Chapter 6. Interior Kenai Peninsula
(Shari) I am awakened at 12:30 AM and look out my back window. I see a very strange sight as the sun casts a bright ribbon of red light as far as I can see from left to right. Above the ribbon of light I see mountains and then clouds. I wish I had looked out at these mountains other nights as I think I understand what they are saying about the beautiful sunsets. It is just that I cannot stay awake that long.
(Bert) Before we leave the state park, I hear a Swainson’s Thrush singing from the woods. It is the first I have heard this season and it probably will be nesting here. On our drive to Kenai, we pass nine Protestant churches, each with cars and trucks parked outside while congregants attend Sunday services. Given the sparse population in this rural area, it seems to indicate a high proportion of church-going people. Crossing the Kenai village limits, I pass five more churches in as many blocks before we arrive at a Lutheran church, one of three in town. A friendly congregation, a typical service, and a sermon on “we are in the world, but not a part of the world”, my most lasting memory is a note penciled on the back cover of the pastor’s father’s Bible. It states, “Aging is a matter of the mind; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
(Shari) I go back to bed and arise again at 8:30. It is time to scurry off to church in Kenai. Our schedule today includes church, looking for a jaeger nest, and the bird festival’s free barbeque. After church, I notice that the barbeque starts at 11 with lunch served at noon and I am to bring a dish to share. While Bert looks for the nest, I quickly put together a salad. It is close to 2 PM by the time we get to the barbeque since it is almost in Sterling. We decide to make an appearance, but I do not even take my salad with me as I figure it is way too late. To our surprise, people are still eating and there is plenty of food. We eat our fill of delicious pulled pork, salads, chips and desserts while talking to local birders and watching the Kenai River flow by in front of us. The host gives all the kids a white feather and takes them to a field. Everyone holds up their feather. In theory, the swallows swoop down to take the feather for their nests, but the kids are too rambunctious, scaring the birds as they circle overhead. One of the ladies tells me about a campground that she likes where the Moose and Kenai Rivers meet. That is our home for the night. It is drizzly, so no campfire tonight.
(Bert) By the time church service finishes, we are short on time to reach the picnic potluck culminating the Kenai Birding Festival, especially since it is long drive to its location on the Kenai River outside of Sterling. Fortunately, there is still plenty of food left an hour after lunch began. Ken, the trip leader of two days ago, notices our arrival and initiates a conversation which ultimately drifts to birding the Rio Grande Valley where we live. Meanwhile, Shari is talking to a lady who was on the same ferry we took from Bellingham. And, later, we talk to a couple of birders who were on our pelagic trip May 13. This reminds me of the two ladies who were on two different ferries on our way to Alaska, then encountered at a gas station in Juneau, campgrounds in Juneau and Haines, a parking lot on Homer Spit, and at the Russian café in Nikolaevsk. Alaska may be our largest state, but it is small when you look at the limited number of places you can reach by ferry or highway.
We camp tonight at the confluence of the Kenai and Moose Rivers, within view of flying Bonaparte’s Gulls and Arctic Terns.
(Bert) Spring is advancing in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Only white slippers offset the brown summer coats of Snowshoe Hares. The Greater Yellowlegs has put on a few brown feathers across its back and intensified the blackness and size of its spots. Myrtle Warblers are especially bright with sharply-defined colors and they have become much more numerous and certainly more boisterous. I see my first Orange-crowned Warblers on nesting territories. In a clear-cut forest, a Wilson’s Snipe perches on a stump and repeatedly announces its nest alarm call. A pair of Gray Jays carries twigs to add to their nest. On mirrored Engineer Lake, in a mating ritual, a pair of Red-necked Grebes align bill-to-bill and spread facial feathers like ear muffs. At the edge of the lake, dozens of tiny Spring Azure butterflies have escaped their chrysalids after hibernation. The hillsides of Skilak Lake are a mosaic of emerald green spruce and yellow-green newly-leafed birch. On Bottenintnin Lake a Common Loon hauntingly calls to its mate. From our campsite tonight beside Upper Skilak Lake, we are in sight and earshot of a rock island populated by a nesting colony of hybrid gulls, Herring X Glaucous-winged.
(Shari) I think it silly to want to depart early since we really have no place to be or go. We do get out of camp an hour earlier than usual, 9 AM. I want to travel the gravel loop called Skilak Road and camp along the shores of the lakes. We drive down every gravel road we see, hike many of the trails and finally settle on a really neat campground on Upper Skilak Lake. We are the only ones in it with maybe some unseen moose and bear to keep us company. We have lakeshore property and can hear the nesting birds on an island not far from shore. It is extremely peaceful and the only noises other than nature are our own.
