Keen on Kenai
An RV Tour of this Peninsula Reveals Calving Glaciers, World-Class Fishing and Whale Watching
Alaska is on many RVers’ bucket lists. They save for a lifetime to “do Alaska.” However, Alaska is HUGE — 663,300 square miles to be exact. If you divide Alaska in half, Texas would still be third in size. Alaska is simply too big to see in one RV trip. So we divided Alaska into several regions we can thoroughly explore. Our first: the Kenai Peninsula, a large fist of land that juts from the southern coast of Alaska into the Gulf of Alaska.
It’s 2,400 miles from Portland, Ore., to Anchorage, Alaska. With gas hovering at $4 a gallon, we decide to fly and rent a Class C motorhome from Alaska Motorhome Rentals. In addition to our rental rig, our other travel tool is The Milepost: Alaska Trip Planner, a beefy tome divided by highway that provides invaluable, mile-by-mile information.
Anchorage to Seward
Our rig isn’t ready until 2 p.m., so we explore Anchorage. It’s early in the season, a gray and cool 50 degrees. The rule in Alaska is dress like an onion — layers, layers, layers — no matter the season. We head to the Anchorage Log Cabin and Downtown Information Center at 4th and F streets. The visitors center used to be in the sod-roofed cabin, but now it’s in a modern structure out back. We pick up a map to get our bearings.
Outside the visitors center, we grab a free shuttle to The ULU Factory a few blocks away. The ulu is the Alaskan Eskimo’s traditional knife, used for everything from skinning seals to sewing mukluks (Eskimo boots), and eating seal and muktuk (whale skin and blubber). Ulu knives are everywhere in Alaska — and some are made in China. Those from The ULU Factory are high quality and, after getting an impressive demo, we buy an ulu and a rounded cutting board. These may come in handy in the RV.
At the downtown farmers market, we buy some birch syrup for breakfast pancakes and a loaf of bread for our trip and then head to Oomingmak Cooperative, a native weaving cooperative specializing in handcrafted qiviut (or qiviuq) products. Qiviut is the soft undercoat of Arctic muskox that’s lightweight yet eight times warmer than wool. The weavings are beautiful, but pricey.
It’s 5:30 p.m. when we check out our rig, but the sun is high. We’re in the Land of the Midnight Sun and it’ll be light nearly 24 hours. With the clouds clearing, we head southward down Highway 1 (Seward Highway).
The highway out of Anchorage is an easy four-laner (the “New” Seward Highway), but it soon narrows to two lanes (the “Old” highway). A photographer’s delight, this road has been designated an All-American Road and a National Scenic Byway.
We’re barely 10 minutes into our drive when we pass Potter Point (Potter Marsh) State Game Refuge, a favorite place for bird watching. We spot ducks, gulls, and big fluffy white swans nesting and my photographer pal insists we stop for a few shots. (If you love photography, travel in Alaska can be amazingly slow!)
Just a few miles farther, we pull off at Beluga Point, a drop-dead-gorgeous view of Cook Inlet and the Kenai Mountains. The water is gray/green, thick with glacial silt (rock flour). Beautiful white belugas are often seen here, but not today, so we continue on.
The highway scuttles along the south shore of Turnagain Arm and Cook Inlet. The Inlet is known for huge tides — 30 to 35 feet between the high and low tides, the second largest in the world. Because the inlet is shallow, it’s also noted for tidal bores, huge breaking waves that rush up the channel when the tide comes in. In fact, Turnagain Arm got its name when Captain James Cook, an early explorer, recognized the dangerous tidal bores and told his crews to “turnagain” and go back out to sea.
We’re passing through Chugach National Forest and Chugach State Park, a half-million acres of some of the most accessible hiking, skiing, camping, wildlife viewing, rafting and climbing in Alaska. We spot our first bald eagle scanning the water for dinner; a little farther on, a big owl swoops low over a wetland. When we pass a modest building housing Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ, I realize I’m starving. Fortunately, we’re meeting a friend for
dinner in Girdwood.
Seven Glaciers and Ancient Bison
We turn off at the Girdwood Junction and head a few miles to Alyeska Resort, Alaska’s largest ski area. The resort boasts the longest continuous double black diamond ski run in North America. Last year, this world-class ski resort received a record 1,000 inches of the white stuff. But we’re here for the food at Seven Glaciers and what our friend calls “the best restaurant view in the world.”
She’s right. After a surprisingly smooth, six-minute tram ride up the nearly vertical slope, we step out on the top of the world. We’re surrounded by endless peaks of the Chugach Mountains, views of Turnagain Arm, and yep, just like the restaurant’s name, seven “hanging” glaciers.
