Magazine article Sunset

Magnificent Kenai

Magazine article Sunset

Magnificent Kenai

Article excerpt

South of Anchorage, find an Alaska that is rugged, friendly, astonishing in its beauty

Our single-engine Cessna 206 float-plane soared 700 feet above Prince William Sound. Pilot Ken Richardson was making a south turn to fly down the east coast of the Kenai Peninsula. The engine rumbled so loudly that we wore headsets to muffle the noise, microphones to speak into.

Water spread out before us. The sound has recovered substantially from the disastrous oil spill of 19 89, and on this day it stretched sapphire blue and sparkling. To the north the Chugach Mountains rose tall, jagged, and glacier-laden. To the south and west rose the Kenai Mountains. It seemed as perfect a scene as any human had ever laid eyes on, but nature wasn't finished with its display.

"Look down there, about 100 yards off to the left," Richardson instructed. "See that big gray shape close to the surface? It's a humpback whale." And at that instant the whale spouted a saltwater plume that caught the wind and moved under the plane like a passing thunderstorm. It was enough to make a city slicker cry.

Richardson is just what you'd hope for in a bush pilot. He came to Alaska 20 years ago to fly. Now in his mid 50s, he's fit and ruggedly good-looking. Ask him too personal a question and he gets bashful and quiet, and you get embarrassed for asking. Then out comes a thoughtful answer.

"What does this place mean to you?" I asked Richardson.

After a long pause, he answered. "I like the majesty and the power of the Kenai. It can be as cruel as it can be kind. You learn to take what nature gives you. If it doesn't want to give you anything that day, you just go home and park your airplane. I like the feeling of insignificance. It keeps me in touch with how small I am."

Sound like a rare and poetic response? Poetic, yes. Rare, no. The Kenai Peninsula - just "the Kenai" to locals - does that. It brings out the poet in its inhabitants. Most have come from far away - in search of what, they didn't know, but they found it here.

And whatever it is, travelers find it here, too. The Alaskan subcontinent is virtually inexhaustible in its opportunities for adventure. But in the past, visitors have migrated, as predictably as salmon and caribou, to two main destinations, the Inside Passage and Denali National Park & Preserve. Now there's a third: the Kenai Peninsula.

The Kenai Peninsula stretches south and west from Anchorage. It's about 150 miles long and, at its broadest, 100 miles wide. For visiting purposes it can be divided into three parts: east, central, and south. At the east end, main attractions are Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park. Toward the center, visitors focus on the Kenai River; toward the south, the town of Homer.

Of ocean and ice

The star of Seward is the new Alaska SeaLife Center. Opened last May, this state-of-the-art aquarium focuses on indigenous sea life and provides an excellent overview of what you'll take in cruising the Kenai Fjords.

And you will want to see the fjords, one of those sights you can't talk about without superlatives. To glimpse them from the air is exhilarating. But to feel even more strongly what Richardson was talking about when he referred to the Kenai's power and majesty, you should view the fjords from the bottom up.

That's what I did. With 80 other camera-clicking, flabbergasted tourists, I took an eight-hour boat tour along the coast of Kenai Fjords National Park.

The fords are essentially deep, glacier-carved valleys that have sunk and filled with ocean water. They're flanked by cliffs that' rise as much as 2,000 feet straight from the sea; behind the cliffs, mountain peaks tower 5,000 feet. This geologic tumult has a cause: for the last 60 million years the Kenai Mountain range has been pushed steadily down into the sea by the collision of two plates of the earth's crust - the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. …

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