Kenai: Where the river ends and your adventure begins

Posted: Friday, February 09, 2007

With the ebb and flow of Cook Inlet’s tides where the world famous Kenai River drainage ends, a rich cultural environment tied to the indigenous Dena’ina Athabascan Indians and early Russian fur traders, and a myriad of opportunities for visitors in any season, Kenai is the perfect place to start your Alaska vacation.

The exact derivation of the name “Kenai” is unclear. The Dena’ina Athabascan Indians are the indigenous people of the area. In the Dena’ina language, “Ken” translates into “big flat.” “Ken’ey” means two big flats and river cut-back, and the word “ken’e” represents trees and brush grown in a swampy marsh. Any one of these terms may been the root or origin for the name of Kenai.

The cultural influences of past inhabitants are reflected in the architecture of the buildings in Historic Old Town Kenai, most predominantly the Holy Assumption of Our Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church. This National Historic Landmark is located across from the Parish House and Fort Kenay, a replica of the Russian Orthodox School of 1900, built in 1967 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Elsewhere in Old Town Kenai is the Civic League Building, old Kenai Jail (located in the Fine Arts Center) and numerous homesteader cabins, some of which house local businesses.

Kenai’s historic Old Town district overlooks the mouth of the Kenai River, where each summer the returning salmon attract anglers from Alaska and beyond. In July visitors can watch Alaskans dipnet, while commercial fishers travel between the processing plants and the fishing grounds of Cook Inlet. Erik Hansen Scout Park is a perfect spot on the bluff for relaxing and enjoying these views. Below these bluffs are miles of sandy beaches, perfect for strolling along Cook Inlet while watching for wildlife, or simply admiring the view of three active volcanoes (Iliamna, Redoubt and Spurr).

Visitors can enjoy walking tours of Old Town using a tour map available at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, at the corner of the Kenai Spur Highway and Main Street Loop. The center, the gateway to Old Town and the Kenai Peninsula, is home to historic, cultural and natural history exhibits about Kenai and its people and wildlife.

Lectures by local experts are held throughout the summer and feature such topics as wildlife viewing, Native Youth Olympics, monthly concerts by Alaska’s Hobo Jim and air rocketry workshop sponsored by the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska. If you are interested in participating in a Mission to Mars at the Challenger Center, sign up for weekday space missions at the Kenai Visitors & Cultural Center. These missions require a minimum of 14 participants so be prepared to make new friends during your visit to Kenai. Or sign the kids up for one of the summer camps available at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska.

Your fishing trip on the Kenai River can begin from Cunningham Park on Beaver Loop Road. Les Anderson, the king salmon world record holder, began his unforgettable fishing trip from this area back in 1985. While bank fishing is available from Cunningham Park, to try and beat Les’ record and harvest a king salmon, you will need to fish with a guide from a boat. King salmon travel near the middle of the river instead of along the banks like red salmon.

No doubt seeing wildlife was high on your list when considering your trip to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, and the Kenai area offers one of the best places to see the Kenai’s lowland Caribou herd. Ask the staff at the Kenai Visitors & Cultural Center for directions to recent wildlife and bird sightings.

Past Beaver Loop Road following Bridge Access Road, the Kenai River flats offers great shorebird viewing. The pullout along the highway has a boardwalk and showcases stunning views of the mouth of the Kenai River and snowcapped peaks across the shores of Cook Inlet.

Just across the mouth of the river, Kenai Landing is steeped in 90 years of Alaska history. A vibrant waterfront resort community surrounded by wildlife and natural beauty, arts and entertainment thrive within this historic waterfront development. Accessed from Cannery Loop Road off Kaliforniski Beach Road, you will find a full service restaurant, lodging, theater, boat launch, outdoor pavilion, waterfront promenade and docking facilities, as well as an indoor warehouse market featuring over 25 shops with local crafts, clothing, arts and food.

Countless other recreational opportunities abound in Kenai. The city has its own baseball team, the Peninsula Oilers, an elite collegiate summer team. The Oilers, as they are known locally, have had 18 former players drafted in the first round of the major leagues. Only Alaska summers offer night games without any artificial lighting. And where else can you play 18-holes of golf where the moose and caribou play through? The Kenai Golf Course is known for its beautiful scenery, wildlife and challenging layout.

If maintaining your exercise routine is first on your mind, the Kenai Recreation Center on Caviar Street offers weight lifting, racquetball, basketball and volleyball.

In terms of accessibility, Kenai is the jewel of the peninsula. A short commuter flight from the hustle and bustle of Anchorage, and you are on your way to the vacation you have been waiting for. You will appreciate the ability to easily access your rental car and be on your way. From Kenai you can explore Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Whether it is traveling the scenic byways on your own, or chartering a breathtaking trip with one of the many air taxi flightseeing tours, you are in for an unforgettable experience.F

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