COOPER LANDING — The way ferry operator Jack Welsh sees it, one thing hasn’t changed from last summer to this one on the upper Kenai River: the covered faces of some visitors.
“Everybody was wearing masks for the smoke last summer, and they’re wearing them for COVID this summer,” he said.
The Kenai River, famous for its fishing opportunities near its confluence with the Russian River, is the cornerstone on which many seasonal guiding services and visitor businesses are built in Cooper Landing. Normally, it’s a busy and fun time, said river guide Austin Klopstein.
“It’s like summer camp for adults, and then we kick up our heels in the fall,” Klopstein said.
But it’s been years since things seemed normal. This is the third straight summer that this central Kenai Peninsula town of about 300 people has drifted into an economic beatdown by forces beyond its control.
The Kenai River sportfishing season in 2018 was weak for king salmon and “exceptionally bad” for sockeye salmon, a species that draws visitors and keeps guides afloat in Cooper Landing. Emergency orders reduced the sockeye bag limit in mid-July, then closed the fishery entirely weeks later, said Matt Miller, a Cook Inlet sportfish coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Miller said the sockeyes showed up in August and the sportfishery reopened on August 21.
“At that point, everyone’s done. Guides aren’t booking trips,” Miller said.
In 2019 a lightning-sparked wildfire burned all summer. The danger drew so near to smoke-choked Cooper Landing in late August that many residents were told to prepare to evacuate. Many were long gone by then.
This year, any hope that Cooper Landing could return to average drifted downstream months before the visitor season began, washed out to sea by COVID-19-related health concerns felt along the riverbanks here just as they are around the nation.
“I don’t want to get the virus,” said Welsh, the 22-year-old from Augusta, Georgia, on a lightly-attended evening at the ferry crossing. “And I don’t want to spread it to anyone else.”
The Anchorage Daily News visited people and places near Cooper Landing recently to see how the region is enduring the latest in a string of difficult summers.
Standing by the front entrance to Gwin’s Lodge and Roadhouse, waitress Rachel Rolfe described what summer once was like in Cooper Landing, where she has lived for five years.
“Tons of cars, lots of great music, lots of great parties, people fishing (at) all hours,” Rolfe said. There would be more boats, families, bonfires and laughter.
“We have whole night hours without any cars on the highway,” Rolfe said. “I’ve never seen that happen.”
Gwin’s has seen plenty of change since the historic log roadhouse opened in 1952, seven years before statehood. Owner Keith Mantey said this year could’ve been worse if not for in-state travelers paying a visit.
“I think a lot of Alaskans have come out to enjoy Alaska when there’s less tourism. We’ve definitely seen that,” Mantey said.
But better-than-expected doesn’t mean good.
Mantey said restaurant business has fallen 30% and his lodging business is half of what it was during last year’s troubled tourist season, even though Cooper Landing’s overall capacity was starkly reduced this summer. The Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, perched on a bluff overlooking the river, is one of five Princess Lodges that didn’t open at all in Alaska this year.
Gwin’s bar manager Cassie Acer showed a commemorative Swan Lake Fire T-shirt. It depicts smoke plumes along the highway and dollar bills burning in midair. This summer, Mantey keeps a 23-person staff, about two-thirds what he would normally employ at Gwin’s strip of businesses, which also include a tackle shop and a liquor store.
Down the road, Dakota Reeves, general manager of Grizzly Ridge cabin rentals and convenience store, tells a similar story. He thinks he may already have seen the peak of this summer’s business.
“I think we got up to about 70%, and I think we’re going to go back down from there,” Reeves said. “But overall, when you average all that throughout May, June, July, August and September, it might end up being 35%. Maybe 40, if we’re lucky.”
Reeves, a self-described optimist, is trying to look at the slow summer as an opportunity. Grizzly Ridge, which now includes a lodge and five cabins, plans to add five more cabins by the start of next summer.
“It’s tough to do work in a normal summer, but we have had a lot of much-needed work to get done around here,” he said.
Standing on a cabin porch with a view of the Kenai River and the surrounding mountains, Reeves said he’s confident customer demand will return.
“This is so beautiful and I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand,” he said. “If things are halfway normal next year, I really think we’ll have a really good year. But the question is how many businesses are going to be able to survive til next year?”
After the last three tough summers, Mantey had no firm predictions about what the next one will bring.
“It’s unknown. It could get dramatically worse or, hopefully, better ...” he said, seated at the roadhouse bar. “(I’m) praying that it is a better year and the fourth time’s a charm.”
Matt Erb and Carol Cohen set their backpacks down and relaxed by the riverside in the late afternoon sun. The visitors from Washington, D.C., had just finished a satisfying hike across Resurrection Pass, a 39-mile trail from Hope to Cooper Landing. The alpine meadows, the vistas, the whole experience surpassed the high standard set by the hike they had completed earlier in their two-week Alaskan adventure.
“I didn’t think actually I would see anything better than the Russian Lakes Trail, and then we did the Resurrection Trail,” Cohen said.
Both said they got a negative COVID-19 test before visiting Alaska. Airplane travel during the pandemic was different, Erb said, but everyone wore masks. Cohen called it an “acceptable level of risk.”
“There’s no way we were going to cancel the trip,” she said.
