The Kenai Peninsula is touted as "Alaska's Playground" and that is more than just a marketing slogan, it pretty much sums up a way of life. It isn't just hordes of tourists that come to the Kenai, though there is that, it is also where Alaskans come for fishing, recreation and summer celebrations.
Playing on the Kenai can be a real budget-buster. If you have unlimited money, there are an unlimited number of activities from which to choose. When funds are more modest, selections have to be pared down. It isn't easy to do, though. It all sounds fun! We scheduled our tours and sight-seeing adventures for after the Fourth of July holiday because our son Zac was due to arrive from Seattle for an 8-day stay to celebrate his 21st birthday. We picked him up from the airport in Anchorage at noon on the 6th and didn't slow down until we dropped him off on the 13th.
On our way to the airport we came across a Momma Moose wrangling two babies across a fast-flowing river. What a chore! She was headed to the river bank with the two of them when one suddenly got swept away by the current. The baby finally got up on a sandbar, but Momma went in after him, leaving the other on the shore. But soon enough, the baby on the shore started following Momma and he started drifting down river. OMG, the drama! We had to leave before we saw how this episode played out, but even though it was a fast-flowing river, it wasn't too deep, and there were sandbars everywhere. So we assume - and choose to believe - that Momma Moose finally wrangled her babies to shore.
Momma Moose and her two babies heading for the other side of the river.
It is getting a little deep here, both babies working hard to follow their Momma.
Momma! Help me!
Finally, a sandbar. But when Momma came, the baby on shore went into the river and floated away in the current.
For our first activity with Zac, we booked a 4.5 hour wildlife cruise with Kenai Fjord Tours. Since we had already done a glacier tour in Valdez, we figured this would be a nice way to fill in the gaps of anything we might have missed. The length of the tour was perfect, because the tour out of Valdez was nearly 7 hours long and most people were asleep for the last two hours of it. It's the Dramamine and the drone of the engine that knocks people out. So I thought 4.5 hours was a perfect length. The tour also included a prime rib and grilled salmon lunch at a lodge on Fox Island, which, to be honest, I thought was going to be mediocre at best. I was totally wrong! We all agreed it was super delicious!
But it was the wildlife that really made this trip memorable, because you know when the captain and crew get out their cameras, something really special is going on. According to our captain, we should all go out and buy lottery tickets because we pretty much hit the jackpot on our tour. Maybe he says that to every crowd on his boat, but he was pretty excited. Most days on these cruises you will see otters, puffins, sea lions, a distant whale spout or two, maybe one feeding close to shore if you're lucky. The occasional sightings, such as orcas, add to the success of the day. We saw all that, up close and personal, but then went on to witness one of the most coveted sights of all - a group of humpback whales bubble net feeding. The whales blow bubbles driving all the fish to the surface, then they simultaneously bob nose up in the water, mouths wide open, tongues hanging out, all in an effort to take in as many fish as possible. It was amazing to watch! Did you know a humpback whale's tongue can weight two tons? I guess proportionately that's not a lot, but seriously, two tons!
Sea Otters. Hands down the cutest critters in the sea.
Orca! We saw this big guy as well as a Momma with a baby!
A tail of a whale!
Bubble net feeding!
A stunning back drop for whale-watching.
We saw lots of glaciers along the way. Simply beautiful!
More glacier awsomeness.
Kayaks on Fox Island where we stopped for a terrific lunch of prime rib and grilled salmon.
Bald eagle invading the nesting space, causing a frenzy among the gulls.
The constant squawks of the gulls made for a noisy nesting area.
Sea lions sunning on the rocks. Noisy and pretty darn stinky, too!
This Baldy was sunning also, until our boat came along and made him nervous. Bu-bye!
Scoopy is feeling right at home on the waterfront in Seward.
After an exhilarating day on the water, we mostly chilled back at our campsite and watched the activity while checking out our photos of the day. We packed a picnic and got ready for a long road trip to Homer the next day.
I realize for those of you who have not been to Alaska, or the Kenai Peninsula, that I am not really giving much in the way of maps or location perspective. So here's the best map we could find. Notice that once you drive south of Anchorage around the Turnagain Arm to arrive on the Kenai, your main road choices are either the Seward Highway (which takes you to Seward on the east coast) or the Sterling Highway, which takes you west across the northern portion and then south along the coast to Homer.
I hope this provides a bit of perspective regarding our locations.
Our planned trip was to drive from Seward to Homer, about 165 miles. We wanted to stop at vistas along the way and hopefully see some wildlife. Our first stop was in Cooper Landing, where we were moving to a couple of days before Zac's departure. We wanted to check out the campground before continuing to Ninilchik, a small but important fishing community on the west coast of the peninsula. The name is Russian and means "peaceful settlement by a river." Here we spent some time at the Old Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1900, complete with historic cemetery. The church sits on a bluff overlooking old town Ninilchik. It was a brilliant sunny day, and in the distance stood Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna, perched just across the Cook Inlet. Trust me when I tell you, this is not a view you tire of easily.
The cemetery is in a constant battle with Mother Nature, which makes it both beautiful and interesting.
