Our First Look at the Kenai Peninsula

We were back on a smooth highway again as we drove south from Denali to Fairbanks. The road was wide with a good amount of room for passing many oversized vehicles carrying heavy road construction equipment north. Most of the scenery in the early part of our day was quite stunning but we found long stretches of rather boring forest along the way as well.

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We made a detour to the little town of Talkeetna to find somewhere for lunch. It was a quaint place and full of character. It was also full of elderly tourists as this town is a stopping place for people on the Princess and Celebrity companies extended cruise itineraries. As a regional headquarters for the Alaska Railroad, it is a busy place. So busy, in fact, that we had trouble finding somewhere to park.

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Just before reaching our overnight stop in Anchorage, we passed through the town of Wasilla. This place is famous for two things. One is the seemingly perpetual roadworks along the highway through the town. I get the impression that these works have been going on for a long time and have a further long time before they will be completed. The town has only 7,800 inhabitants, but it sprawls along the highway for around two miles. The second thing of note is that this was the place where Sarah Palin’s political career began. She was Mayor of this city from 1996 to 2002, before becoming Governor of Alaska and then running for Vice President in 2008. She never quite made it to political royalty in the US, but she filled the role of court jester exceptionally well. She is famous for saying that she understood Russia because she could see it from Alaska. I’ve visited Russia twice and I don’t understand it at all. Our earlier train to Fairbanks had stopped at the little station here and blocked the road for some minutes as it took on more passengers.

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Our overnight stop in Anchorage was unremarkable. We stayed at the Historic Anchorage Hotel which was one of the few buildings that survived the disastrous 1964 earthquake. We found out as we were leaving that this building is reputed to be haunted and our room (No 217) is one of the main rooms in which spiritual presences have been felt. The only thing that occurred to us was that the window opened by itself a after I hadn’t closed it properly. Ignorant to all this fame, we had a very good night’s sleep.

Driving to Homer, we travelled along the road following the shore of the Turnagain Arn of the Cook Inlet. There is a very deep 12 metre tide here and we could see the water flowing out as fast as a river would flow (about 7 knots). When out, the tide leaves very dangerous areas of mudflats in which it is easy to be trapped if you walk on them. There are some beautiful views and panoramas here. At one point, three glaciers were visible from the road.

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This wonderful scenery continued for most of the way down the 220 mile long trip to Homer.  

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We made a shot detour to the actual town of Kenai where some of the first European settlement began in Alaska. In the middle of some apartment blocks near the mouth of the Kenai River, we found a little Russian church and chapel. This Holy Assumption Orthodox Church has been an enduring remnant of Russian culture, continuing from America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.  For the local Kenaitze Indians, who are still a significant portion of the population, it was the major institution for the assimilation of western culture when the Russian fur traders first came to the area. Tthe church began the first school on the Kenai Peninsula. It served as a judicial centre, acting as arbiter between the officials of the Russian-American Fur Trading Company and the natives. It also provided the region’s first access to public health with the introduction of smallpox vaccine after the first epidemic decimated the local population.

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Further along, the little town of Ninilchik has an historic area at the mouth of the river. There is another Russian church here on the top of the hill but it isn’t open, so we didn’t bother trying to find our way up to it. The salmon have started running here and the river bank was lined with people fishing. Some of them had been successful as we could see Fish Eagles carrying scraps away to their nests in the trees. At this time, it is King Salmon that are coming up the rivers to spawn here. Later in the season, it will be the Sockeye Salmon.

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Across the Cook Inlet, we could see a chain of very high mountains. These were about 80 kilometres away and are the start of the chain that forms the Aleutian Islands. The larger peaks are active volcanoes. They haven’t had a major eruption for some time but are continually emitting small quantities of steam and ash. They make an impressive backdrop to the Inlet.

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Captain Cook sailed into the this area in 1778 while searching for the Northwest Passage. He had received some maps of Alaska, the Aleutians, and Kamchatka from Russian fur traders and combined these maps with those of his own expedition to create the first Mercator projection of the North Pacific. The inlet was named after him in 1794 by George Vancouver. Turnagain Arm was named by William Bligh of HMS Bounty fame. Bligh had served as Cook’s Sailing Master on his third and final voyage, the aim of which was to discover the Northwest Passage.

One comment

  1. Pamela · ·

    What a sailor and adventurer Captain Cook was his work connecting historically opposite ends of the world! Your descriptions of the little towns you are visiting permit their character to jump off the page Bruce. Photos and dialogue continue to treat those of us who metaphorically travel with you.