Anglers board the Russian River Ferry on the Kenai River just downstream of the confluence with the Russian River on Monday near Cooper Landing. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

Anglers board the Russian River Ferry on the Kenai River just downstream of the confluence with the Russian River on Monday near Cooper Landing. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

Russian River Ferry — a piece of history, still afloat

The only thing that remains of a lodge that used to attract people from all over the world to stay near the Russian River is the ferry across the Kenai River.

Every year, thousands of people board a simple flat-bottomed boat to cross the Kenai in search of sockeye salmon. The other way to get there is through the U.S. Forest Service’s campground, driving down to the far side and hiking in via a boardwalk. The ferry runs on a cable across the river and takes less than five minutes.

Though the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge manages the boat launch area and the land around the river, the ferry itself is managed by a concessionaire — the Anchorage-based Alaska Recreational Management. The familiar green boat with the blue salmon emblazoned on the side has been there for about 25 years, said Bruce McCurtain, Alaska Recreational Management’s general manager.

He said one thing guests often comment on is the ferry’s mode of transport — it has no engine at all.

“The current does every single bit of it,” he said. “People always say, ‘Oh my goodness, the motor is so quiet I can hardly hear it,’ and I say, ‘The motor is the Kenai River.’”

The ferry requires two people to make its trips to and fro, who have to be Coast Guard-licensed captains and deckhands, despite the boat’s lack of motor. It does take some skill to negotiate the flat-bottomed boat through the slackwater at the edge of the river into the current, but once there, it’s a relatively easy ride, designed for most people to be able to operate, McCurtain said.

Fred Henton established a lodge at the confluence of the two rivers in 1945 built the first ferry. He initially built it on the south side illegally on the refuge — then called the Kenai National Moose Range — and moved it to the north side of the river in 1946. The lodge changed hands a number of times until 1988, when the operator lost the ferry contract and shut down. The lodge, which was then called Sportsman’s Lodge, was closed and torn down after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game bought the property to turn it into a boat launch.

The ferry has lasted, though the original wooden boat was replaced.

“It is a completely unusual kind of system,” McCurtain said. “The entire reason that there’s a ferry there is that there’s a clearwater system running into the Kenai there.

(The ferry) is still a unique, very viable way to get to a red salmon fishing river. There’s not many places that have red salmon runs like the Russian River and the Kenai have.”

In a given year, anywhere from 25,000–40,000 will use the ferry to cross the river to fish, McCurtain said. Once the boat is loaded with anglers, the captain will gently nose the boat into the current, using the angle to carry it in to the fast-flowing Kenai and across to the far bank. When it’s time to return, the captain will reverse.

It’s one of the highest-traffic areas on the Kenai River, though, with anglers all along the banks and rafts, drift boats and kayaks frequently passing through on their way downriver. McCurtain said Alaska Recreational Management keeps a rescue boat at the dock with the ferry and occasionally has to do water rescues for boaters who get into trouble. Generally, things go smoothly, but the ferry captain has to make sure he or she times the trips carefully to ensure that there isn’t a boat coming downstream.

“It’s dangerous, and that’s why we pay skippers the big bucks, to use good judgment on when to pull that boat across,” he said.

The Russian River Ferry can be accessed from the parking lot at approximately mile 55 of the Sterling Highway just west of Cooper Landing.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

More in News

A drone rises into the air while kicking up dust, departing on a test flight for the use of beyond visual line of sight drone aircraft, at Furie Operating Alaska’s central processing facility in Nikiski, Alaska, on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Drone test flight operates beyond visual line of sight between Nikiski and a Cook Inlet platform

The drone could perform deliveries to and from Cook Inlet platforms

A map of Lower Skilak Campground shows the areas that will be closed in July and August 2024. (Graphic provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Areas of Lower Skilak Campground to close for repair starting Monday

The East Loop will be closed — projected to be reopened at noon on Aug. 4

Kenai Courthouse is photographed on Feb. 26, 2019, in Kenai, Alaska. (Clarion file)
Sterling resident sentenced to 30 years in prison for sexual abuse of minors

Additionally, Crane will face 15 years of supervised probation as well as sex offender registration and treatment

Shrubs grow outside of the Kenai Courthouse on Monday, July 3, 2023 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Former Soldotna police officer acquitted of 2023 assault allegations

He was found not guilty following a five-day trial in late June

A parade of cars and trucks flying flags in support of former President Donald Trump proceed down the Kenai Spur Highway in Kenai, Alaska, on Sunday, July 14, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Residents caravan across central peninsula in support of Trump

The parade came a day after an attempted assassination of the former president

Drummers perform during a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai, Alaska, on Friday, July 12, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenaitze tribe celebrates 10 years of ‘far-fetched dream’ at wellness center

Community members recognized the work done at the Dena’ina Wellness Center over the past decade

The Kenai Safeway is seen on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai and Soldotna Safeways may be sold under proposed Kroger-Albertsons merger

The local stores will be sold to CS Wholesale Grocers only if the merger overcomes suit from the FTC

Sockeye salmon caught in a set gillnet are dragged up onto the beach at a test site for selective harvest setnet gear in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Draft plan published for disbursement of $11.5 million in 2021 and 2022 ESSN disasters

Public comment will be accepted for the draft spend plan until July 24

The Kasilof River is seen from the Kasilof River Recreation Area, July 30, 2019, in Kasilof, Alaska. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)
King salmon fishing closed on Kasilof starting Monday

The emergency order is being issued to protect returning king salmon, citing weak returns

Most Read