Kenai River connects peninsula

Posted: Saturday, May 27, 2000

The Kenai River is the heart of the central Kenai Peninsula. Culturally, politically and economically, this 80-mile river is the ribbon that laces the land through which it runs.

The story of the Kenai River begins with salmon. It's these protein-rich fish that brought Natives here years ago, and it's these same fish that draw people to its banks today.

Around the world, anglers dream about fishing the Kenai River and a chance at catching a world-record king salmon. Others come to fill ice chests with the abundant sockeye salmon. These anglers spur the Kenai Peninsula's summer tourism economy, filling motels and lodges, hiring fishing guides and eating at area restaurants.

The commercial fishery depends on the salmon, too. Last year, nets in Cook Inlet hauled in 3 million sockeye worth $26 million, the bulk of those fish coming from the Kenai River.

However, the Kenai River means more to the Kenai Peninsula than money.

Biologists are concerned that development and erosion caused by anglers could lead to declining salmon runs.

The wetlands near the mouth of the Kenai River attract geese and ducks on their northern migration, a welcome sign of spring after a long winter.

In the summer, locals celebrate the river at the Kenai River Fest. And tourists aren't the only ones who love to fish. Back-yard barbecues serve grilled salmon fresh from the river from May through September.

Brown bears fatten up on Kenai River salmon in preparation for a long hibernation, while other animals use the river as a natural migratory corridor.

The river shapes where the people of this area live, too. The city of Kenai grew up at the Kenai River's mouth, a natural hub for the commercial fishery. Inland, the city of Soldotna was built on the river's banks, where a sport-fishing economy flourishes. Real estate along the river is some of the most expensive land around.

The river also is a resource that splits the people surrounding it apart.

Sport fishers want more salmon in the river, while commercial fishers want more in their nets. There are few other local debates that stir such passion, and nobody seems to build a bridge between the two sides. The argument pits neighbor against neighbor, community against community.

The river is so popular, that some worry we are loving it to

death. Biologists are concerned that development and erosion caused by anglers could lead to declining salmon runs.

After much debate, the Kenai Peninsula Borough enacted rules limiting development on the banks of the Kenai River several years ago. Sensitive areas have been shut down to bank angling in an effort to limit erosion. In addition, boardwalks are being built along the river where anglers can fish without trampling the river's grassy banks.

The Kenai River winds through and connects the lives of nearly everyone who lives near it.

More information about the Kenai River is available at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center and the Soldotna Visitors Center.

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