The Kenai Peninsula
Story and photos by Kim Fenske
Kenai, Katmai, and McKinley were the big three objectives on my list of locations to visit when I began planning my three-week backpacking trip to Alaska. My foremost objective was to find the coastal brown bears and live among them during the great salmon runs of summer. I was looking for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure into the wild.
I decided to fly into Anchorage and take a few major thrusts outward from this center, within a radius of a few hundred miles. I had enough space in a small daypack for my camera, journal, netbook computer, and a couple of water bottles. I filled my 80-liter backpack with an extra set of clothes, one-week supply of dehydrated foods, backpacking stove, water filter, raincoat, sleeping pad, down sleeping bag, and two-person tent. I decided to take the larger of my two backpacking tents because the historic climate charts indicated frequent rainfall in the coastal rainforest. I knew that the average precipitation for much of the coast is sixty inches or more.
At the airport, I faced the challenges created by modern security. I suffered separation anxiety when I stowed my pocket knife and fire starter in checked baggage. A security officer emptied my water bottle, raising the level of tension. Any hiker who always carries essential gear everywhere can understand why my carry-on luggage included two headlamps, maps, and a global positioning system.
My backpack was narrowly under the fifty-pound limit. I was unable to carry fuel canisters for my stove on a flight, but made advance notes on the gear shops northeast of Ted Stevens Airport. Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking as well as REI are at the junction of Spenard Road and Northern Lights Boulevard, south of downtown Anchorage.
Arriving in Alaska during the middle of the night, I pulled my backpack off the carousel and inflated my sleeping pad to rest among other travelers on the terminal floor. In the morning, I rented a vehicle, bought fuel, and headed into the wild.
During a week of exploring paths along the Seward and Sterling highways, I experienced overcast and daily dripping skies. I discovered that Alaska may be the land of the midnight sun, but midnight arrives once a week.
On the first night, I slept on the Primrose Trail, a fifteen-mile path to Lost Lake on the road to Seward. In the early morning light, I met a hiker crouched by the shore beside a stream, cleaning his breakfast pan.
“Moose,” he said in the broken English of northern Europe, then pointed with his nose down toward a deep pile of warm, green scat after I scanned the sky for antlers. I moved quietly back to my camp, without the disposition to reply with the correct identifier, “Bear.” Big bear.
Alaska was able to create a truncated language as well as a shortened list of needs. From streams, I received water. My backpack contained most of my essentials.
In Seward, I obtained a hot shower and rinsed clothing at the Harbor Master Office; a fuel canister at Tru Valu Hardware adjacent to the docks at Kenai Fjords Tours; internet and battery charging from Safeway and the Seward Community Library; a coffee shop with a clothes dryer; and a tent site provided by the City of Seward Department of Parks and Recreation. On a shorter point-to-point tour, I could have chosen to reach Seward by bus, rail, or ferry. However, my journey was a bit more complex.
Hiking up to Exit Glacier at the edge of Kenai Fjords National Park, I observed the road signs that mark the historical reach of the ice field. The first sign begins with 1815, a mile-and-a-half from the present terminus of snow. With average temperatures 3.6 degrees higher than five decades ago, Exit Glacier is retreating at a rate of 42 feet per year. If the rate remains constant, then the retreat of ice up the gulch beside the four-mile trail to the Harding Icefield overlook may continue for another 400 years.
Farther south on the Kenai Peninsula, I spent several days hiking along the Russian River. The dense forest growth and narrow corridors on twenty miles of the Russian Lakes Trail induce a constant state of heightened awareness. Notes in the trailhead registry indicated that a female brown bear with two cubs bluff-charged several hikers within minutes of my passage. As I hiked along broken pathways beside steep banks, I found fresh grizzly scat and trees scratched with massive paws. When I found the sow leading her cubs downstream, I walked with them for more than a mile and watched them grazing, playing, and scavenging for salmon. Bald eagles and gulls shared the sanctuary quite peacefully, although the gulls scattered when an eagle took flight.
In one moment, a curious brown bear cub stepped up on the near stream bank with the obvious intent of playing games with me. As I straightened myself and prepared to back along the trail through the waist-high wetland plants, I heard a guttural whirring. The cub instantly responded to the call of the sow and knocked its sibling with a jovial bump before chasing the vigilant mother across a gravel bar to share a trimmed fillet.
During my days of hiking throughout southcentral Alaska, I observed both wildlife and visitors. I was bewildered by noisy groups bearing bells, beer, reels, pepper, tripods, ice chests, Dutch ovens, and guns. At my meet-ups, the people penetrating the wilds caused me far more trepidation than all of the other creatures in the forest.
Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.
Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”
- Colorado: Climbing Mt. Princeton
- Colorado: Your grandmother’s fourteener
- Colorado: A spring jaunt on Mt. Antero
- Colorado: A spring hike on twin 14ers
- Colorado: Climbing La Plata Peak
Kim’s winter 14er series:
- Colorado: Snowy tracks on Mt. Yale
- Colorado: Climbing La Plata Peak
- Colorado: A winter climb of Huron Peak
- Colorado: A winter climb of Quandary Peak
- Colorado: Winter hiking in the Collegiate Range
- Colorado: Scary moments on Mt. Elbert
- Colorado: A winter hike up Grays and Torreys
- Colorado: Exploring Mt. Massive
- Colorado: Around the Wetterhorn
- Colorado: Hiking Mount Harvard
- Colorado: Summiting Sneffels
- Colorado: A fall hike on Castle Peak
- A hike to Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, and Mount Eolus
- A Colorado classic: Longs Peak