Alaska - Western Canada Journey

Day 13

Kenai - Homer


We explored the city of Kenai, finding some Russian heritage that we heard about, but also found an interesting form of fishing called dipnetting.Kenai is a medium sized city, with a charming old town and friendly people. The drive to Homer was fairly interesting, but did not live up to our expectation. We found a Russian church and a small American Legion Cemetery. Homer Spit was interesting as viewed from the hills, with the beautiful backdrop of mountain peaks and glaciers across the Kachemak Bay. The spit was packed with tourists, campers and fishermen. We decided not to stay in Homer, and camped on the way back toward Kenai.

Day Journal

I started the day with setting up an improvised kitchen. Our breakfast was simply instant noodles. I ate out of the noodle bowl, while my wife used a disposable cup that she drank water the previous night. On a long camping trip like this, one learn to keep things simple, and reuse items wherever possible. The weather was beautiful, so we took the time to chat with our neighbors and as always, found people with interesting life stories. One couple came from Canada and had been traveling for a few months, camping along the way. The other couple were elders and were locals and camped with their dog, who gave us some tips about where to eat at Homer. We took our time packing up and taking pictures of and with our neighbors. Being that early in the morning, none of us looked our best, but hey, we need something to remember them by. Soon enough we were on our way, hoping the weather would stay sunny and clear, and we'd find the things we read about - Russian heritage, dipnetting, eagles, salmon run and grizzly bears - at least for me; my wife would like nothing to do with bears.


Our first stop in Kenai was the Kenai Visitor & Cultural Center . Aside from useful tips about where to go and what to see, the bonus for us was achieving one of our goals - get some exposure to Russian heritage. The center at that time also served as a temporary museum of artifacts from the Holy Assumption Church, the oldest Russian Orthodox Church. The church was going through some sort of restoration and put their displays at the cultural center. We only had a short amount of time, so browsed the place quickly while snapping several pictures in hope of learning more about it later.

At the suggestion of the hosts at the visitor center, we then drove the historic street to see several historical buildings, especially the Holy Assumption Orthodox Church- a great example of a Russian village church with design patterned after vessel shape (Pskov style). This building has two distinctions: the oldest building in the Kenai region (erected 1881), and the oldest standing Orthodox church in Alaska. It is the most enduring Russian heritage to this point. Aside from being the Orthodox church, which was the primary institution for western culture assimilation for Kenaitze Indians in the early days, it also served as an educational, adminstrative and judicial center into the twentieth century. The church is still in active operation today as described on the Orthodox Church of America website. The church is seeking donation to preserve this national landmark.

In addition to the church, the region most prominent historical landmark, we also saw a few more buildings that are described in the Kenai photoset, and actually ate lunch in one building which is now Veronica's Coffee House.

Beyond the old town, we found another interesting scene that we saw for the first time - a lively camp of people using dipnets to catch salmon. Instead of the typical rod and reel method to catch the fish, dipnetters wade in the river while swinging a giant net in the water in hope of catching salmon running upstream. Evidently this is a very productive way to catch salmon, with daily catch over 50 not uncommon. There is a list of no less than 10 dipnetting rules that one must know before dipping a net in the river to catch salmon. For us non residents, it's simple since there is only one rule we need to know: we are not allowed to dipnet, period! From an observer perspective, this looked interesting and fun, something that families can do together. We saw several families walked to the river, with some children dwarfted by the size of the dipnets they carry. We saw people in the water, some dragging coolers and nets on the beach, others setting up tents, many congregating in tents having fun and oblivious to the hectic fishing activities around them. And of course, there were many trucks and RV's in the area. This dipnetting camp was bigger than most towns we passed, and the energy level was probably a level of magnitude higher :) It seemed 2011 was a great year with over 230 thousands sockeyes counted by the sonar counter heading upstream of the Kenai River. For that amount of fish and a mere three weeks in July when dipnetting is allowed, no wonder there was such a frenzy around the camp.

After the delicious sandwich and soup lunch, we headed back out to the highway toward Homer, but of course we had to run into another dipnetting site before reaching the highway. The road to Homer was pretty with one side of the road dominated by views of Cook Inlet and volcanoes towering over the inlet. The view could not match with what we saw on Seward Highway, howerver. We made a stop in Ninilchik to see the Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Russian Orthodox Church, another historic landmark. This church is" one of only four Alaskan Russian Orthodox churches in a cruciform plan. The Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Church was constructed in 1900-1901 of logs. The gable roof is crowned by an octagonal cupola and five onion domes." Source: Library of Congress. Next to the church is a cemetery area that seems to comprise of more than one - one area is enclosed inside the church fence, and another group outside of the fence. There is a sign of Leo Steik Memorial Wall, and yet another plaque nearby labeled "American Legion Cemetery". These could be different names for the same cemetery, or designating different ones. I could only find reference on the web about the Transfiguration of Our Lord Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Ninilchik, Alaska, which also provide additional information about Russian Orthodox crosses, and how bodies were oriented in relation to the cross. The Leo Steik Memorial Wall listed both veterans and Russians, which seems to suggest there were at least two groups of people buried there.

