What about the people?: Kenai River should be for more than just fishing

Voices Of The Clarion

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2007

"Why can't we take a walk along the Kenai River?"

I, at first, misinterpreted the question, posed by my girlfriend, as we looked to take a stroll last week after a nice dinner of baked salmon, garlic rice, steamed asparagus and root beer floats.

We already had been over all the usual candidates for a walk the beach, Tsalteshi Trails and the trails behind the headquarters of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

When she first asked the question my brain, robbed of all blood by the stomach, went into a Homer Simpson-esque mini conversation.

"Take a walk on the Kenai River. What a great idea!"

"Hey, wait a minute. There are no trails in the Kenai-Soldotna area that make use of the Kenai River. We'd have to drive over 45 minutes to find such a trail."

"D'oh!"

Then I realized what she was getting at. Why are there no trails in the immediate area that make use of the Kenai River?

Earlier this summer, the route for the Run for the River, organized by the Kenai Watershed Forum, changed in order to make better use of the river. Good luck with that one. I photographed the event, and had a 50-foot window of opportunity to get runners with the river in the background. And one of the races was 10 miles long.

Sure, boatless folks can access the river in brief chunks at fishing parks and restaurants. But nowhere in the Kenai-Soldotna area has any major civic project been done showcasing and providing access to the river other than a few fishing platforms and small parks.

This is different from southeastern Wisconsin, where I grew up. There, the centerpiece attraction is Lake Michigan, and communities go out of their way to make sure the lake is showcased. In Sheboygan, folks love walking or biking the sidewalk that runs a few miles along the lake. The sidewalk ends at a harbor and park, where festivals and the Coho Derby are held.

Downtown Milwaukee, where I went to college, had the same idea. On my frequent runs after class, I would escape from downtown to the lakefront, which had a nice sidewalk running along the lake for miles and crossing features like the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Summerfest Grounds, packed with partygoers nearly every weekend during the summer.

It's the same deal in Chicago, where Millennium Park is the crown jewel of the city's plan of keeping the central lakefront area public.

My girlfriend went to college in Spokane, Wash. She said the Spokane River is nothing special, especially when compared to the Kenai River, but that city nonetheless has made that river a centerpiece, with miles of paths winding along its shores and a massive municipal park in the heart of downtown that even boasts a gondola ride over the river.

The cities of Kenai and Soldotna have done no such civic planning revolving around the Kenai River, harming residents and visitors.

As residents, the Kenai River and its fish are a large part of our culture and history. Yet, since it takes a boat, a guide's fee or a honking big down payment to get on the river, I think of the river more as a private, exclusive entity than a public entity.

As for visitors, check out the brief mention David Laskin gave the central peninsula in a New York Times travel piece on a Kenai Peninsula road trip this summer. Mind you, this is all he said about the area in the entire article.

"But first we made a wet backtrack through Cooper Landing and then a long trek south through a series of cheerless lowland outposts hawking antler carvings, knives, 'show girls'' and soft ice cream. The first picturesque thing we came to was the old Transfiguration of Our Lord Russian Orthodox Church on a rise above the village of Ninilchik."

Many people were ticked off at this perceived slight, but I can't blame the guy. If he looked down to grab his cup of coffee going through Soldotna, he probably missed the Kenai River. We have a beautiful diamond necklace we all but hide under a crusty old flannel shirt.

The Kenai River annually gets tons of government scrutiny and has gobs of laws, regulations and enforcement to ensure the health of the river and the fish in it. I'm all for that. But what about doing something more for the people, including those who don't fish, that live around and visit the river?

Jeff Helminiak is the sports editor at the Clarion, He can be reached at jeff.helminiak@peninsulaclarion.com.



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