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Changes on the Kenai

Posted: August 8, 2013 - 4:11pm

While rummaging through a stack of old file folders the other day, I came across some newspaper clippings about the Kenai River. Reading them had me alternately wanting to laugh and cry.

In the early 1970s, according to those 40-year-old clippings, we were “drifting” for king salmon with Cherry Drifters, and trolling for kings with Hot Shots and Tadpollys. Guides could fish 24/7, and they were so few, I knew them all. The pipeline boom was in full boom. People who had never had “discretionary” income were buying boats, motors and cabins on the Kenai.

The ’70s were wild times on the Kenai. Anything went. There were no speed or horsepower limits, and few rules of any kind. Like ham goes with eggs, booze went with fishing. In Soldotna, some yahoo used to run an air boat up and down the river in the wee hours of the morning, waking up everyone who lived along the river. One fishing guide ran his inboard jet-powered sled from Sterling to Cooper Landing on the Kenai River — yes, through Skilak Lake and the Kenai Canyon rapids — just to have lunch at Gwin’s. Contractors drove bulldozers into the riverbed to gouge out boat launches and create “canals” for recreational subdivisions.

By the early 1980s, you had to be crazy to be on the lower Kenai in July during the peak of the king run. Blue exhaust smoke hung over popular holes like fog. To fish in the heavy boat traffic while rocking in the wakes of the big, heavy boats running up and down the river, you had to be both skillful and foolhardy.

On May 17, 1985, in the midst of all the other craziness, Soldotna resident Les Anderson caught a 97 ¼-pound king salmon, a new all-tackle world record in the IGFA book. The big fish put Soldotna on the map and generated more frantic activity on and along the Kenai River.

Those of us who had seen the Kenai change from pleasant to nightmarish finally decided we’d had enough. We started political wheels rolling. In 1985, the State Legislature made the Kenai River the state’s first Special Management Area, effectively turning it into a State Park. The act that created the Kenai River Special Management Area created a board to advise the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources on what to include in a comprehensive management plan for the river.

By far the most controversial measure this board ever addressed was a horsepower limit for boats. Limiting horsepower was huge. Most people who owned boats with “large” engines were against any limit that would force them to buy a new motor — and possibly a new boat. It’s hard to say which was louder: the howl of a V-8 powered jet boat at full throttle, or the howl of that boat’s owner when he was told he might not be able to use his boat on the Kenai anymore.

I was a strong proponent of a horsepower limit, and reading the old newspaper clippings brought back feelings of fear, hope and anguish. In the Clarion (Sept. 19, 1985), reporter Polly Crawford wrote that fishing guide Harry Gaines was the only member of the river advisory board who opposed a 35-horsepower limit, the main intent of which was to make the river safer. Gaines stated that such a limit would “result in the collapse of the tourist industry if implemented next season.”

Despite Gaines’ dire warning, a regulation limiting boats to 35 horsepower became effective in 1987. More than half of the boat owners who used the Kenai ended up having to buy new motors. Many had trouble selling their “old” motors and boats. In order to sell a friend’s almost-new outboard jet-powered boat, I had to tow it to Fairbanks.

Gaines turned out to be wrong about a horsepower limit causing the tourist industry to collapse. People continued to flock to the Kenai in increasing numbers. Gaines died in 1991, so he missed out on what happened in 2008, when State Parks changed the horsepower limit back to 50, banned most two-stroke outboards from the river and restricted the length and width of boats.

If anyone wants my old newspaper clippings, let me know soon, or they’re in the trash. They remind me of times I’d rather forget.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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