Homer (photoset)

As we approached Homer, there was a viewpoint perching high on the hill. At this vantage point, we had a panoramic view of Homer, Homer Spit, Cook Inlet, with the mountains and glaciers across Kachemak Bay dominating the skyline. What a majestic view! Of everything in front of us, Homer Spit was probably the most unique. For those who don't know what a spit is other than the obvious definition, it's a thin stretch of shoal projecting into the water. I did not realize it at the time, but Homer Spit is a 4.5-mile long slice of land reaching out from the Kenai pennisula into the Kachemak Bay, featuring the longest road into the ocean in the world! Being from the continental US, my first thought when I saw Homer Pit was that it was man-made since it looked so out of place. Yet, in later research, I found out that this is natural, and there were various theories as to how it was formed. Irrespective, it's a long stretch of land that is no higher than 20 feet above sea level. When big storm surges, it seems precarious to be in that area.

Anyhow, there was no storm surges when we were there and so we headed down to town. Our first stop as always was at a visitor center. We learned there to look for an eagle nest on the way to downtown, and that "you can't miss it". Being somewhat suspicious given our experience in Anchorage - having to walk a quarter mile or so before we could catch a glimpse of the nesting eagle, we drove slowly to town. Sure enough, we saw a big nest on top of a pine tree, right next to a busy intersection. There was no walking necessary. We just pulled the car over to the side dirt road, and could take pictures to our heart's content. We patiently waited for almost half an hour but did not see any movement at the nest. However, we did find a parent perching on a tree guarding the nest.

As we entered the town of Homer, the first thing that struck us was how crowded it was. There were all kind of people roaming and driving about - those like us who visit Alaska evident by the look of not knowing what we were doing, to residents who live there to serve the tourist industry, and people from other areas of Alaska being there for outdoor activities such as fishing. Needless to say, our search for a campsite was fruitless, at least at the campground we wanted to stay- away from the crowd. There were many RV campgrounds with RVs stacked next to each other like sardines. We could secure a campsite there, but felt we'd be out of place. We proceed to drive the length of Homer Spit (video coming) past numerous RV parks, restaurants and shops as well as the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry Terminal. When we reached the end of the road, we stroll to the beach to watch fishermen trying their luck, competing with thousands of seagulls that took off and landed at random probably in search of the most abundant area of the sea. We also noted that the weather here was colder than previous days, prompting us to visit the Lands End Hotel to sip hot coffee, which also served as hand warmers.

As we made our way back out of the spit, we spotted a simple memorial for those who lost their lives at sea called the Seafarer's Memorial. For the region known for its unforgiving oceans, there were likely many victims of the sea. We took our time to pay respect to those who lost their lives. There were many names engraved in paving stones around the monument. A bell stands next to the memorial that tolls for people losing their lives.

There was also a touching poem on a plaque that made us pause and reflect on the cycle of life, and whether by necessity of survival or the lure of prosperity, people lives were claimed by these waters:

The Sea

The sea tells a story.
It tells of the life it brings,
And the lives it claims.
Its deep dark waters are home to some,
A final resting place for others.

The sea tells a story.
It tells of the cycle of life
Running through its waters.
Fish, spawning, dying, sinking to the ocean floor,
Returning to the circle that engulfs all life.

The sea tells a story.
It tells of prosperity,
Yet how that prosperity can be unforgiving.
Nearly everyone will experience its vastness.
But some will remain there forever.

- Ryan Bundy 1996

We made another stop at Alaska Islands and Oceans Visitor Center as it was about to close, and thus proceeded to follow the Beluga Slough Trail down to the wetland. The trail was well maintained. We saw an eagle perching on a low branch, and a pair of mother and chick sandhill cranes.

We decided that staying here another day would take too much time from the trip with what we still wanted to see, and so we headed back toward Kenai. Subconstiously, I think we had a preference for a more quaint asmostphere.

On the way back, we stopped at a small campground in Ninilchik right on the beach. The view across Cook Inlet to the Alaska Range of Lake Clark National Park was great, but the wind was greater. It was so strong that we had a hard time lighting our gas stove. And once we managed to heat the food, we could not comfortably eat at the picnic table. So we moved into the back seat of our SUV, set up an improvised dinner table (pictured), and consumed our dinner and canned fruit. We mused at our choice to drive back, but did not regret. Despite the howling wind, we had a great night sleep.

Roads & Weather

The roads were fine, with only a few minor road repairs. The weather stayed great for most of the day until we approached Homer. Still, there was no rain the entire day!