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Kenai: taking the less-traveled road

WITH only one-fifth of Alaska's area accessible by camper or car, the state's roads become clogged each summer with vehicles from the ``lower 48.'' Most are headed for the few towns or tourist attractions that can be reached by road. So when you discover a road less traveled (if unpaved) that leads to one of the most scenic spots in the state, it's a rare find indeed. Captain Cook State Recreation Area, 200 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula, is small by Alaska standards. Although it covers more than 1,000 acres, it is dwarfed by the neighboring, and much better known, 1.9 million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Perhaps that explains why Captain Cook is seldom crowded, why moose still graze by the side of the road and wander peacefully through campgrounds at night, and why beachcombers still find agates on the shores of Cook Inlet.

Captain Cook borders on the Cook Inlet, and also has a large freshwater lake accessible by road. You can spend the morning sunbathing, have a picnic lunch while you scan the horizon for whales, then fish for rainbow trout and arctic char in Stormy Lake in the afternoon. Hardy sorts might even decide to go for a swim, although the air temperature seldom gets above 70 degrees F. in this part of the state, and the water temperature is a good 20 to 25 degrees colder.

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The Kenai Peninsula itself is a vast and varied place. It encompasses a lowland spruce and birch forest, hundreds of lakes, the imposing 6,000-foot-plus Kenai Mountains with their ancient glaciers and ice field, and the Kenai Fiords National Park. Beyond the mountains that gird the peninsula's southeastern flank, the broad Gulf of Alaska opens into the Pacific.

The first white settlement in the Kenai was established by Russian fur trappers at St. George in 1786, less than a decade after British explorer James Cook first cruised the area. Nearby Kenai (then called St. Nicholas) was settled in 1791.

During the next century and a half, a local economy based on trapping and hunting seriously depleted the animal population, leading President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the 1.8 million-acre Kenai National Moose Range in 1941. In 1980, the range was expanded to its present size, with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Today the Kenai is home to Dall sheep, mountain goats, caribou, brown and black bear, moose, wolves, mink, otter, beaver, and numerous species of waterfowl. Commercial fishing and canneries have replaced trapping.

The entrance to Captain Cook State Recreation Area is 35.5 miles from the Soldotna junction on the Kenai Spur Road. The 30 miles of paved two-lane highway gives way at Daniels Lake to a well-graded dirt road, which ends 9.3 miles later at the Discovery Campground. A tent campground, Bishop Creek, is just one-third of a mile from the entrance. Discovery Campground, perched high on a bluff over the inlet, is 3.5 miles farther down the road. The turnoff for Stormy Lake is about one mile from the entrance.

Discovery Campground is classified as ``primitive'' by state standards: Outhouses are provided, but there are no shower facilities. Of the 137 sites, 58 are for tents and 79 for trailers - 20 of these for pull-throughs. Like most of Alaska's campgrounds, it is well laid out, and the wooded sites offer privacy. Each site has a picnic table and fire grate, and on most afternoons the ranger stops by to see if campers want free firewood for the evening. A centrally located hand pump provides ample potable water. There is no charge for camping, and a 15-night maximum stay is enforced. Outhouses are wheelchair accessible.

The peninsula, like the rest of the state, can often be quite rainy, so I felt fortunate to have dry weather four of the five days I was at Discovery Campground. On the warmest day I rented a canoe in Soldotna and paddled leisurely on some of the nearby lakes. Although I didn't spot any wildlife, I was serenaded by a family of loons. I spent an idle morning watching a bull moose graze in a thicket by the side of the road, and walked the rocky beach searching for agates, without success.

Collecting berries is a favorite pastime in this part of the Kenai, as is watching the sun set behind Mts. Redoubt and Iliamna across the inlet. White beluga whale and bird watching, beachcombing, and sunbathing are also popular, as is canoeing along the nearby 80-mile Swanson River or 60-mile Swan Lake route. There is a lovely picnic area available for day use across from the campground entrance and right next to the public boat launch.

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Soldotna, the peninsula's sport-fishing center, is famous for Kenai River salmon. When they're running, it is common to see anglers standing knee deep and elbow to elbow along the riverbanks. Those preferring less crowded conditions can choose from several fishing guide services, including fly-in operations, headquartered in Soldotna. This small city offers the conveniences travelers might enjoy before or after a trip to Captain Cook or farther into the bush, including two shopping malls, supermarkets and laundries, several modern hotels and motels, and a youth hostel.

Kenai, between Soldotna and Captain Cook, is the largest city on the peninsula, and the center for oil and gas drilling operations. It also has all major facilities, including the Kenai Recreation Center, with its showers, sauna, and hot tub all open to the public.

There are several places of historical interest in Kenai. A replica of Fort Kenai, the first American military installation in the area (1869), is on display. The Fort Kenai Museum exhibits artifacts dating back to the town's beginnings, along with heirlooms from gold mining days. The Holy Assumption Church, founded in 1846 and rebuilt 50 years later, is the oldest Russian Orthodox church in Alaska and, with its three onion-shaped domes, is considered one of the finest examples of Russian ecclesiastical architecture in the state. Tour information is available next door at the Parish House.

The Kenai Peninsula should not be overlooked by visitors understandably determined to spend time at Denali National Park and other spectacular areas farther north. The Captain Cook State Recreation Area is a fine place to explore, to relax for a few days during an Alaskan vacation, or to use as a base camp while discovering the rest of the Kenai. Practical information

Captain Cook State Recreation Area is open May 15 - Sept. 10. For additional information, write State Recreation Area, Box 1247, Soldotna, AK 99699. For visitor information on Soldotna, write Box 236, Soldotna, AK 99669.

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