(Shari) For years I have another Skilak campground pictured in my mind and I want to camp at it tonight. Still needing fresh water when we arrive at Hidden Lake, I try to use a rubber glove as a water thief by putting it on the outlet of a hand pump. However, the water does not make it all the way through the hose into our tank and we eventually give up. The campground is not as I remembered and we depart. We drive to the Russian River Campground and ask if we can look around; we are given a 20 min. temporary transit pass. We notice a water station and first load up with water. The campground is divided into many loops and all are just about empty of campers. We decide to stay for the night as it is another peaceful place, sandwiched between the Kenai and Russian Rivers. We notice a boardwalk along the river and walk its length. To my surprise, it is a fish walk, built for fisherman to walk the river’s edge without trampling the vegetation along the shore, so important to spawning salmon. Now it is devoid of people but during fishing season, it is packed elbow to elbow with fishermen. We walk a good mile until we can go no farther as we are cut off by the confluence of the Russian and Kenai Rivers. We walk back the way we came and I notice that the walk continues in the other direction quite some ways too. Bert finds some newly sprouted Fiddlehead Ferns, and I pick enough for dinner tonight.
As we walk along the road to our campsite, I hear a sound like a woodpecker tapping. We follow the sound and Bert sees the bird, a Three-toed Woodpecker, and then I get a great look at it too. Another campfire tonight before dinner and bed. NOT quite! While trying to make dinner, I turn on the generator but it does not work. I give up using it in disgust, thinking everything is falling apart when the stove does not work either. That makes me think we are out of fuel and so I look at the gauges. Sure enough, the light is red, the refrigerator is on “check” and that means no heat tonight either. This will not do, so we pack up and head to town in search of propane, stopping at a small convenience store in Cooper Landing. There we purchase bread, a head of lettuce and a tank of propane before going back to the campground.
(Bert) We are pushing the limits of dry camping with our Chinook RV, especially in pre-season camping in Alaska. Few outsiders arrive this early to central Alaska and residents do not start camping until Memorial Day when Anchorage practically evacuates. So we are scrambling to find fresh water, an open dump site and, sometimes, even a campsite. Last night we were the only ones in the campsite and the night before, only the camp hosts–a young family from Oklahoma–were present. I scrapped off an accumulation of dry leaves and twigs from a dump site on the side of Skilak Lake Road and at Upper Skilak Lake we finally found fresh water. We gathered water, bucket by bucket, from a hand pump well and poured it into our tank with a makeshift funnel from a plastic water bottle. This morning the generator would not start. Shari thought it was diesel-powered and I said we have only a quarter tank, so we concluded it was too low on fuel. But now, when the refrigerator stops also, we recognize we have a propane generator and have run out of that fuel. So we leave the campsite we had nestled into at Russian River and drive to Cooper Landing to fill our propane tank. All is now well.
Two birding highlights today are worth a paragraph. At Pothole Lake Fire
Lookout I see a soaring accipiter, thinking it is a Northern Goshawk, although I
have never seen one soaring. I grab my camera and take about 50 photos as it
circles far above me. Later, on the computer, I delete the out-of-focus and crop
the better ones in a variety of sunlit angles. To my surprise, it is a
Sharp-shinned Hawk, most readily identified by its squared tail and white
undertail coverts. In flight, it had seemed so large to me, but I had no frame
of reference in an otherwise empty sky. Previously, I have only seen
Sharp-shinned Hawks in southeastern Alaska, not this far northwest. The second
sighting occurs while I am hiking with Shari at the Russian River Campground.
Simultaneously, we both hear a woodpecker drumming loudly and head in its
direction. In the woods, I see two woodpeckers and turn to show Shari. Instead,
she has stopped 50 ft. back to look up something on her iPhone. Vigorously I
motion to her to join me. One woodpecker disappears and the other moves to a
more distant tree. I can still see it and point out the location to Shari,
handing her my binoculars at the same time. Meanwhile, I snap three photos,
mostly blocked by branches. It is an American Three-toed Woodpecker, a species I
am often asked by others to find, but have difficulty finding. Shari adds the
prize to her iPhone bird life list.
More evidence of spring today, tall Black Cottonwoods have leafed out, high above their gnarled trunks. Red Currant bushes are still less than a foot high, but are pushing out leaves and displaying tiny purplish flowers on racemes. A profusion of Fiddlehead Fern are at their most tender stage and Shari gathers up plenty of the heads for tonight’s dinner. We walk along the rushing Russian River, gorged with melting snow from the Chugach Mountains. Near its confluence, our campsite is above the Kenai River and in good view of the mountains where I can see five Dall’s Sheep browsing, almost out of naked eyesight. The thermometer reaches the low 60s today.
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