We left Whittier to drive straight through the Kenai Mountains and across the Kenai River Valley to get to Salmonfest on time, which allowed none of our usual poking around to see what there is to see. No worries, though. There’s but one road through central western Kenai Peninsula, and we knew we’d have to drive back that way, so poking around could wait for the return trip.
So we poked our way up the Kenai River. The Kenai River captures the glacial meltwater from the Kenai Mountains in eastern Kenai Peninsula, creating the screaming bright aquamarine colored Kenai Lake. From the lake, the river meanders through lowland lakes and forests which evolve to predominantly flat wetlands, enroute to Cook Inlet and the Pacific Ocean.
We found side roads that allowed us to follow the west ‘coast’ of the Kenai, along Cook Inlet. Views from the beach and bluffs continued to evolve revealing two new volcanoes in the Alaska Range across the Inlet – Mount Spurr and Mount Hayes. (We’d seen four so far, further south.) At the road’s end, we found a campground on a bluff overlooking a rocky beach. We did a quick hike along the beach where we were treated to a fabulous sunset.
One of the side roads we decided to follow was to the town of Funny River. Wouldn’t that make a great t-shirt? Ah, that wasn’t meant to be. Funny River is a scattered settlement of a handful of homes on dirt roads along the Funny River. We found a small gas station. Alas, no t-shirts…
The Russian River is a major tributary of the Kenai and a popular salmon area for fisherpeople and bears. We hiked out to the Russian River Falls in the evening – that’s when bears are known to be gorging themselves on the hordes of salmon making their way upriver to spawn – hoping to get a glimpse of these locals in action. Sigh, no bear sightings. However, we spent over an hour watching thousands of salmon making their way up the falls! There are stories and legends about so many salmon you can walk across them to get to the other side of the river. OMG, it’s true! (We didn’t try it.) They line themselves up in relatively still pools of water then take turns swimming up through the falls, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. When not, the salmon would rest a bit in the pool until ready to try again. It was amazing to see this cycle of Alaskan nature in real life.
That only road through central west Kenai was along the site of the Swan Lake wildfire, one of the largest of the fires in Alaska this year at over 100,000 acres. The fires had resulted in the closure of a large area where we’d wanted to hike. Remember all the rain while we exploring the Chugach? The rain was dousing the fire that had been burning steadily for 11 weeks. The fire was declared contained (not extinguished, but active management was no longer necessary) and the trails were reopened a week before we arrived! Except…
We headed for the Skyline Trail, said to have the best views in the area. We arrived to find the trail posted ‘CLOSED due to fire’ as of the night before we arrived. *SIGH* The beautiful, sunny, dry weather and just bit of a breeze had allowed the smoldering fire to reignite. Skyline wasn’t meant to be; time for a little more poking around.
We found instead a longer, flatter hike to the Skilak Lake Overlook. The Kenai River runs through this huge lake, creating a slightly different glacially tinged color as it mixes with the meltwater from the Skilak Glacier a distance away in the Kenai Mountains.
Kenai Lake is another glacial beauty. The lake and river are popular for sport fishing due to the gigantic fish found there. The world record for a salmon at 97 pounds (about 1-1/2 times the weight of, say, a chocolate labrador) was caught in the Kenai. While we were crossing a bridge over the upper Kenai River, we spotted a couple in a fishing boat with some action going on. He reeled in a 30-inch rainbow trout!
From the lake, we could see the Kenai Mountains on the horizon. They were calling…