It isn't the glittery tourist-filled beach of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean or the South Pacific, but Cook Inlet's shores know how to attract crowds.
And not just weekends crowds. Once these visitors get a whiff of the salt air, they keep coming back.
Simeon and Lillian Beeson, of Whitney, Texas, said they always wanted to see Alaska. After Simeon saw an advertisement for Alaska State Park hosts in a magazine published by the Good Sam Club, the couple's dream came true.
"We called and here we are," said Simeon, who is retired from a 33-year career managing Safeway warehouses across the United States.
Spending time in their 1999 40-foot American Dream motor home isn't a new experience.
"It has 41,000 miles on it," Simeon said. "We've been all over the country."
Putting it in perspective, Lillian said, "This is a lot better than the tent we camped in with four kids for years."
What was a new experience, however, was the snow they encountered this spring after driving the Alaska Highway and entering Alaska. It sidelined them in Tok for a couple of days, but by May 11, they had reported to their first assignment at Clam Gulch State Recreation Area.
A short walk from the beach, the Beesons settled into a space at the entrance to the campground. As overseers of the 116 campsites, the couple did some quick homework so they could pass along their knowledge of the area to visiting campers.
Specifically, they became familiar with the activity for which Clam Gulch is famous -- digging razor clams. The couple learned the trick of getting the fast-moving critters out of the sand and into a bucket. Within days, they sounded like experts.
Remembering two fellows they had seen digging for clams with a flower scoop, Simeon said, "I laughed at those guys."
The Beesons have enjoyed meeting people from all over the world, including a bicyclist from New Zealand who happened to ride into their campground.
What these two Texans took seriously were their responsibilities as park hosts, including collecting overnight fees from guests.
"It can be a zoo around here," Simeon said of times when the campground was full.
But he was committed to the campground's success and making it a pleasant stay for campers.
Simeon and Lillian Beeson of Whitney, Texas, have always wanted to come to Alaska. The couple made that dream come true when they became camp hosts for Alaska State Parks, first at Clam Gulch State Recreation Area, then at Deep Creek in Ninilchik.
Completing their assignment at Clam Gulch, the Beesons were transferred to Deep Creek State Recreation Area. Finding themselves within a few feet of Cook Inlet's surf, they adjusted to the constant wind and unending amounts of sand tracked into their home on wheels.
Using the Jeep Cherokee they tow behind the motor home, the Beesons are able to get out and about and experience more of the country they always wanted to see. It also allows Simeon to sneak up to the Kasilof River to fish.
"It keeps him out of my hair," Lillian said.
Today, the Beesons complete their tour as park hosts.
"We just scoped it out this year," Simeon said. "We'll be back next year."
Kate Kaniff, of Washington Island, Wis., was offered an opportunity five years ago to spend the summer commercial fishing on Cook Inlet with her brother-in-law Mike Ranguette.
"Of course, I accepted," Kaniff, 35, said. "I had been wanting to come up here forever."
She has spent every summer since then fishing on the inlet and camping near the mouth of Kasilof River. Her summer quarters are a North Face dome tent pitched near a smokehouse.
"The guys try to scare me, telling me bears are going to raid the smokehouse," Kaniff said, laughing.
She reported seeing moose in the area and bears not too far away.
Of her on-board duties, she said she pitches fish, cleans and cooks.
"But I'm not too good at picking fish out of the net yet," she said.
Her winter home is on an island in Lake Michigan, so Kaniff is no stranger to the ways of water.
"On Lake Michigan the swells are close together," she said, comparing that to the inlet's rolling swells.
However, in five years she has learned that the inlet isn't always consistent.
Beachcomber Motel and RV Park owners Philip and Dee Hollevoet - with Andy the dog - spend an afternoon on Ninilchik beach with Kay Lemont, Kenny and Peggy Griffen and Betty and Lowell Ashe. The group of friends has documented their memories with a collection of photos. The Hollevoets, who have owned the Beachcomber for five years, have kept a photo journal of the years in a scrapbook.
"Yesterday, it was all mixed up," she said earlier this month.
During her time in Alaska, Kaniff has panned for gold in Hope, toured Resurrection Bay, visited Homer and hunted for moose and bear in some remote locations.
Of last year's successful one moose, three bear hunt, she said, "I shot everything we got -- with my camera."
By profession, she's a haircutter who had her own shop in Chicago for 13 years and now has her own business on Washington Island. Traveling, camping and hiking are second nature to her.
Besides Alaska, she's spent time in Washington, California, Montana, Wisconsin and Michi-gan and traveled to Jamaica, Mexico, Canada, Ireland, France and Switzerland.
However, Cook Inlet has worked its way into Kaniff's blood and she has seriously considered relocating. In fact, last year she said she was prepared to winter at the mouth of Kasilof River. Although a call from a friend in Ireland changed her plans, Kaniff hasn't given up on the idea.
"I'm the luckiest girl I know," said Kaniff, adding, "I'll be back again next summer."
