The gang goes North: Part 7.2- Kenai Peninsula (West side)

July 21-25

Not shockingly, we left Seward the morning of the 21st in the midst of a rain shower. Heading north along the Seward Highway, then splitting off west along the Sterling Highway, our surroundings changed from mountainous to rolling forested flats. Homer sits at the end of the Sterling Highway, and “The Spit” stretches a handful of miles out into Kachemak Bay, only few hundred yards wide and marks the end of the road- as far south on the Peninsula as a car can take you.

A fishing town, dubbed the “Halibut capital of the world” by its entry sign, Homer is full of anglers, both residents and tourists. We missed the mountains. We don’t fish. Fortunately, the mountains were staring at us from across Kachemak Bay, only a short water taxi ride away. Finding The Spit a bit too crowded and chaotic, we retraced our course about 30 minutes drive up the peninsula to Anchor Point and found camp for a couple nights. 

It was cold. Colder than we’d felt in some time, it seemed. We decided to go to the beach a mile down the road, and walk along its rocky shore for a bit to warm ourselves up. We were in for a treat. Bald eagles, both mature and juvenile, perched like sentinels in the trees just offshore. Occasionally they glided down to the water, and in doing so, sent dozens of seagulls airborne as they abandoned their food and submitted to the presence of the eagles. The Lake Clark mountains shone in the distance, across the Cook Inlet in front of us, some white capped and massive. Mount Saint Augustine rose offshore from western Alaska, a quintessential coned volcano.

The following day was ours to play with. We hadn’t planned any trips, hikes or excursions, and so we headed back into Homer to take care of some errands and see if we found The Spit more to our liking after a good nights sleep. Laundry and groceries were taken care of first, and a short walk in the woods above town got Charley some exercise.

We had lunch at a bus on The Spit, “A Bus Named Sue.” A double decker bus parked along the strip served us up some fish tacos and halibut that we found quite good, and we walked it off at Bishops Beach in town. Again, Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks looked back at us from across Cook Inlet.

At 6am on the 23rd we climbed out into the chilly morning. We’d be heading across the bay to Kachemak Bay State Park for a relatively challenging hike in the remote wilderness. Only accessible by float plane or boat, we took a water taxi for 30 minutes or so to Tutka Bay and were let off at the Grace Ridge trailhead. Starting in the south and heading north, the trailed would climb from sea level up to about 3000feet, and finished at another point on the north end, where the water taxi would return later in the day to pick us up.

No car traffic, no noise save for the rustling pines and distant hum of a prop plane or boat. We started the climb through wet forest heavily laden with mushrooms of all colors and sizes. The moss slowly dissipated as we climbed, and a steady progression of pine forest took over. The trail was supremely overgrown, leaving us wondering at times if we were in fact on a trail. We later found out that it is maintained once a year, in the springtime, and beside that, the trail is simply “maintained” by whatever foot traffic happens to pass through.

Fireweed covered the steep hillsides as we went. We climbed, up and up, and soon were well above treeline and exposed to the elements. The wind howled at us at times, keeping us in a low crouch to maintain balance. Charley had no issue. The ridge before us rose between Tutka Bay and Sadie Cove, offering views of both waters as well as Kachemak Bay and the Cook Inlet beyond. Islands dotted the water just off shore to our northwest, in front of us. Behind us, southeast, was the rest of the eastern peninsula, mountainous and beautiful, with Seward somewhere out there.

We made it to the ridge summit after a handful of steep pitches along the way, and were thankful to begin the descent. Our hands stayed mostly in our pockets, as the wind gave the day a frigid feel, but we snapped some photos along the dramatic ridgeline. Walking back down the north side, we passed stunning alpine green slopes. Dropping into the thick brush, we struggled to keep the trail again, as we kicked roots hidden by the dense flora. Blueberries grew wildly, and we stopped for a half hour and picked a whole bunch.

When we arrived at the pickup spot along Kayak Beach, we were only slightly earlier than the planned time. Other folks that had started with us that morning zipped through the trail and were left waiting along the beach for hours. Sometimes, it pays to take your time. 

We left Homer that evening, and drove to Kasilof, an hour and a half north up the western peninsula. We’d booked two nights at a cabin on Glen’s property there as we had an excursion planned the following morning.

