Editor’s note: This story has been changed to add information on the number of users at the Warren Ames bridge site and details about possible site improvements.
Tuesday morning on the banks of the Kenai River, dipnetter Jan Brooks of Palmer got lucky and netted what she described as the biggest red salmon she’d ever seen.
“It was so big I thought at first it was a king,” Brooks said.
Brooks was one of five or six people dipnetting on Tuesday by Kenai’s Warren Ames bridge — a site that some dipnetters see as an alternative to Kenai’s crowded beaches, but which has become a source of growing concern for state environmental agencies due to the sensitive environment it may impact.
The Alaska Department of Natural Resources, owner of the wetlands surrounding the river in that area, maintains a small parking lot near the bridge with a $5.00 parking fee. The lot provides access to the river as it runs through the Kenai flats.
Although Brooks didn’t think the fishing was better in the flats than at the larger dipnetting sites on Kenai’s north and south beaches along the river’s mouth, she said she preferred to be up the river for reasons that had more to do with humans than fish.
“The big difference, I think, between here and the beach is that people are nicer,” Brooks said. “Sometimes the beach is nasty. People get hateful and throw trash. … Everybody here is clean and helpful, and if the guy beside you gets a fish, you cheer him on instead of getting mad because you wanted that fish.”
Ole Anderson of Kasilof, who said he has been dipnetting in Kenai for 18 years, had similar reasons for preferring the bank to the beach. Anderson said he’d gone to the beach during dipnet season “only to observe.”
“I don’t like lots of crowds, people fighting over fish,” Anderson said. “I don’t need the fish that bad.”
Brooks estimated she’d never seen a crowd larger than 3 dozen dipnetters on the river at once. However, over the course of the 19 years since the personal-use dipnet fishery began, even a relatively small, clean crowd can leave significant traces on a wetland. According to Jack Blackwell, DNR’s Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation Kenai area superintendent, “the area near the Warren Ames Bridge has been damaged by the personal-use fishery.”
Based on the amount of fees collected at the site, DNR Park Operations Manager Claire LeClair said that in fiscal year 2015 — from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016 — 937 vehicles parked at the site.
“I would say those uses are primarily during the personal use fishery, because that’s when we locate porta-potties at the site,” LeClair said. Specific information about the number of dipnetting users is not available.
“The wetlands just don’t sustain that level of foot traffic,” Blackwell said. “The vegetation is damaged or destroyed from people walking along the paths. In areas where the vegetation is damaged, we’ll see the soils become muddy.”
Many dipnetters who come from the parking lot find a place in the water via an eroded trail that runs west along the Kenai through the tall grasses of the flats. At several points, branches of the trail lead down to the water across a bank of gray mud that Brooks described as “slicker than sheep snot.”
According to Blackwell, this trail was created unintentionally by years of foot traffic, rather than constructed by DNR or any other entity.
“The trail has just evolved over time as people have been walking along the wetlands to access the river,” Blackwell said. “The more people walk on it, the more the wetlands become damaged. We’re looking at some options to provide access to accommodate the use that’s occurring on that site.”
On Monday, Blackwell said he met near the bridge with his office’s field staff and landscape architect Aaron Ritter of DNR’s State Parks Design and Construction section to discuss ways “to provide access to the river while protecting park resources.”
Ritter said improvements being considered for the site include a raised boardwalk-style walkway and an upgrade to the existing trail.
“It’s always funding dependent, and we have to look at all the options available at this point, until we get funding tacked down a little more,” Ritter said. He said a boardwalk — possibly similar to a scaled-down version of the walkways and access points currently at Soldotna’s Centenial Park — was a solution DNR had used at other wetland parks.
“At a lot of our sites we are using the elevated light-penetrating boardwalks,” Ritter said. “Those tend to do really well as far as protecting the banks from further erosion and what not, and still allowing vegetation to grow underneath.”
If funding won’t allow a board-walk, Ritter said that another possibility will be to reinforce the trail with “a permeable surface that would allow vegetation to grow through, but would still create a harder surface than just the dirt itself.”
Ritter was uncertain what that surface material would be, although he said that a gravel trail would create further difficulties.
“The problem with using gravel and whatnot is that if we do get flooding it all gets washed out,” Ritter said. “In a muddy area like this, we’re looking at more maintenance in the future because that’s going to sink into the ground, it’s going to get covered. It’s definitely something to be considered, but I don’t know if (gravel) is a long-term solution.”
Before the project begins, DNR will consult with and receive permission from the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Blackwell listed the Army Corps of Engineers as another possible permitting agency, although he said that with the nature of the improvement undecided, a permit from the Army Corps may not be required.
In the meantime, the area will likely continue to be a favorite of dipnetters like Brooks — as long as the crowds remain far away.
“I just like it here,” Brooks said. “I like the attitude. It (dipnetting) is supposed to be fun. If it’s no fun, you might as well go to the fish market.”
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.