It isn't just out-of-state people who are drawn to Cook Inlet. Kaniff has met Tanya Liston of Anchorage, who is employed for Cook Inlet Processing's operation, near Kaniff's campsite.
In 1987, Liston's husband was killed during a storm that came up when he was fishing a halibut opening off Kodiak.
"I had to choose to either get on the boat or give it up," Liston said of the decision she faced after his death.
She chose to get on board.
This year Liston has found herself "single again," with her two children, ages 18 and 21, leaving home. But fishing is a way of life for her and, although she has someone else running her boat, she's not ready to give up the connection.
"I'm working the slime line," Liston said of her job with Cook Inlet Processing.
On the beach at Ninilchik, a community within a community has formed, cemented by the years together and experiences shared. This group of friends spends their summers on Ninilchik Spit, a narrow strip of land between the Ninilchik River and the inlet's waves.
Their motor homes and small mobile homes, parked within a few feet of each other, are familiar sights at the Beachcomber Motel and RV Park owned by Philip and Dee Hollevoet and guarded by Hollevoet's dog Andy.
Kat Kaniff's home away from home for the past five summers has been a North Face tent at the mouth of the Kasilof River near a smokehouse. "The guys try to scare me, telling me bears are going to raid the smokehouse".
Kay Lemont of St. Cloud. Minn., first came to the area in 1982, was back again in 1985 and now has family in the area and returns every summer.
Lowell and Betty Ashe of Grass Valley, Calif., began spending the summers here in 1984.
Bob and Thelma Ramsey of northern California and Kenneth and Peggy Griffin of Elkton, Fla., arrived on the scene 13 years ago.
"We went to Homer, but it was so crowded. We couldn't get out of there quick enough," said Thelma Ramsey. Referring to the view of the inlet and the opportunities to fish, she added, "This is an ideal place."
The Griffins also were headed to Homer.
"We saw this place from the highway," Peggy Griffin said. "I like the water, so Homer took second place."
There's also something else about the location that she's discovered.
"There's no mosquitoes," she said, appreciative of the inlet breeze that drives the stinging pests away.
Lowell and Betty Ashe fished with friends in Crescent City, Calif., but then lost contact with them for 10 years.
"Then we got a card with a photo of her with a 35-pound king salmon," Betty Ashe remembered. The salmon had been caught in Ninilchik. "The next week we started looking for a motor home."
After 16 years, Ashe described her summer home as "heaven on Earth."
Eager to get settled, some of the group got more than they bargained for this year with late spring snowfalls.
"Water pipes froze and had to be replaced," Philip Hollevoet said.
The bunch took it all in stride.
"We're snowbirds," Thelma Ramsey said, laughing.
Over the course of time, the little skiffs they once kept anchored in the river behind their summer quarters have given way to bigger boats. Their temporary residences have taken on a more permanent look, with vehicles parked nearby. Some put their summer homes in storage during the winter and fly back and forth to Alaska. But come summer, they're back like clockwork.
"Everyone has a favorite spot," Ramsey said.
The Hollevoets occasionally host potlucks and everyone brings a favorite dish. In 1997, they all celebrated the Griffins' 50 years of marriage with an outdoor gathering. Last year, Ashe surprised her husband by flying family members up to celebrate his 80th birthday. She admitted being concerned the surprise might be a big shock for him.
"I just prayed, 'Dear Lord, please don't let him have a heart attack,'" she said.
They also tell stories about others they've met over the years.
"There was one man from Canada who fished with a rubber boat. He used to tie himself to the boat so he wouldn't fall out," Griffin said, shaking her head.
Ashe makes it a point to be involved in the Ninilchik Com-munity Ambulance Association's annual Memorial Day pancake breakfast.
"After my husband's boat tipped over at Deep Creek, the ambulance crew checked him out," she said. "I'll never forget that. Helping with the breakfast is the least I can do."
Others in the group help support the event by dropping in for pancakes. And the resident sea gulls know a soft touch when they see one.
"I've probably been feeding them for eight years," Ashe confessed.
The group of friends has documented their memories with a collection of photos. Griffin recently snapped one of a bald eagle sitting on the nearby "no parking sign." The Hollevoets, who have owned the Beachcomber for five years, have kept a photo journal of the years in a scrapbook.
Their skill at fishing has improved and the size of the fish they've caught has grown, as evidenced by Bob Ramsey's 150-pound halibut caught in June.
"That's the biggest this year," Betty Ramsey said. "But the season isn't over yet."
Her comment mirrored some good-natured competition.
"Don't leave me home when the fish are running," Griffin threatened.
Fishing is definitely the main event, but it is also the source of a more sobering memory. It was while fishing on Cook Inlet that Lemont's husband died several years ago. Fishing with a "buddy system" has since become a requirement so no one is out on the water alone.
"We're like a close-knit family," Ashe said.
"It's just like coming home. I never think of going anywhere else."
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