We splurge on a delightful meal of halibut ceviche, scallop bisque, and king salmon and end with the signature Baked Alyeska, creamy layers of chocolate mousse covered with ganache and Italian meringue. Then we save a few dollars by camping in the hotel’s RV parking lot (no services) for a thrifty $10.
We’re up early the next morning because we’ve got an appointment with Scott Michaels of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) just a few miles down the road (milepost 79). On the way, we cross the Twentymile River, where fisherman catch oily hooligans often used for bait. Sleek Arctic terns dive-bomb the water and, to the north across Turnagain Arm, we spot Twentymile Glacier, its river of jumbled ice spilling into the water.
At the Conservation Center, we step out of the rig and we’re swarmed by mosquitoes, the infamous insect Alaskans jokingly call their state bird. “Sorry, we had a big hatch two days ago,” says Michaels, swatting a few of the pesky creatures.
We lather on bug spray and I don my favorite Tilley Insect Shield hat and the bugs mostly leave us alone. Some visitors take a 50-minute shuttle through the property, but we walk. The Wildlife Center’s mission is education and conservation, teaching people about Alaska wildlife, including bears, moose, eagles, elk, musk oxen and wood bison. It has the largest bear enclosure in North America and, as we approach, Joe Boxer, a 1,000-pound brown bear, stands on his hind legs, showing us his impressive 9-foot height.
The Center has five bears — two brown, one black and one grizzly. All have been injured or found as cubs and cannot be returned to the wild.
One of the Center’s most interesting projects is the wood bison, a shaggy 3,000-pound animal that’s the largest creature on the continent. Long thought to be extinct, a small group of these hirsute giants was discovered in Canada. Today, this herd of 130, the only one in the U.S., is part of a project to reintroduce this ancient bison to the wild.
Before we leave, we peruse the extensive gift shop and grab a couple of juicy reindeer sausages for the road. Back on the highway, the landscape now is all willows and brush — perfect moose habitat — and we spot our first “Watch for Moose” sign. The road has deteriorated into potholes and frost heaves, but Six Mile Creek, a beautiful ribbon of water seething with Class 4 and 5 rapids, makes us forgive the weathered blacktop.
We cross Canyon Creek Bridge and start climbing, the landscape changing to almost vertical mountains patchy with snow and heavily forested with evergreens and spring green deciduous trees. Dozens of waterfalls cascade down rock faces, some feathery and lacy, others muscular rumble-jumbles of water.
We pass Jerome Lake, and at Homer Junction, veer onto Highway 9 toward Seward. Here the mountains are massive and, as the road begins to descend, “No-stopping —Avalanche Area” signs are frequent.
Fishing Village of Seward
We’ve left the traffic behind as we follow Kenai Lake, a 24-mile-long glacial lake filled with aqua-green water. Along a willowy wetland, we spot our first moose, an impossibly tall, gangly female loping through the marsh. A little farther along, we spot a gaggle of white swans.
The temperature drops as we leave the wetlands and climb back into the mountains. Before long, the road descends and we cruise into Seward, greeted by a massive roadside eagle’s nest.
Seward is a historic village (population 2,700) on Resurrection Bay that thrives on fishing and cruise ships. The marina is filled with dozens of fishing and pleasure boats and several huge cruise ships dock along the seawall. The town is also known for cool, windy, and often rainy weather, even in summer, and we’re glad we brought jackets and raingear.
After picking up a few groceries, we head 6 miles north of town to Stoney Creek RV Park and pull into our full-service, gravel-topped spot. RV parks in Alaska are often little more than gravel parking lots. Stoney Creek has the distinction of some grass, a few camp rings, a clean shower house with hair dryers and delicious quiet.
The next morning we motor to town, bypassing the tour operators and restaurants along the marina, and head for downtown Seward and Alaska SeaLife Center’s free parking lot. Alaska SeaLife Center is devoted to life in Alaskan waters. Since Alaska has 45,000 miles of coastline and is bordered by two oceans, three seas, and the Gulf of Alaska, there’s a lot to see.
The Center features a fascinating exhibit on the 1989 Valdez oil spill, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into pristine Alaskan waters, killing 250,000 seabirds and harming 14 different species of animals. There is also a seabird exhibit filled with puffins, terns, guillemots, murres, oystercatchers and more. Sleek silver harbor seals glide through a two-story tank — and Woody, a massive 1,700-pound stellar sea lion, effortlessly swims in slow circles as visitors shoot pictures.
We’re hungry after visiting SeaLife, so we dig into creamy fish chowder at Nellie’s Roadhouse, named for a famous Alaskan pioneer woman. Then we cruise historic downtown’s Western-front buildings that include galleries, an ice cream shop, a scattering of restaurants and the Seward Brewing Company.
