterwards. Karen and Galen leave the following Tuesday and we hit the road on August 15th.
Coming up next month: Anchorage, Talkeetna, Fairbanks, and then heading back towards Canada.