The Final Frontier’s Fishy Festival

Between concerts – Salmonfest, 2014

For many, Alaska is synonymous with rough conditions and impenetrable nature, and when thinking about Alaska, our mind wanders to the guy from Into the Wild falling into a gushing river and Don Rosa’s Scrooge McDuck staring at the white topped Yukon Mountains during the Klondike Gold Rush. People who travel to Alaska are often thought to be crazy athletes, and/or passionate fly fishers. It comes as a surprise for many that during the summer time, the Kenai Peninsula is pretty easily accessible from Finland and it offers one-of-a-kind cultural experiences, full of that Alaskan craziness and humor that is exclusive to this great state.

One unique Alaskan happening is definitely Salmonfest, an annual festival dedicated to protecting the wild sockeye salmon. Describing the festival’s atmosphere is difficult with just adjectives – a tiny narrative from when I visited the festival works better.

Picture this, it’s a warm Saturday – well, Alaskan warm, so not too hot. On a low stage painted with huge pictures of red and green salmons, there’s an artist with shoulder length locks, steel guitar, and a melancholy yet hopeful rock sound. There are women with Janis Joplin hair hula hooping in front of the stage accompanied by dancing kids whose hair is colored with spray-on blue and purple.

Between concerts – Salmonfest, 2014

Between concerts – Salmonfest, 2014

The festival area is full of both exotic food trucks, with spreads that would make Flow festival jealous, and little booths of local people making you cheese toasts and lemonade. From the merch booths, you can find the raddest tie-dyed t-shirts, but also a lot of crafts made by the local artists. The area is full of young people in groups, families, and old couples who’re enjoying the music on folding chairs. In between American and Alaskan artists, there’re talks about the importance of protecting the wild salmon.

Salmonfest, in addition to being a fun event for everybody, is one of the most upfront adversary parties of the famous Pebble mine discussion. Most cars, coffee houses, restaurants, hotels, and shops I saw during my trips to Alaska had a red and white sticker opposing the Pebble mine. Salmonfest takes it a step further with their t-shirts, beer koozies, and tents that offer information about the mine and its ecological effects.

If you do decide to take on the Kenai Peninsula and Salmonfest, it’s easiest to fly to Anchorage, rent a car from the airport, and drive to Ninilchik. The drive takes approximately four hours, but since the roads are tiny and there’s plenty to see, and places to sleep during the drive, you might want to take your time. Salmonfest is an annual event, so if your travel plans and budget is set for this summer, it’ll be there next year as well. From Salmonfest, you can continue your road trip to gorgeous Homer, the cultural hometown of Kenai full of restaurants and galleries. Another great Kenai road trip destination after Salmonfest is the town of Seward. Seward is home to Alaska SeaLife Center, a combination of research facility and aquarium, and the port of call for many day cruise ships that can take you killer whale and glacier watching.

While traveling from Europe to the US has become pretty common vacation option, Alaska is still, in many ways, the Final Frontier for tourists. This might be due to the fact that there are no direct flights to Anchorage from many countries, and Alaska’s tourism industry is mainly focused in getting American people to the giant cruise ships that sail to Alaska. In spite of this, Kenai Peninsula is very welcoming for visitors, since the hard winters mean that businesses must meet their annual financial goals during the summer months. Alaska is a wonderful option for travelers who wish to experience local things, not spoiled by the tourist industry.

Alaska and its people remind me of Finland in many ways – they’re quiet, love nature, and go a little crazy during the summer time. Salmonfest lies in the heart of wilderness on the Kenai Peninsula, ready to surprise even the most experienced travelers.

The Land of Mountains and Sea Otters

(c) Kaisa Leino

“No one comes here by accident,” I think during the 4-hour-drive from Anchorage, the unofficial capital of Alaska, to Seward, the city I’ll be spending the next two months in. Luckily, the Sunday evening is clear, since my eyes are heavy after a whole day of flying and a resilient cold I managed to get just days before leaving Helsinki behind. The first time I was here was last summer, and after getting by Anchorage’s horrible suburbs to the scenic highway toward Seward, I remember why I’m back.

