Kickin’ Back on the Kenai
A Mellow Traveler Cuts His Own Path Across an Alaskan Trove
“Don’t hesitate when you’re here ’cause you may not ever be here again,” says Eddy, who is urging me to push the tourist envelope hardduring my stay in Alaska. “This is wilderness fantasy land. There’s nothin’ left like it, unless it’s Siberia, and you can’t really travel there.”
We’ve never met before. Eddy just happens to be sitting two bar stools away from me at Ray’s seafood restaurant in Seward, which just happens to be one of the choice towns on the Kenai Peninsula: Witness the fact that David Hasselhoff and crew will be arriving soon to shoot a special Baywatch episode (one that, without prudent script revisions and costume changes, could result in a few nasty cases of midriff frostbite). Eddy wears a big cowboy hat, smokes big cigars, and has a small airplane parked at the municipal airport. He owns a”timber farm” in Wyoming and frequently flies north to sport fish. He’s crazy for Alaska, so much so that he wouldn’t mind dying here. And, apparently, the perfect way to go is to be devoured by a grizzly bear.
“That’s gotta elevate you to a higher plane,” declares Eddy, smitten by the prospect of traveling first class to the hereafter.
To each his own demise. Personally, I’d rather die in my sleep on the night that I become the first 100-year-old pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the World Series. Still, I can appreciate the basic wisdom of Eddy’s logic. Alaska is Big Country: Colorado on growth hormones. Although as a traveler, you can’t let it intimidate you. Don’t be spooked by tales of campers who get filleted by a marauding grizzly. Don’t be cowered by cold weather or bug bites. Venture out of your car and off the tour bus. Get dirty. Break a sweat. Indulge your curiosity.
Kenai Peninsula — commonly known as simply “the Kenai” — couldn’t be more user-friendly. It’s the abridged version of Alaska, packed tight with postcard views; seemingly endless riffles of snow-dusted mountains; rivers that roil with spawning salmon; an abundant supply of moose, bears, eagles, and those comic-looking puffins that look to be wearing false noses; four active volcanoes; and one gigantic, other-worldly icefield.
What’s more, visitors don’t need to step on a bush plane to get here. The triangular peninsula — some 150 miles long and varying from 60 to 110 miles wide — hangs from the coastline like a fat grape on a vine just an hour’s drive south of Anchorage. This is Alaska’s most heavily trafficked playground, conveniently served by two intersecting roads whose path on a map resembles a forked divining rod. Seward Highway runs through the nearby Chugach National Forest anddown the right side of the peninsula, lurching to a halt 127 miles from Anchorage at the eponymous harbor; Sterling Highway branches off from the middle of Seward Highway, lazily arcing across the peninsula and down the west side until it reaches Homer (224 miles from Anchorage), the artsy-craftsy cultural hub of the Kenai.