If the central Kenai Peninsula is the heart of the peninsula, the gray-green Kenai River is its lifeblood.
The Kenai officially starts at the outlet of 24-mile-long Kenai Lake, at Cooper Landing. From there until it enters Skilak Lake, 17 miles downstream, it's mostly swift, Class II water.
Usually called the "upper" river, this section is partly Chugach National Forest, partly Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and mainly undeveloped. It's famous for superb rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char fishing, "combat" red salmon fishing at the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers and the Class III rapids and first-class scenery of the Kenai Canyon.
At the outlet of 15-mile-long Skilak Lake, the river flows another 50 miles before entering Cook Inlet, at Kenai. The river is slower, here, dropping only about 4 feet per mile. Almost 70 percent of the land along this section is privately owned, with homes, cabins and lodges lining the banks.
Every year, tens of thousands of anglers come to this part of the river to fish for red, king, pink and silver salmon.
Salmon are what makes the Kenai what it is. After spending a year or more at sea, they return to the river to spawn and die. In dying, they transfer energy from the ocean to land, thereby creating a rich and complex food-web that nourishes the flora and fauna of the watershed.
The salmon nourish hu-mans, too.
In 1999, anglers harvested an estimated 17,000 kings, 32,000 silvers and 201,000 reds. Last July, Alaska residents dip-netted 88,000 reds in the personal-use fishery at the river's mouth.
The river's salmon returns also benefit fishing guides, commercial fishers, fish processing firms and hundreds of service and retail businesses. Last year, a season of low prices and poor red runs, the ex-vessel value of the commercial fishery attributable to Kenai River reds was about $4 million.
All the activity along the Kenai hasn't come without a price. There are warning signs the river is being "loved to death" -- erosion, water pollution and loss of riparian vegetation, to name a few. But many individuals and organizations are committed to protecting the river and preventing it from becoming another place where salmon no longer return.
Enjoy the Kenai, but please respect it, too. It's the main reason people visit and live in this place.
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