An Outdoor View: The king of Alaska’s rivers

Author’s note: The December/January 2003 issue of Alaska magazine contained a photo-essay about the Kenai River, in which I wrote:

“The Kenai River is many things to many people. People float down it in rafts and zoom up it in motorboats. People build houses on its banks. Some people get married on it. Others spread the ashes of their departed loved ones on it. But mostly, the Kenai is about fishing.

“When the glaciers retreated after the last Ice Age, salmon found the Kenai and migrated up it to spawn and die. Ever since, the annual salmon migration has nourished the land and helped make it habitable for other life, including humans.

“Archaeologists have found unique tools called microblades along the upper Kenai, clues that Indians of the Paleo-Arctic Tradition may have been there 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. Artifacts of more-recent cultures — stone ulus, net weights, depressions in the ground where food was cached and houses once stood — have been found at every good fishing hole along the river. About 1,000 years ago, the Dena’ina Athabascans settled along the Kenai, and some of their descendants are there to this day.

“Much has changed through the millennia, and yet, some things go on unchanged. The Kenai River is still mostly about fishing. May it always be so.”

That issue of Alaska magazine also contained a story, “The King of Alaska’s Rivers,” my take on 30 years of “progress” that happened to our much-loved river. I repeat the story here, not only for those who missed out on the fun during those years, but for those who might benefit from remembering. The rest of the story will be in successive columns. — LP

Thirty years have passed since I first saw the Kenai River.

It happened in the fall, 1972. A recent arrival in Anchorage, I had never been on the Kenai Peninsula. When a friend asked if I wanted to go fishing on the Kenai River, I jumped at the chance.

The river first came into view at the west end of Kenai Lake. It was love at first sight. Framed by mountains, its turquoise waters reflected the gold leaves of the autumn aspens and birches along its shoreline. In my mind’s eye, salmon were stacked in it like cordwood.

We launched the boat at Sterling and ran a few miles downstream to a hole where nearly every cast brought a strike from a 6- to 10-pound salmon. Unused to catching fish larger than pan-size grayling, I nearly ran out of lures before I managed to boat three silvers.

In my wildest dreams, I had never imagined such a river. For the next several years, I was on it at every opportunity. I bought a boat, and then a bigger one. I camped beside the Kenai, cooked over driftwood fires, and was sung to sleep at night by wolves and coyotes. I built a cabin near the river, and then a house.

■ ■ ■

I wasn’t the only one attracted by the Kenai’s allure. Each year, I found myself sharing “my” river with more people.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Prudhoe Bay oil fueled an economic boom. Prosperity drew more people to the state, and everyone had more “disposable” income. People bought land and built cabins and homes along the Kenai River.

King salmon fishing rocketed in popularity in the 1970s. The 10 miles of river downstream from the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna grew chaotic. Each July, during the peak of king salmon season, fishing became a no-holds-barred contest. Regulations were seldom enforced. Anglers in 12-foot john boats with 10-horsepower outboards fished beside 24-foot sleds capable of speeds in excess of 40 mph. At the good holes, boat wakes created a continuous 2- to 3-foot chop. A haze of exhaust smoke blanketed the water like smog on a Los Angeles freeway.

In 1971, Kenai resident Spence DeVito started DeVito Guide Service, one of the first such businesses on the river. As king salmon fishing grew in popularity, guide numbers rose to meet the demand of people who wanted to fish from a boat, the most effective way to pursue Kenai kings. To be a guide, you had but to call yourself one. In this laissez-faire environment, a commercial sport-fishing industry was born. Because guides are more motivated and aggressive than other anglers, they tend to be better-than-average fisherman. Envy and resentment of guides increased in direct proportion to their numbers and success.

In 1978, DeVito quit guiding, saying he could no longer stand to watch the destruction of the Kenai River. Guides had gotten entirely out of hand, he said. In little more than a decade, the Kenai had gone from no guides to more than 200.

The occasional drone of an outboard on the river escalated to an irritating, day-and-night din, prompting homesteader Phil Ames to move from his house near the river. Referring to his new residence on the Kenai Spur Highway, Ames told the Peninsula Clarion, “It was too noisy on the river at 2 a.m., when we were trying to sleep. It’s much quieter right here on the highway.”

As the turmoil increased, civility faded. During the worst of the madness, I saw a drunk in one boat angrily cursing and swinging an oar at an elderly couple in another. The drunk accused them of running over his line. He left the scene, swearing he would return with a gun.

Next week: The situation on and along the Kenai deteriorates, and the public demands and gets change.

■ ■ ■

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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