Up at 4:15, Aaron met us at the Kasilof River boat launch. He’d be our guide for the day on a day-long salmon fishing charter. I mentioned that we don’t fish, but I’d be remiss if we didn’t do some fishing while in the fishing Mecca. 6’4” and 300lbs with a beard and waders on, Aaron was warm, sociable and patient with us. It’d just be Jamie and I with him on this Sunday, and we decided to float the Kasilof River instead of the more crowded Kenai River. He handed us boots and waders and off we went in Aaron’s truck. Taking dirt roads for 20-25 minutes, we ended up at the drop in point and pushed off into the river. “Niiiiice, just some light pressure today,” Aaron smiled as he saw that there weren’t as many folks out this morning as he’d figured.

The brisk slip of aqua glacial stream pushed us downriver gently. Aaron brought us coffee in his thermos, and I was happy for that gesture. The sun wrestled with the cloud as a fierce glow showed in the east. A moose bobbed its head above water, crossing the river, legs churning hard no doubt. “They’re phenomenal swimmers,” Aaron mentioned. Ducks silently glided by. Thick knots of birch and pine lined the high bank, grasses and happy bushes lined the other.

Time to learn our fly rods. Though not really fly fishing, per se. “Flick, 2, 3, drag, rod down! Out, again,” he coached us through several of our first casts. Unfortunately, most every time he tried to teach us how to cast, he caught a sockeye, which slowed his teaching us mechanics. The fish were running good that morning. 

Sockeye banged into our lines as they swam by, and the “drag” set our hooks as they went. Jamie was the first to strike, but by the end of a few hours we’d each hit our 6 fish limit for the day, and Aaron gave us his 6 as well. “I grew up eating sockeye all the time, and I just don’t eat it much anymore,” he told us. 

On the float downriver back to the boat launch we talked Alaska wildlife and culture. If we just floated on that beautiful, serene river for a few hours I swear I’d say the fee was worth it.

We took our loot to Soldota and had it processed afterward. It seemed everyone had a good day, the place was packed. We’d send 10lbs each to my two brothers and another 10 to Jamie’s sister Abbey. We’d keep 6lbs for ourselves, more than enough. 

We left Glen’s cabin in the late morning on the 25th. He had a washer and dryer that we could use, and we wouldn’t pass up an opportunity for free laundry day while on the road. We checked out the riverfront park in Soldotna on our way north up the peninsula and finally saw the “shoulder to shoulder” fishing that we’d heard about. Metal stairways along a riverside walking platform descended straight into the Kenai River, and each one had 1-3 people wading in the water, tossing out lines. It was neat to see, but I don’t think we would have liked participating. Surely, there’s an etiquette that we’re not familiar enough with. 

We offloaded a couple pounds of our salmon to fellow travelers that we met in the parking lot. They’d driven their van up from Pennsylvania, and seemed to be making a similar trip as we were. We were happy to dole a bit out- I don’t think we could’ve eaten 6 lbs worth. They had a dog with the same name as Charley, so we knew they were alright.

Taking Skilak Road instead of the highway for a bit, at the recommendation of Glen from the cabin, we passed through recent burned areas and stunning lakes and distant hills and mountains. We kept our eyes peeled for bears, but I think the wildfires a few years ago moved them out of the area. 

We really wanted to see some brown bears. So we went to Russian River falls, a popular spot where salmon have to shoot over the falls to reach their spawning grounds. Well, it was loaded with salmon, flailing at the racing frothy whitewater as it churned over the rocks. And the trail and overlook was loaded with people. But no bears.

Our travel nurse friend Tori had mentioned a boondocking spot on Kenai Lake that she recommended. “If you do one thing that I’ve mentioned, please make it this,” she told Jamie. So we went.

A rocky shoreline with space for 8 or so rigs, the spot was prime. We found a little rocky nook, surrounded by birch trees for some privacy. The waves lapped the shore 30 yards from Arch. The winds died later in the evening, and the sunset was sensational.

Jockeying with the clouds, the sun peered through on occasion and lit up the eastern tree-covered slopes across the lake. The sky was ablaze, as fog rammed into the mountains and proceeded to roll over the tops. Our neighbors were all out on the shore as well. I looked to the lady in the campsite next to ours and threw my arms up as if to say “come on, this is just unbelievable.” Without words, we were on the same page. 

Those moments, that feeling, are the things we hope stay with us.

In the next post, it’s time to start slowly making our way back up the peninsula and inch towards our final destination. Still, there’s plenty more to see and do along the way. And we’re just thrilled to be on this incredible adventure.

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