Saturday, July 30, 2011

Kenai Penninsusla (Anchorage to Homer)

Rain showers greeted us upon our late day arrival in Anchorage. The showers persisted the next day, but that was not a problem since our plan was to visit the Anchorage Museum ( ) and the Botanical Garden. The museum is in a very modern building in the center of this neat little city. It is a combination art, historical and natural science museum.The collection of North American Native Art is impressive. I also liked the section detailing the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, since the factory I worked in while in college supplied many of the grinding wheels used to grind the welds that joined the sections of pipe.  The Botanical Garden is small. However, it is has two very well presented perennial gardens, an herb garden and a pleasant wildflower path.

Sarah's sister, Jennifer, arrived in Anchorage on Tuesday. While waiting for her at the Anchorage airport, Jay, another Airstream owner who was waiting for his flight, came out to talk to us and see the trailer. Everywhere we go people give us thumbs up or ask to see our trailer. Many are surprised that Airstreams are still being made and are even more astounded that ours is six years old.

With Jennifer settled in, we started south on the Sterling Highway just a short distance to Kelly Lake, a small lake just off the highway. With the calling of the loons, this was a nice tranquil place to spend the night. We were up early on Wednesday and drove to the Swift River Campground near the town of Soldotna on the Kenai River. The Red Salmon were running and the fishing was great. However, when I say 'great', I mean that it was almost like shooting fish in a barrel. Hundreds of thousands of salmon swim up the river to their spawning grounds. For reasons unknown, the run this year is reportedly on track to be a record for the number of fish. These salmon don't feed as they swim up river to their spawning areas, but only attack objects (our lures) on their way. Many times fish are hooked in various places on their bodies as they swim by a lure being reeled in. Fish snagged in this manner must be released. Fishermen and women line up shoulder to shoulder on both sides of the river where access is available. The fish are filleted right at the river and the remains are left in the water. I was told that the preferred disposal method is to throw the carcass into swift flowing portions of the river so that they will be washed downstream and out to the ocean. Clearly, at this location, that was not being done as the shallow water in pools near the banks were filled with fish heads and skeletal remains. I was surprised that the place was not over-run with bears.

I caught three but only kept one since our freezer is quite small. This one fish will provide four or five meals for Sarah and I. However, others were leaving the river with up to six of these 24 - 30" Red Salmon.

We made a brief stop in Kenai to observe the practice of dip netting.  For many Alaskans, this is a major part of their yearly food supply. This form of harvesting salmon is restricted to Alaska residents and Native Americans only. Nets that are about 4 - 5 feet in diameter and attached to 8 - 10 foot poles are held in the water to catch salmon as they migrate into the mouth of the river with the incoming tide. The fish are filleted on the beach which is strewn with the decaying remains.
Dip Netting


We traveled south on the peninsula and visited the town of Kasilof on the shore of Cook Sound. We walked the streets and saw the historic buildings dating to the middle of the 19th century. The Russian Orthodox Church was a beautiful place to see, built in 1848 it is one of the oldest buildings in Alaska. It is richly decorated with murals painted in Russia and brought to to the church. This area on the Kenai Peninsula was dominated by the Russians prior to the collapse of the fur trade and the subsequent sale of Alaska to the United States. 
Russian Orthodox Chapel

At Ninilchik we stayed at the River View State Campground situated on a high bluff overlooking the mouth of the river where it enters Cook Sound. Named for the same Captain Cook who explored the South Pacific, it is a vast body of water with towering active volcanoes dominating the far western shore. The weather was sublime, 65 degrees, clear skies and magnificent views of the volcanoes from this bluff. Digging for razor clams is a popular endeavor here. After talking to the manager of the camp ground, we decided the labor involved wasn't worth the rewards. We'll buy our clams in a restaurant.

Mount Redoubt

Our usually reliable guide book let us down after leaving Ninlchik. Sarah read about a fine authentic Russian style restaurant in Nikolaevsk so we decided to go there for lunch. Nikolaevsk is about 10 miles inland. It is a small village populated mainly by Russian Orthodox families that are referred to by many as 'old believers'. In the village was another picturesque Orthodox Chapel. and we found Nina's Samavor Cafe just a little way up the street opposite the chapel. The neon 'open' sign in the window was lit, but the door was locked. On the door was a detailed note telling us we should have made a reservation, but inviting us to ring the bell, be patient and Nina, whose arthritis was bothering her would come as quickly as possible. Less than a minute after ringing the bell, Nina arrived, entering the parking lot at a blazing speed in her old white van. She quickly, and quite nimbly for someone suffering from arthritis, ran into a rear entrance after telling us to just wait outside for a moment.
Russian Orthodox Church in Nikolaevsk

Samovar, Nina's Restaurant

No, we didn't pay for this picture (taken from the web)
Just a couple minutes later, Nina reappeared at the front entrance. She had donned a colorful Russian costume and ordered us into a solarium adorned with plastic plants, a few tables and colorful images of Russian Orthodox iconography and many small signs informing us that certain behaviors, such as taking pictures, were not allowed and that there would be a $3 charge per person to visit her gift shop unless a purchase of at least $10 was made and that portions of all proceeds were used to feed children in Russia.

Nina directed us to the plastic laminated menu adorned with photographs of each special dish she could prepare for us to take away. Except that all but three items were unavailable today because we had not made a reservation. We were taken aback by the prices, but we have become accustomed to relatively pricey meals in all the restaurants. Besides, this was authentic Russian cooking.

She showed us loaves of bread she had made. They were only $7 each. They didn't look very appealing to me, but before I could decline, Sarah ordered two loaves. Nina appeared very pleased. She then demanded that we order quickly. We complied by ordering one large bowl of borscht, but Nina would not allow us to have just one, "you must buy two" she declared, "one is not enough for three people". Two borschts it was then. The only other available item was the combination plate of dumplings and sausage. Sarah asked if the dumplings had meat. Nina replied that they did, but she also had some with potato and cheese. We decided to get one order of the combination and one order of the vegetarian dumplings. With that settled, Nina offered us a sample of the bread. One slice divided into three portions was provided. It was dry and tasteless,with a consistency of stale cake.  Jennifer quickly volunteered to cancel the order we had placed for two loaves of this horrible bread.

Nina prepared our food and ordered us to come and see the gift shop. It was dominated by painted bowls and spoons judged by Sarah to be of poor quality and overpriced. Also in the shop were more religious icon photographs and the signs informing us what must not be touched and that portions of all the money was used to feed hungry children in Russia. The signs also informed us that pictures must not be taken and that if one wished, Nina charged $30 to pose for a photograph.

Once the food was ready she placed the four containers on a decorative serving tray she wanted us to use to take our food to the trailer. We told her that the three of us could easily manage without the tray. Her tone nearly became combative when we again declined and Jennifer and I picked them up and left Sarah to pay the $55 charge. When Sarah finally re-joined us outside, she said that she needed the camera because Nina had asked if Sarah wanted a picture of her. Sarah had not seen the sign about the $30 charge and when told about it, decided we didn't need a picture of Nina.

Needless to say, the food was nothing remarkable. In fact it was barely edible.

We are now in Homer, about as far south as one can travel by road on the Kenai Peninsula. The scenery across Cook Sound is majestic (I know I'm repeating myself, but after awhile you run our of superlatives). Initially, we thought we would stay on Homer Spit, a thin strip of land that juts out into the sound, but we learned that there is a music festival adjacent to the campground in town. So, we are tucked into a hillside campsite just above the city park where the music festival is about to occur.
View from the Homer Spit
Stay tuned for more Alaska adventure

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