Old town Ninilchik. Mt. Iliamna in the background across Cook Inlet. (photo by Zac)
Beautiful wildflowers everywhere.
I do remember this church from when I visited the Kenai in 1980 when I lived in Anchorage, and visiting Homer, but I don't recall many details. I so wish my BFF Cindy and her husband Chris could have joined us here this summer because she has such a good memory! She can recall a zillion details I have long forgotten. Maybe next time...
About a mile from the church is the turnoff to Deep Creek State Recreation Area, which is quite a fascinating place. As you descend the bluff to sea level, you come upon a mass of humanity, cars, trucks, boats and heavy machinery. Go a little further and you'll find a campground with sites offering stunning waterfront views of the Cook Inlet and the volcanic mountains that are part of the Aleutian range. This is also a place we planned to camp, so we were encouraged to find that even on a Friday there were still some spots available. Not waterfront, of course, but those a few rows back. I'll have much more to say about this area in a later blog post.
Zac at the Cook Inlet with Mt. Redoubt in the background.
We continued our drive to Homer, where we had planned to nosh on some halibut. But, we ate our picnic a bit late in the morning and no one was hungry for anything other than ice cream. So we indulged. With the tide out, we made it down onto the beach and went for a long walk and hope to photograph one of the many Bald Eagles sitting by the shores. Unfortunately, by the time we started toward one, hoards of people with their iPhones also were heading that way, so the eagle would be long gone by the time we got there. Still, they are so much fun to watch and hear.
These beaches disappear when the tide comes in!
Eagles and gulls put on quite a show when the fish are brought up for cleaning!
The Homer small boat harbor.
The infamous Salty Dawg Saloon has been here for years!
You can leave your mark on a dollar bill, if you are so inclined, kind of like the Sign Post Forest.
Overlooking the Cook Inlet on the way into Homer. You can barely see the Homer Spit in the left corner of the photo.
Zac finally got his moose shot!! We saw this moose just south of Soldotna on our way back to Seward.
She was quite the poser! (photo by Zac)
While we were in Homer, we dipped in and out of shops while inquiring about the cost of a halibut fishing charter. There are so many of them available, it's kind of difficult to know which ones are worth the time, effort and money. We also checked out the cost of purchasing halibut already filleted and frozen. I have admittedly been going through a great deal of angst in trying to decide if I want to go fishing or not. Steven doesn't, as he is very prone to motion sickness. Anyway . . .
We had a long trip back to Seward and once home, we hit the hay. Whoever was in charge of our scheduling (me) had booked us an early morning kayaking trip from Lowell Point to Bridal Falls. We had to be there at 6:30 a.m. Ugh.
Our guide, Trampas, demonstrating the moves necessary to make the kayak go.
You know, I admit it. I am not a seafaring woman. Even though I wiled away most of my teenaged summers on the Mediterranean when my family lived in Tripoli, Libya, I didn't sail, canoe, ski, scuba dive, or fish. I don't even recall those activities being available, but maybe they were and I just wasn't interested. I went in the water on occasion, snorkled and poked along the seashore looking for urchins and shells, but for the most part, I oiled myself up and roasted like a turkey in the sun and that was about it. In the 11 years we lived on Pine Lake in Washington, I never once went in the water. I never dropped a fishing line in, either. I mean, it would be my luck that I would actually catch something and then what?? Ew. No.
You would never guess I am a Pisces, would you? It's true.
Anyway, it will come as no surprise that I have never kayaked before and therefore have no earthly idea what kind of clothes kayakers wear. I just knew I probably didn't own any, whatever it was. So I did the best I could to put together something that would keep me warm and hopefully dry. I did consider my leather gloves, but at the last minute I thought better of it. Once out on the water, I LOL'd at the thought and was glad to have left them behind. I wore yoga pants which frankly turned out to be a fantastic choice, because they dry instantly. You could almost wear these suckers right out of the washer. I love them. I also wore my new coat that we purchased at Walmart in Dawson Creek, BC. It was warm, supposedly water-resistant, and I was willing to toss it in the dumpster if it proved otherwise. I also wore my very cute and fashionable Whidbey Island hat which my dear friend Sherrie Newman promised me looks good, and I trust her.
Bridal Falls is about 2.5 miles away so off we paddled in Resurrection Bay, Steven and I in a double, and Zac in a single. It was a gorgeous, sunny morning. Our guide, Trampas (so named after Doug McClure's character in "The Virginian") glided around us telling us all the info he knew about the area and his story of how he ended up in Seward. Steven was in the back of our kayak, in charge of the thingy that turns our vessel, I was in the front setting the pace. It was so calm we literally just sliced through the water. It was lovely. Once we reached the shore, we realized we'd be getting out to hike to the waterfalls. Uh, what? Nobody said anything about hiking... but it wasn't too far. Nonetheless, by the time we got back on the water for our return trip, the seas had picked up a little, and by a little, I mean a lot. This time I was in the back of the kayak in charge of the turn thingy and Steven was setting the pace. What I liked about that was he can't turn his neck around enough to see what I am actually doing, so even though it was kind of rough, I was taking it easy. :) Trampas finally announced that due to the increased wave action, we'd be landing on shore a bit sooner than scheduled which meant we’d have to walk about a half of a mile back to our car. The three of us were giddy with relief.
