KENAI -- Like prospectors rushing to reap their fortunes from fabled veins of ore, thousands of Alaskans turn a small Southcentral city into a boomtown each summer. But the people who nearly triple the size of the Kenai -- about 160 road miles south of Anchorage -- aren't looking for gold. The bonanza they are after is red. Their paystreak: millions of sockeye salmon that propel themselves toward the mouth of the Kenai River each July. Their pilgrimage, much like the salmon they chase, ends in the turquoise-blue waterway that meanders 82 miles into Cook Inlet from a large, glacier-fed lake.
Welcome to the Kenai River personal use dipnet fishery.
When the river is choked with fish it also becomes thick with people. More than 10,000 fishermen pack themselves onto two strips of mud and sand, less than a mile long. Thousands more fill hundreds of boats that crowd another half-mile-long section river. If counted as a metropolis, the 15,000 people that pack the area on any given weekend would be Alaska's fourth-largest city.
Their days are marked by both frenzied action and seemingly serene moments. Some people jockey for the best spots -- battling each other, the tides and of course, the fish. Others seem content to sit quietly, wrapped in an embrace of sweaters and rain gear. At night, a steady din of hushed conversation, seagull screeches, and smoke waft through the air, creeping upward like the tendrils of flame that can been seen from campfires dotting the beach. Together, the sounds and smells add a uniquely Alaska undertone to the salty breeze that seems to constantly blow off Cook Inlet.
"It's kind of like our version of Woodstock," said Kenai City Manager, Rick Koch.