Evan's Eyes

Web Log Entry #0068, Sunday, May 18, 2003: Day 181

Anchorage Sunrise: 5:06am Sunset: 10:47pm High Temp: 57° Low Temp: 42°

On Friday afternoon, Stan asked "Do you want to go to Soldotna this weekend?" I thought about it for a while, but I knew I had to go. I'd been postponing my Alaskan exploration for warmer weather (and delayed for the writing competition), and was running out of excuses. And it was Soldotna! (For those of you who are unfamiliar, this is the place where St. Louis got the motto "St. Louis - The Soldotna to The West," which was subsequently changed to "Gateway to the West" because the pioneers crossing the Great Plains had no idea where Soldotna was and it made the children cry). The point is, if you want to drive anywhere on the western Kenai peninsula, you have to go through Soldotna.

Our mission was simple. Stan was going to fly a powered parachute (PPC). He's been thinking about buying a PPC rig after this contract is over, and roaming the Southwest, dispensing two-fisted justice and doing good deeds. Okay, I made up the part about justice and good deeds, but he is serious about the rest. He saw a clip on TV about a guy who sells and flies these little aircraft, and called the number. It turned out to be based in Soldotna, not Anchorage, but it seemed an adequate reason to go.

If you already know about powered parachutes, skip this bit: Imagine a three-wheeled frame with a motorcycle seat for two in the center, powered by a big fan, like a swamp boat. This is topped with either removable wings (like a hang-glider's, which I think is then called a powered para-glider, or PPG), or a specially-shaped parachute which acts as an airfoil. If this is confusing, skip down to the photos for a look. I'll wait.

You're back? Good. It seems strange to me that a parachute makes one go UP, but that's the joy of physics. The fan provides thrust, air moving over the chute provides lift, and up you go! This configuration gives the comforting thought that if the engine cuts out, you've already got a parachute deployed to lower you to the ground. Of course, the frame and engine act as a 300 lb. anchor, so it's not perfect. Still, it's cheaper than an airplane and safer than hang-gliding. For the sake of thoroughness, I'll mention that there is a style of powered parachute that is essentially a big fan strapped to one's back, but they're to wheeled PPCs as a moped is to a Harley.

We left mid-day on Saturday. The Internet said it was a three-hour drive, so we were in no hurry. Dark clouds loomed above the pass, but the drive turned out to be uneventful. The most obvious change from my last trip south (to Seward, remember?), was that the snow-capped mountains I admired so much are molting. The smooth snowfields are only white lines and patches across the rough, scrubby slopes. In a few short weeks the mountains will obtain their summer plumage, but right now they look like an adolescent duck's awkward stage. Still, they are imposing and beautiful, and I had plenty of scenery to admire.

We arrived mid-afternoon and checked into the Kenai River Lodge. Even this early in the season, they were full. I can wholeheartedly say, of all the hotels in the Greater Kenai/Soldotna area, the Kenai River Lodge is certainly one of them, and is the only place we stayed the night we were there (and they didn't pay me to say that!). Now, I'm not saying that the facilities were exactly like a Motel 6, as your budget-rate motel doesn't have a conference room or an outdoor barbeque, or the very polite signs in the rooms asking guests not to clean fish in the bathroom sink. During "high season" (which I assume has to do with summer fishing, not recreational pharmaceuticals), the rate is a staggering $140/night for that room. Fortunately, we were there before the peak season, and we got a special deal because Doug the Pilot knew Doug the Hotel Owner (Really. I didn't check the Soldotna phone book, but as far as I currently know, all guys in Soldotna are named "Doug"). The price of adventure was still not cheap, but the room had cable TV, so I was okay with it.

Stan inquired at the front desk for directions to the airport. The nice lady assumed he meant the Kenai airport, but acknowledged that Soldotna had a little airport of its own. Now, what would you envision if someone in a remote Alaskan town said there was a "little" airport? I imagined a 200-yard dirt strip, maybe a tin shed, and a half-dozen Cessnas. I was wrong. It was HUGE! Not Big-City-International-Airport huge, but I'd guess the tarmac was a mile long and 200 yards wide. We theorized that it was a legacy of the military, as we could easily imagine giant transport aircraft touching down, instead of the dozens of little planes (2 to 15-seaters) parked in neat rows along one edge. Stan was scheduled to meet with Doug around 9:00pm, so we went for a drive to see the sights.