Once in Alaska, the backpackers said they felt safe outdoors doing activities that were distant from others.
“We saw four people,” Erb said of his two-day hike on the Resurrection Pass Trail.
The view is different on a trail a little further west. The Skyline Trail in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge winds through forest burned by the Swan Lake Fire last year.
Beginning at Mile 61 of the Sterling Highway, the Skyline Trail gains elevation right away and leads hikers to its 2,800-foot high point in about 2.5 steep miles. On a clear day, the view can stretch from Denali in one direction to the Harding Icefield in another. It’s one of the most popular trails on the Kenai Peninsula, according to refuge manager Andy Loranger.
“Out of the many trails, and many miles of trails, that were damaged during the Swan Lake Fire, it was a priority for us,” Loranger said. “But it was also one of the trails that had the most extensive challenges.”
Loranger said a six-person trail crew worked in teams of two for six weeks in May and June on Skyline Trail and several others in the refuge. The heavy lift included removing downed trees from the trail and some standing trees that were in danger of falling. They stabilized some sections with rock and rerouted others. Skyline Trail reopened in late June.
“They just worked so hard and have done a great job out there,” Loranger said of the crew.
Now, the trail provides not only the high alpine vista, but perspective on the magnitude of the Swan Lake Fire, which burned for 146 days and involved more than 167,000 acres, according to a multiagency summary. It now gives hikers a close look at what happens after a fire in the boreal forest, Loranger said.
“Fire causes a dramatic change to the landscape, very obviously,” he said. “But following fire, you see a gradual rebirth.”
Dusty Byrd-Coulliette thinks Cooper Landing is getting better at living in a state of anxiety.
Last year, Byrd-Coulliette, who co-owns Alaska Troutfitters fly shop and guiding service, operated later into the fall to compensate for days lost to the Swan Lake Fire activity. This year started with more uncertainty.
“That’s probably the hardest thing about this whole thing. We really just didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said.
Byrd-Coulliette said she’s hired fewer guides this year. As a COVID-19 precaution, customers must now reserve a whole boat to keep from mixing with other groups. Considering the scope of the pandemic, she’s trying to keep perspective on her challenges.
“It’s all relative, and we’ve just kind of changed our whole mindset and what our expectations are of the season, Byrd-Coulliette said. “And we’re just thankful for the business we do get.”
Austin Klopstein, a river guide for Alaska River Adventures, said clientele this year includes longtime Alaskans who have never been on the Kenai River.
“They felt like this summer was their summer to go out and explore their own backyard,” he said.
Last summer, Klopstein worked as operations coordinator for Cooper Landing Emergency Services, serving as a liaison between the community and the incident management teams during the intense Swan Lake Fire. That included communicating with structure protection teams and a nervous public that needed frequent updates.
At the same time, Klopstein worried for his own household. He said he and his wife loaded two vehicles with their belongings. She was ready to clear out while he stayed behind to work with firefighters. Though ultimately they didn’t have to evacuate, it was a nerve-wracking time.
Klopstein said he plans to stay in Cooper Landing this winter. To his thinking, it’s a good place to stay put during the pandemic. His plans are less solid in the longer term. He plans to stick it out one more year and see how it goes.
Others feel similarly unsettled, he said.
“There’s been some animosity or bitterness to what’s been happening around here the last three years and I think people are starting to reevaluate what they’re going to be doing in and around Cooper Landing. It’s just been weird,” Klopstein said. “I think we’re all kind of exhausted at this point and hoping next summer brings a lot of fish and a lot of people.”
For Byrd-Coulliette, if there’s a silver lining to another tough summer, it includes a few “magical” moments she has spent fishing on a relatively quiet, uncrowded river.
“I think we’ll all get through this,” Byrd-Coulliette said.
“I think it’s been rough on all of us in a lot of different ways. Financially. Emotionally …” she said. “But I think overall, I’m really glad to be in this community right now.”
Rachel Rolfe, the waitress at Gwin’s Roadhouse, is so optimistic about an eventual return to normal that she didn’t wait for it to happen before she launched a new business. She and her boyfriend, Andrew Mundy, started a takeout food stand along the Sterling Highway this summer. The Buckaroo offers crepes, espresso and a sprinkle of Cooper Landing pride.
“We love Cooper Landing! The turquoise waters, lush hiking trails, bountiful fisheries,” the menu reads. “Most importantly we love this tight-knit community. We are proud to call this our home and to be raising our Buckaroo here.”
The couple operates the business from a tent to lower expenses and keeps unusual hours. The Buckaroo opens each week for 72 hours straight, 24 hours a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. They take turns sleeping those days.
“Usually if you’re working, you don’t get off the river until 10 o’clock, and then you’re hungry, but you don’t want to make anything,” Rolfe said.
It was risky to start the business in a down year, said Rolfe, who came to Alaska from Florida to be a campground host, then never left. But she has no regrets. Hungry customers come in groups from midnight to 2 a.m., she said. Overall, they’re meeting their goals and doing well, she said at the start of an August weekend.
“Cooper Landing’s had three tough summers, but they’re still hanging on,” Rolfe said.
What will next summer be like?
“It’s got to be better,” Rolfe said with a laugh. “It’s gonna be better.”
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