Zac paddling in calm waters.
Here we are paddling in our appropriate hatwear. (photo by Zac)
The beautiful Bridal Falls.
I got hit by enough waves that I thought my coat was a goner, but it dried up and seemed salvageable, so back in the closet it went. And yes, I would definitely kayak again, but next time I think I'd prefer a lake, not the open seas.
Later in the afternoon we hosted another RVillage get-together. This one was smaller and included folks that had not yet arrived in the area in time to attend the Seward Shenanigans party. Good times!
More RVillagers gathering in Seward! See that cute pink jacket? I got one in red from the Alaska Sealife Center.
On our last day in Seward before moving on to Cooper Landing, we visited the Alaska Sealife Center which was walking distance from our campsite, as well as close to Exit Glacier. My favorite part of the Sealife Center was the room with all the waterfowl. OMG, those puffins are the cutest thing ever. We did actually see a lot of horned and tufted puffins on our wildlife cruise, but everyone was so distracted with the bubble net fishing whales, no one paid attention to them. I was happy to see them up close and personal. Freakin' adorable is what they are. All in all, we really enjoyed the center and highly recommend it.
How cute is that puffin face?
The tufted puffin – Donald Trump of the seabirds??
King Eider, one of my favorites! Sadly, though, we didn’t see one of these in the wild.
This photo looks like a still from a Disney movie!
A picture within a picture. This guy was constantly upside down.
By the time we reached Exit Glacier, I was completely burned out. I walked to the first viewing area then went straight back to the car and turned on the air conditioner. Zac and Steven carried on and returned about 40 minutes later. It wasn't really the walk I didn't like, it was the flies. I think we've hit peak fly season and they are so much worse than the mosquitos. The day was hot and sunny with little breeze and I think that's what made them so bad.
Exit Glacier is exiting, but not nearly as quickly as some of the tidewater glaciers.
All the photos at the interpretive signs showed beautiful blue ice. Not on this day.
Two days before Zac was due to fly back to Seattle, we packed up and moved to Cooper Landing, about an hour away to the Kenai Princess RV Park. This is the one we had checked out on our way to Homer, and at the time, it didn't really appeal to us. But once we got there, we changed our minds. We had full hook ups for the first time since Chitina, which was glorious! We also had access to the Princess Lodge and all its amenities. It was actually a really enjoyable place to stay.
Since we had only gone a relatively short distance, it was easy for us to drive back to Renfro’s where Kelly and Bill were. Jim and Barb, folks we had meet briefly in New Orleans early in our travels had checked in and were preparing a fantastic Alaskan dinner comprised of salmon and halibut they had caught just a few days before! Jim and Barb are experienced fisher-folks and they came to Alaska primarily for that purpose. How lucky for us, right?
Gorgeous fillets of Sockeye salmon, also known as Reds. It was delicious!
Barb dipped chunks of halibut in a panko breading which was yummy!
We ate our wonderful dinner in the Renfro’s Lodge dining room.
I think we ate it all!
The gang. A little freshly caught fish and we are happy campers! Thanks, Jim & Barb!
Aside from the FHU, the reason we came to Cooper Landing was because we had scheduled a 3.5 hour float down the Kenai River and our start point was just down the road from our campground. This time, we had a not-so-early morning start time of 9:00 a.m. and we were rested and ready to go. We had a gorgeous float and afterwards went to the lodge for lunch. Later that evening we lounged on the deck drinking root beer floats and enjoyed Zac's last night in Alaska.
Heading out on the Kenai River with Emily as our guide. It was a beautiful float!
Steven braved the rapids and brought along his camera. He had left it at home on our kayaking trip.
Notice I left my hat at home, but I did wear my yoga pants!
Lots of folks were out fishing, but we never did see anyone catch anything.
Enjoying the views from the Kenai Princess Lodge, waiting on our Root Beer Floats!
Since his flight didn't leave Anchorage until 6:00 p.m., we planned to leave our campground in the late morning and take a trip to Girdwood and up the Alyeska tram. On the drive there I noticed something crossing the road. I thought for sure it was a big dog, but it turned out to be a black bear! Zac was happy to add that sighting to his list, but unfortunately the bear took off into the woods before we could get a photo.
From the vantage point at the top of the tram ride we had a beautiful view of Turnagain Arm and the mountains beyond. We enjoyed a late lunch of delicious pizza at the Moose's Tooth Pub & Pizzeria in Anchorage before dropping Zac off at the airport. We said our goodbyes at the curb and headed back home. We were barely out of Anchorage before we got a text from Zac saying he was already at his gate.
The tram ride is a quick six minutes, but the view is outstanding!
Zac with the little town of Girdwood and Turnagain Arm in the background. Notice the tide is waaaaaaay out.
My boy and me. Happy Momma.
What a wonderful week we had with Zac. We really couldn't have planned it any better. We lucked out with the weather, the wildlife sightings and just about everything else.
Up Next: Kenai Peninsula, Part III - We accidentally went fishing.