The rain has held off, so we drive a few miles to Exit Glacier, one of the few easily accessible glaciers in the state, to meet volunteer ranger Ann Fineman for a free
3.5-mile naturalist hike. As we walk the paved pathway, Fineman points out signs — 1815, 1917, 1926, 1951 — marking where Exit Glacier used to be. Today, the glacier is farther in the mountains.
She stops at a pile of marble-sized pellets, picking up a few. “It’s moose poop,” she says, crumbling the dusty material. “They eat woody materials and digest it so well that their poop is sawdust.”
We leave the pavement and angle up a rocky dirt path, making me grateful I brought my hiking poles. We climb up and up and suddenly we’re face-to-face with 2-mile-long Exit Glacier, layers of craggy ice — some incredibly blue — stacked layer upon layer. Fineman tells us that Exit Glacier descends 2,700 feet from the Harding Icefield and, during warm months, moves downhill at an impressive rate of 1 mile per day.
Whales and Kenai Fjords Tour
The rain is spattering as we make our way down the mountain and scurry back to the RV park. We’re up early the next day to join Kenai Fjords Tours for a day-long exploration of Kenai Fjords National Park, one of the wildest parks in Alaska. We board the Explorer, a 90-foot diesel-powered Westport. Captain Mark Lindstrom, a veteran sailor who’s been plying Kenai’s water’s for 20 years, motors us into Resurrection Bay under gray skies.
As we enjoy juice, fruit and hot cinnamon rolls, a Dall’s porpoise frolics off the bow of a nearby boat. Before I’ve finished my coffee, we spot our first whale, a large humpback feeding on small fish. We also spot sea otters, effortlessly floating on their backs. The largest member of the weasel family, otters’ dense fur traps air and keeps the animals warm and afloat.
The sea is rougher now, and although Captain Lindstrom tries to keep us steady, we’re rocked about. Kenai Fjords Tours is the only tour boat that visits Northwestern Fjord, the farthest and wildest fjord in the area. Sometimes weather makes the trip impossible, but today, the captain goes for it.
It’s 11 a.m. when we spot our first orcas (killer whales), their triangular-shaped dorsal fins standing tall. Orcas, the largest members of the dolphin family, are a
matriarchy, with females directing where the pod goes. This group of several females, distinctive by their smaller, swept-back dorsal fins, swims near the Explorer with their offspring. Three big males swim farther out, their tall dorsal fins looking like black sails.
After negotiating stomach-churning, 4-foot waves around Aialik Cape, we turn into Northwestern Fjord and calmer waters. We munch on chicken sandwiches and Lindstrom tells us Northwestern is one of the most pristine fjords in the state — having been visited by only 250,000 people. It’s humbling to think we’re two of that small number.
Steep snowcapped rock laced with thousand-foot waterfalls lines both sides of the fjord. Icebergs, some the size of shoeboxes, others icy semi-trucks, float silently in the steely water. On some, harbor seals with pups haul up for rest and protection from predators. The only sounds are the rumbling of the waterfalls and the occasional cries of gulls wheeling overhead.
As Lindstrom navigates slowly to the massive glacier’s face, a thunderous crack rips the air and a colossal chunk of the ice tears (calves) from the wall sending spray 50 feet into the air and shockwaves that rock the hull. Then he noses the bow within a few feet of Cataract Cove’s 1,000-foot granite wall and its cascading waterfalls and we scramble out into the spray to grab photos.
On our return, we’re tired and feeling satisfied when the captain calls out, “Whales on left.”
A pair of massive humpbacks rolls on their sides, slapping the water with barnacled, 15-foot pectoral fins. We are so close we can hear their smacking and blowing. They turn and dive together, showing us their wide tails.
Suddenly, the two leviathans simultaneously leap out of the water, their huge bodies arching high before crashing back into the waves, sending a giant cascade of water skyward. It’s a fitting end to our time in Seward.
On To Homer: End of the Road
We’ve loved the little fishing village of Seward, but the end-of-the-road has a lure like no other. And the village of Homer, Alaska, at the end of Alaska’s Highway 1, calls us to one of the westernmost
edges of America.
We leave Seward, heading north, and, at the Homer Junction, turn west onto the Sterling Highway (we’re still on Highway 1, but they also name highways). At 131 miles from Homer, we encounter a summer constant in Alaska — road construction. However, views of serene Kenai Lake and the Kenai River keep our minds off road flaggers and the stretches of chewed up pavement.
We’re soon out of the work areas and cruising at 60 mph. In swampy, tundra areas, many of the evergreens and aspens are stunted, forming strange dwarf forests. This is glacial country, and in many places, the thin topsoil and cold winter temperatures make survival difficult and create these miniature treescapes.
