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Winter paddlers find Kenai River peaceful and serene

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2001

COOPER LANDING (AP) -- From the parking lot just off the Sterling Highway near the Kenai River bridge, the path to the water on a cold November day is more luge run than boat ramp, but Jack Mosby is not about to let that stand in his way.

''Looks like there might be a little skiing to start,'' he jokes.

Just beyond the edge of the ice, the river still runs fast and free despite the late season and wintery weather. And open water is all the invitation this year-round paddler needs.

From years of experience, Mosby knows that even when the temperature dips below freezing, the state's most popular stream still offers a great float.

''No mosquitoes,'' jokes paddling companion Michel Villon of Anchorage.

No tourists, either. No other boats. No anglers. No float planes flying overhead. Not even much traffic on the Sterling Highway as it courses along the river from the bridge to Jim's Landing downstream.

All of the business that has come to be the Kenai in the summers of the past decade is in hibernation. Even many of the homes that dot the short stretch of private land along the river in this community are boarded up for the season.

''I'm always kind of amazed people don't come down and use these houses in the winter,'' Mosby says as he floats past.

It is something of a wonder. The river is so peaceful in the winter, the wildlife so much more watchable. With the leaves gone, moose are easier to spot. The snow records the telltale tracks of coyotes along the river banks and, with luck, a wolf. The white heads of mature bald eagles dot the trees in dozens of places. The sticks and mud of the eagles' summer nests -- structures much like those the robins build multiplied a thousand times -- cling to starkly naked branches near the tops of towering cottonwood trees.

A boater can float the river every day in July and never notice these nests. Now, it is impossible to miss them. The eagles are impossible to miss, too, both the old and the young, with their heads still brown or mottled as their plumage begins to mark their years.

They gather along the river to feed on the decaying carcasses of the salmon that plugged the Kenai this summer, or to grab an occasional golden-eye, mallard or merganser duck making a try at overwintering here. The mallards gather in nervous flocks along the river banks. Golden-eyes and mergansers can be found bobbing along on the current almost anywhere.

The current itself is a fraction of the swift summer flow. That makes it a good time to canoe, Mosby notes. The Kenai is a much friendlier stream in the winter than in the summer when glacial melt keeps even the smooth-flowing water rushing toward Cook Inlet at several miles per hour.

Throw in small standing waves and splashes when the river gets rougher, and this river can look pretty intimidating to inexperienced canoeists. Sporting only Class I and a few Class II waves, this stretch of the river from the Kenai bridge to Jim's Landing near the entrance to the Skilak Loop Road can be run by canoe in the summer, but the water moves at a speed that often proves disconcerting for the inexperienced.

In summer, the river often appears to be running at some sort of flood stage. In November, the flow is slower, easier, almost placid in places.

The only problem: ice.

River running, even in Alaska, doesn't usually involve dealing with ice-coated banks. There might be a little shore-fast ice in the spring but not dangerous ice-coated banks that can make getting into or out of the water tricky.

Worse yet, when the weather gets truly cold, the nature of the river changes.

''At about 15 degrees,'' Mosby said, ''you start getting slush.''

Paddling through slush is more chore than pleasure. Thus Mosby tries to time his float trips to coincide with warmer temperatures.

''I just kind of watch the weather,'' he said. ''If it's above 20, I usually go. Hopefully, there'll be a little bit of sunshine.''

Mosby is a longtime paddler, the co-author with Dave Dapkus of the ''Alaska Paddling Guide,'' and the soon-to-retire program manager for the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program in Alaska. He has been floating the winter Kenai for several years.

''Every month I usually try to get out (on the water) someplace,'' he said. ''We just sort of started pushing the season down here. Let's go down and give it a try.''

What Mosby came to discover was that floating the Kenai in the winter is -- with proper dress and preparation -- every bit as enjoyable as floating the Kenai in the summer. In some ways, more so.

One year, he said, he was paddling with a group that drifted upon a herd of 20 to 25 moose browsing along the riverbank downstream from where the Russian River joins the Kenai.

And last year was unique in that temperatures stayed so mild that the still water of Skilak Lake never froze. Mosby, who loves being on the water in some sort of muscle-powered craft, could hardly have asked for more. This year, November started off as something of a replay of last year.

When Mosby and Villon were on the Kenai in mid-November, the temperature was near 35 degrees. Snow blanketed the mountains that tower over the greenish water, but the snow was gone or fast disappearing along the riverbanks.

''It's a lot warmer than I thought it might be,'' Mosby said. ''It turned into a pretty nice day.''

''I thought I'd freeze my tail all day long,'' Villon said.

Nobody froze anything. In fact, the float was so pleasant that the members of the Knik Kanoers and Kayakers who missed out would have had every reason to be envious.

Mosby, who regularly promotes his Kenai trips among paddling club members, said he has sometimes had as many as 20 people wanting to make the Kenai excursion.

But this time, his e-mail message got only two takers -- Villon and a woman from Seward. Only Villon showed up.

''It's pretty dependent on the weather,'' Mosby said. ''A lot of time people in Anchorage look at the weather there and think it will be the same (here).''

Often, he noted, it's just the opposite. If it's clear in Anchorage, it might well be raining in Cooper Landing. If it's raining in Anchorage, it might well be because the city is getting the weather system that already moved across the Kenai.

Mosby has seen gorgeous weather on the Kenai when no one else has shown up to paddle because Anchorage's weather was awful. But there are other times when the weather on the Kenai has been every bit as bad as the weather in Anchorage.

He remembers one trip in which some floaters got only a couple miles downstream from the Kenai Lake put-in before pulling out across the highway from Gwin's Roadhouse, a popular area bar and restaurant.

Easy access to civilization is one of the niceties of the upper Kenai. Pavement is never far away, making it easy to bail out if a try at winter paddling goes unbearably frigid. Not that this activity has to be cold.

''Bring lots of warm clothes'' is Mosby's simple advice.

With enough insulation and a good attitude, almost anyone can join the ranks of Alaska's year-round paddlers.

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