By Joann Deutch
Most road warriors who set off for an Alaskan adventure head off to the Denali. My mission – to see the Bering Sea and the Aleutians Islands – took me in the other direction. My route took me from Anchorage to Homer by car, then the Alaska Marine Highway’s passenger ferry to Dutch Harbor. I’d never been to Alaska, so I wanted to see some of the countryside. What’s the rush?
The Kenai Peninsula should not be reserved only for serious fisherman. Most of this area is national park and wildlife refuge lands with very little development and lots of open road and camping. It’s bisected by the Cook Inlet, which comes with lots of great stories. Do you really need a map? There is only one road, the Sterling Highway, officially a National Scenic Byway. I’d jump out of the car to watch salmon spawning in rivers, and once snooped around an old wooden shack with fire hoses running out of the bottom to a nearby creek. I’m still pondering what could have been going on here. Did I mention trekking along the Iditarod Trail?
The “Points of Interest” along the Sterling Highway are noted by their highway “Mile Marker.” Nothing to do with your odometer. Don’t expect signage. Yes, you might have to turn off a few times before you find your destination. Yikes, no Google maps! Yikes, no internet! And, for one section – yikes, no radio!! Go with the flow. It’s a vacation, not a treasure hunt. I just pulled off the road to hike trails with interesting names – sometimes just a board nailed to a pole, or to investigate unfamiliar plants, birds or grazing animals. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you about the anomalies. You’ll just have to keep your eyes peeled.
The distance from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor is 225 miles as the crow flies, but a 4- to 6-plus-hour drive. It went from dense black spruce forests to marshlands with no trees or shrubs. It took me days of planning to decide where to stop on the way. I was on vacation with a loosey-goosey approach to specific destinations. I finally settled on Moose Pass and Clam Gulch. These are census tracks with US post offices, a few motels and lodges but not much more. They are both good jumping off points for a few days of wandering around.
The Sterling Highway runs parallel to the Kenai and Russian rivers, and then along the Cook Inlet. These rivers are known for their salmon, and the salmon runs are hard to miss. The spawning salmon make for easy pickings, all bunched up in bends in the river shallows – it didn’t seem like much of a sport to me.
Time your drive for “bore tides.” People pulled off the road near Girdwood and sat on their truck hoods awaiting the tide’s arrival. I was on the lookout for beluga whales which are known to frolic in the tides but had no such luck. Of course, they’d know when the tides were coming without the ubiquitous tide charts posted on the beaches. The Cook Inlet tides can vary up to 24 feet, commonly swamping boats and beachcombers. The saying “don’t turn you back on the water” is no joke
Moose Pass is named for the ravine running between mountains where moose regularly obstructed postal dogsleds in the old days. Moose Pass is a whistle stop on the Alaska Railway, and I mean whistle stop. A double toot from the train which stops but does not turn off its engines, and whoa! A bunch of tour buses pull up and offload tourists to see Alaska through a bus window. Certainly not my style.
Moose Pass is within lush dense forests of black spruce trees cut through by creeks, lakes and rivers. It’s a great place for serious hikers and mountain bikers. There was evidence of ATVs, but that might be tricky unless you drive to Alaska. Late spring might be the best time when the unmaintained trails are not overgrown. I hiked the mine trails, walked around the lake, sharpened a few knives (you’ll get the joke when you get there), had a good wholesome meal at the Trail Lake Lodge, and yummy ice cream at Estes. There are seaplanes – ask if you can hop on with other passengers. Because of a forest fire, seaplanes were grounded all over “the Kenai” while I was there. The forest fire had been burning since June. My host had assured me it would be out by the time I arrived. Who’da thought?
In fact, I was escorted by pilot trucks through the Swan Lake fire which had reached within 100 feet of the highway. I was part of the last group to make it through Coopers Landing before the road closed to traffic for two days. The fire had turned into a peat fire which means it was traveling though the tree root system, rather than jumping from treetop to treetop. The smoke was heavy. The huge, long-lasting forest fires in Alaska these past few summers are a serious threat to the habitat. Hundreds of miles of mature spruce trees have burned, which will impact the biome.
Along the way you see eagles and ermines; frys jumping out of the water to catch mosquitoes – better them than me! Sadly, salmon die after they spawn. Their pale carcasses are strewn all over the riverbanks to be eaten by predators. Mother Nature can be cruel. Yet the vistas everywhere are truly dazzling.