I'll admit that we only saw the part of Kenai visible from the main road, but it looked like a small town on an Interstate highway. Despite being located where the Kenai River meets the Cook Inlet, it seems to totally ignore the water. We drove through Kenai and were almost to Nikiski before we realized that we'd gone through the entire town. After passing the industrial section of Nikiski (an oil refinery and a fertilizer plant), we decided to turn around and seek out beach access.

This was not easy. We could see the water, often tantalizingly close, but we drove for miles past either private property or dead-end roads with big red and white signs reading "No Beach Access". Eventually we found a small side street with an opening to the water that wasn't in somebody's yard. When we got to the metal railing, we found the other reason beach access is limited. The water was about 50' below, at the bottom of an abrupt cliff. We could see a 20'-wide packed-sand beach. The tide was low, but the entire beach appeared to be under the high-tide mark, which would certainly diminish the appeal for beach-party fun. Combined with the near-constant wind, frigid water, and ever-present danger of Orcas, I could see why Kenai discouraged beach access. It's like Yuma, Arizona; hard to get to and not much fun once you're there. We listened to the sound of the waves, which was comforting, and headed back toward Soldotna. (To be fair, I did see a sign for beach access on the way back, but we didn't check it out. So Kenai may not be totaled beach-access deficient.)

It was time to eat. We cruised Soldotna for a bit, weighing our options. The World-Famous (according to them) Sal's seemed a bit too gaudy, so we opted for a nearby Riverside House, mostly because it was close, and it claimed to be "The Only Restaurant in Soldotna with a River View." It didn't look like much from the outside, but the dining room was pleasant, we had a view of the river, and the waitress was cheerful and friendly. We both ordered the pesto-baked halibut, which sounded better than it actually was, but it wasn't bad. The high point was the placemat, which had interesting facts about Alaska. For example, the population is about 599,000, and the square mileage is about 589,000. If one had the time and inclination, you could put one Alaskan in the center of every square mile with a few spares. I don't advise this, as many of them will have a very long walk home, but I don't think any state in the US has such a generous land-to-person ratio. As we left, an eagle landed in a tree behind the restaurant. Stan snapped a picture of it. The digital camera has no zoom to speak of, so the majestic bird is virtually indistinguishable from a clump of branches at the top of a tree. Oh well. We have a nice shot of the unimpressive front of the Riverside House restaurant.

After dinner I did a Bill Bryson and went for a walk. Unfortunately, Soldotna is not quite a Hood River, Oregon, it's more like a Williams, Arizona or Yreka, California. The highway runs through the middle of the town, lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels, but we didn't see 'downtown' identity separate from the highway (it may be there, but we didn't find it). So I walked across the bridge (brief digression: When Stan asked for directions to the hotel from Anchorage, all the hotel person said was "We're on the right just before you cross the bridge." This seemed strange, until we realized that the missing first half of the instructions are: "Drive south on Highway 1 for 146 miles." This was apparently so obvious, it went without saying. These two sentences, however, are completely adequate for finding the hotel, due to the limited number of highways and bridges in the region), and followed the main drag. I could have crossed the street to check out the go-carts, but instead chose to keep going. At least there was a bike path, so I wasn't actually walking on the highway, but that was the extent of pedestrian-friendliness. My route took me past the State Troopers office, the turn-off to a museum, and a huge series of baseball fields. I considered attempting to walk to the museum, but all I could see was a straight gravel road with a small, unreadable sign far off. Continuing on, I walked for what felt like a long time and was only past half of the baseball fields, so I turned around. Walking downhill and with the wind greatly improved the experience, but I don't enjoy walking with cars whizzing past only a few feet away.

When I got back to the river, I detoured down to the fisherman's walkway on the bank. I don't know the actual statistics, but based on what I saw, I'd guess that the available activities in Soldotna break down the following way:

Fishing 87%
Rafting 7%
Hiking, Camping, Getting Lost in the woods 4%
Other 2%

Virtually everything in Soldotna revolves around fishing. When I saw the building with the big "Fish Shipping" sign, I knew exactly what it meant, even though it also made me think of bizarre practical jokes. Soldotna is sort of a Mecca for fisher-persons. During "High Season" (there's that phrase again!), people endure bumper-to-bumper traffic to stand shoulder-to-shoulder along the river to fish. Apparently it's worth it. (People tell me it's great and I should try it, to which I reply that I don't have an Alaska license. They say "You can get a one-day license for $10", and I reply "Alaska issues dynamite licenses for ten dollars?" They become frightened and confused, and I explain that I have a very pragmatic approach to fishing. It doesn't involve bait, hooks, or chasing live fish with a net, but is illegal in most countries, including Alaska. So I don't fish.) Anyway, the whole point of this is that this annual stampede of fisher-individuals is very bad for the soft river edges. To protect them, elevated metal walkways are erected along the banks, with steps leading down for fisher-beings to enter the water with minimal environmental impact. The walkway across the river from the hotel allowed me to sit and watch the water for a while without getting muddy.