Driving to Seward gives you a rough idea of why people come to Alaska. You see the magnificent Turnagain Arm gulf, which has one of the most forceful tides in the world, the mountains mirrored in the water, trees, trees everywhere and a bog scenery that reminds you of the Louisiana swamps you see in True Detective.

Seward is located on the Kenai Peninsula with a population of 3016. Most restaurants and shops are open only during the summertime and tourism keeps the place running. My workplace revolved around tourists as well since the SeaLife Center is probably the most popular tourist attraction in Seward. If you’re lucky, you might see the gigantic American cruise ships gliding to the bay – compared to Finnish Siljas they’re pretty impressive. The SeaLife Center was founded after the great Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. Unlike many well-known facilities that exhibit marine life, SeaLife is a non-profit organization that focuses mostly on rehabilitation and research. The biggest attractions of the center include Woody, a male stellar sea lion, the viewing area where you might for example see some orphaned sea otter pups that are being cared for, the giant octopus and the bird habitat with puffins and other sea birds.

Seward also hosts one of the coolest sporting events of Alaska: The Mt Marathon Run. I was lucky enough to be in town on 4th of July, when the normally empty main street was full of food carts (bacon dipped in chocolate, anyone?), bars were full and I was told by locals to stay the hell away from the outskirts of town (apparently shooting traffic signs out of a moving car is not unheard of) that night.

The Mt Marathon Run is exactly as exhausting and crazy as it sounds like: the runners start from downtown and run to the top of the 1257 meter high Mt Marathon. Injuries are common, even though the rules have been made the rules stricter (for example, you need to reach the top in an hour’s time), since a participant got lost in 2012 (although I’ve heard wild local theories about the man disappearing on purpose and now living a fat life in Hawaii).

When you think about what a small town Seward is, it is amazing how much greatness it holds within. You have great restaurants with some attitude, like a Chinese restaurant serving kimchi and sake or a Greek place serving Greek pizza and great local events such as art walks and improv nights. Still, not that many huge American brands have reached the town (but of course there’s the one Starbucks in Safeway, the local Prisma). The people are friendly, in an Alaskan way, meaning that they aren’t as physical and loud as many Americans can be but they talk and smile more than Finns. Furthermore, a sea life maniac like myself cannot forget the beautiful rich marine life, which you can witness at the SeaLife Center, or just walking down the shore, where the bald eagles fly over your head and the sea otters swirl around in the waves.

And the things that are great in Seward, are great in Kenai all around. There are happenings like Salmonstock in Ninilchik, which was undeniably one of the most amazing events I’ve ever witnessed. You can count on finding delicious food in town such as Hope (pop. 192) and, of course, the most important thing when traveling around: nice people to chat with no matter where you are. Also, one should never forget the wonderful opportunities that Alaska provides nature-wise: Anyone visiting Seward can do beautiful hikes from downtown to the top of a mountain, there are well organized cruise tours where you are almost guaranteed to see humpback whales and orcas and bear tours leave from multiple cities from June to August.

Traveling to Alaska does take some financial planning, since getting around without a car just won’t do and while you’re there, you’ll probably spend money on cruises and stuff like that. Otherwise, traveling there in the summertime is quite easy: Icelandair flies from Helsinki to Reykjavik, where you take the connecting flight to Anchorage. But after visiting this great corner of the world twice and remembering hiking up the Mt Marathon trail, eating fresh mussels in Homer while looking at the breathtaking scenery of glistening sea and mighty mountains, walking side by side with a sea otter swimming a meter away from me, seeing the orcas flip their tails in the sea, catching a halibut, seeing a bear, listening to Bluegrass jams and sipping a hangover Italian soda in the choir loft of ResArt, I can, from the bottom of my heart say that Alaska is worth it. Here’s some pictures to prove it.

(c) Kaisa Leino

Your editor-in-chief almost dropped her rod when this emerged from the water. To answer your question, no, it’s not an Alaskan Nessie, it’s a lincod.

(c) Kaisa Leino

See those tiny dots? They’re runners. The record time is 42:55, think about that.

(c) Kaisa Leino

Tony Furtado playing on Salmonstock’s main stage.

(c) Kaisa Leino

Seward from the Mt Marathon Bowl.