We pass through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Seeing a sign that this roadway has the highest vehicle/moose collision rate in the state causes us to ease off the gas. Through breaks in the trees, we get glimpses of the massive mountains across Cook Inlet. Then, as if the moose sign were a premonition, we spot a big cow moose grazing contentedly along the roadside.
There are plenty of inviting RV parks along the Sterling, but we’re eager to get to Homer so we press on. We come to the little town of Sterling and then Soldotna, the last “real” town before Homer.
Soldotna offers everything from Starbucks to Fred Meyer, and with less expensive gasoline, it’s a good place to fill up.
From Soldotna south, we’re following the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula, and at Clam Gulch, we get our first sweeping view of the inlet — endless deep-blue water edged by craggy, snowy mountains.
Russians played a big role in the settlement of the Kenai Peninsula and we begin to see places with Russian names — Kalifornsky Beach Road, Kasilof Riverview, and Ninilchik, a popular fishing village and home to an old Russian Orthodox Church. There are plenty of RV parks offering scenic views of the water, but we’ve got reservations in Homer so we keep going.
At Homer Hill, we pull into the turnout and are greeted by the sign “Homer, Alaska, Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.” From here, we can see the town, the Kenai coastline, Homer Spit, and the snowcapped Alaska Range across Cook Inlet.
Homer Spit is a narrow ribbon of sand extending 4.5 miles into Kachemak Bay. It’s home to Homer Port & Harbor, a busy marina serving 1,500 commercial and pleasure boats during the summer. The Spit is also filled with hotels, restaurants and plenty of tour operators offering everything from whale watching to fishing excursions. We pass a couple of RV parks on the beach, one rustic and another with full services, and wish we’d booked a beach site. But when we get out of the rig and feel the chilly wind blowing across the Spit, we quickly change our opinion.
Back in town, we check out Pratt Museum, a surprisingly sophisticated exhibition of Native American artifacts, fishing vessels, homesteader history and geologic wonders. Especially poignant is “Lost
and Found,” a display about local fishermen who died — or survived — harrowing accidents at sea.
Then we head over to the Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center, headquarters for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Center, and its free exhibit and video on the area’s shorebirds and estuaries. Outside, we walk along Beluga Slough Trail, a raised boardwalk that extends into the wetlands. Suddenly, the air fills with honks and quacks as dozens of ducks and Canada geese take to the air. A moment later, an eagle, the source of the commotion, glides silently overhead.
The trail leads us to Bishop’s Beach on Kachemak Bay, a favorite place for walking dogs. We stroll the sand, collecting a few rocks and chunks of shiny black coal that naturally occur in the Cook Inlet coal beds.
Our home for the night is Oceanview RV Park, a family-owned campground with level gravel sites, full services, a well-stocked gift shop and awe-inspiring views of the water. We snug in and sit outside our motorhome watching eagles dive from the cliffs to the water below.
Just for the Halibut
At 6 a.m., we’re back on the Spit to join Captains JR and Sean of North Country Halibut Charters for a half day of halibut fishing. Sixteen of us crowd into the cabin of the 54-foot Irish for the 90-minute trip to the fishing grounds. The captains and deckhand Daniel position us around the boat, bait our lines and we start fishing. My line is in the water less than a minute before there’s a telltale tug and I start reeling.
Before long, everyone is yelling, “Color” (the fishermen’s term for “fish on”) and reeling like crazy. JR, Sean and Daniel hustle from person to person, unhooking fish and re-baiting hooks. The halibut don’t have a lot of fight. However, because they’re flat, pulling them up is like dragging a piece of plywood through the water and my arms burn with the effort.
The halibut we’re catching are “chickens,” averaging 3 to 5 pounds. While small, they’re the best tasting. Our limit is two per person and, at this rate, we could limit quickly. Instead, we toss back the fish unharmed, hoping for a larger one, and the fish keep biting. By 10 a.m., it’s all over. The fish hold is full and my arms are weary. As our boat churns back toward the harbor, we sit with silly grins on our faces talking about eating halibut for dinner and how Kenai Peninsula is as delicious as it is beautiful.
For More Information
Alaska Motorhome Rentals
800-323-5757 | www.bestofalaskatravel.com/alaska_motorhome_rentals/alaska_motorhome.htm
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
907-783-2025 | www.alaskawildlife.org
Kenai Fjords Tours
877-777-4051 | www.kenaifjords.com
North Country Halibut Charters
Oceanview RV Park
907-235-3951 | www.oceanview-rv.com
Seward Chamber of Commerce
907-224-8051 | www.sewardchamber.org
Stoney Creek RV Park
877-437-6366 | www.stoneycreekrvpark.com
907-257-2363 | www.anchorage.net