As I serenely watched the water hypnotically sliding by, my gaze fell on some hoofed prints in the mud. As I grew up on open range in Arizona, my brain thought "Oh look, cows." Then I realized where I was. Moose tracks! Right there! Sometime in the recent past, a moose had ambled right in front of where I was sitting. I thought about how exciting it would be to have a moose go by while I sat there. It would be exciting, but could turn quite ugly if our Moose-American friend decided I was a potential terrorist threat. The walkway was four feet above the mud, but that was no problem for a moose to climb. My only hope would be to dive under the metal grating, into the mud. I decided I didn't like the way my moose-encounter fantasy was turning out, so I crossed the bridge back to the hotel to wait until I got the call.

(Okay, before you send me emails reviling the evils of fishing with explosives, I was joking! I fully support the empowerment of Piscine-Americans, acknowledge their right to peacefully pursue their lives and careers, and would never advocate anything to harm them. Thank you.)

The wind was still frisky at 9:00, so The Call came at 9:30. It was time. We drove to the airport again, but this time we knew how to get in (drive up to the metal gate, which will then open automatically). We followed a SUV to the east end of the strip. Doug was waiting, and the driver of the SUV was Brad, who was also interested in taking a test ride. Doug, Brad and Stan talked about the powered parachute and its engine while Doug prepared it for flight. I took pictures (if there are no pictures here, it means we're having technical difficulties getting Mr. Camera to relinquish the digital pictures to Mr. Computer. Oh wait, there they are!). Stan won the coin toss, and got the first ride. That's him in the green coat. I stood around in the cold, interspersed with brief flurries of conversation with Brad.

PPC Flying

Doug flew Stan around the airport, came down for a touch-and-go, did a larger circuit, another touch-and-go, then flew over Soldotna, out of our sight for a while. When we saw them again, they were about 1,000' feet up, heading in from the East. Practically straight above us, Doug did a series of switchback maneuvers that dropped them down to the runway for landing. Stan said he had a good time, although you may notice in the picture of them on the ground that Stan has a firm grip on the side of the frame. He admitted that he never let go the whole time, even though he was safely strapped in and holding on didn't really make any difference. I'm not criticizing; I'd feel better about going for a ride in it if at least one wheel was in contact with the ground at all times. I may be a rebel that no one can tame, but I don't enjoy aircraft smaller than a 737.

We got back to the hotel a little after sunset, about 10:45. Even though there was still light in the sky, it was well past my bedtime, I was chilled, and I needed to sleep. Before getting into bed, I did check out my window, but the riverbank was completely moose-free.

I awoke with a pounding headache. I tried to identify the origin, but thinking was difficult. I did bump my head against a shelf in the hotel room the night before (don't ask), but I was more surprised than hurt. Maybe I had struck harder than I thought. Maybe standing in the cold on the airstrip did it. I don't know. I just knew that my neck muscles were tight, and my head ached terribly. I hoped food would help.

Perhaps there are other available options for breakfast in Soldotna, but a cluster of cars were parked in front of Sal's (which, you may recall, is World Famous), and we saw nothing else open, so that's where we went. The carnival-like exterior was far scarier than the interior, which looked like a normal, small-town diner with knick-knacks hung on the walls. The menu also had interesting facts, but all I remember from that one was that the Alaska Gold Rush had 200,000 people head out for the gold fields, only 30,000 arrived, and just 400 actually found any gold. These are not good odds. I don't think I'd play the Lotto if there was a chance of freezing to death if I lost.

My head did feel better, but I was pretty quiet on the way back home. I watched for wildlife, but only saw a chipmunk running across the road (I always see one chipmunk when I leave Anchorage, why is that?). I did perk up enough for a bit of conversation about non-mainstream theories of geological forces, the evolution of the computer industry, and Packard cars, but we were both subdued. It could have been fatigue or physical discomfort, but perhaps larger forces were at work. We were somehow changed by our trip. Our journey was deceptively uneventful, but we had come face-to-face with the awe-inspiring, life-changing, throbbing wilderness majesty that is Soldotna, and nothing could ever be the same again. Which is fine, as long as my head stops hurting....

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© 2003 Evan M. Nichols