“The earth has music for those who listen.”
Snacking on a sponge cake while watching the sun cook all those tourists covered in oil, that’s how the great Jimmy Buffet taught me to imagine life on the beach. A bright, warm, sunny day with a light tropical breeze swaying the palm trees back and forth while soft white sand crushed beneath my feet has always been my idea of a perfect day at the beach. That all changed for me one January day on a frozen beach in Kenai, Alaska.
Before making our big move to Alaska, we always made a pilgrimage to the beach whenever we could. We looked forward to our trips to the beach in Florida, Hawaii or really wherever we could bask in the warmth of the sun while listening to the soothing sound of the waves crashing on the shore. Our trips to the beach were always about playing in the waves and relaxing in the sun of a tropical day.
My family and I had lived at The Last Frontier for several months and were experiencing our first winter north of the Lower 48. We were enjoying skiing and other types of fun in the snow but hadn’t thought of walking on the frozen beach. . Almost constant daylight during the summer months made it easy to get out and explore the beaches of Alaska when we arrived.
Long walks on the beaches of the Kenai Peninsula became part of our daily routine as we explored our new home. There were no warm tropical breezes or margaritas on our Alaskan beach excursions, but every day at the beach was…well, a day at the beach.
As the summer months faded and the days got shorter, the time we had to go out became more limited. Autumn flew by and the “termination dust” descended the surrounding mountains towards our home at sea level.
Our daily trips to the beach have become increasingly rare. The combination of colder temperatures and freezing winds blowing over Cook Inlet didn’t deter us at first, but the early afternoon sunset made it more difficult to spend time on the beach. Winter quickly engulfed the Kenai Peninsula and our beach walks simply came to a halt.
The snow started falling in October. Before we know it, the lush Alaskan summer landscape has transformed into a winter wonderland of snow-capped evergreens. The fluffy white powder started to build up and a friend of mine informed me that we wouldn’t see the floor or pavement again until April. Our focus shifted to more traditional winter activities like skiing, sledding and snowshoeing instead of walking the beach.
The long bright and sunny days of summer turned into a few hours of dim light. Temperatures continued to drop as the sun never rose above the treetops on our southern horizon. The mercury on the thermometer dipped below zero degrees Fahrenheit for several days in a row in November, but we weren’t deterred from continuing to venture to ski the slopes behind our house. We may have been cheechakos (a cheechako is a newcomer or someone who has never wintered in Alaska), but we were determined to enjoy the outdoors our first winter in Alaska.
Alaskans hold many outdoor festivals during some of the harshest times of winter. The Frozen RiverFest is one such festival and is held to celebrate the frozen Kenai River. One of the things I looked forward to during that first winter was for the Kenai River to freeze over and see icebergs moving up and down Cook Inlet.
The Frozen Riverfest takes place in February at Soldotna Creek Park, on the banks of the Kenai River in Soldotna, Alaska. The festival includes live music, food vendors, and fireworks over the frozen Kenai River. It all happens outdoors as people gather while drinking hot chocolate or locally brewed beer and listening to their favorite Alaskan musical numbers.
Luke was on his school’s Nordic ski team and there was so much going on that over a month had passed since our last family outing to the beaches of Kenai. I decided that had to change as I crossed the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge to take Luke to ski practice. The sight of the ice floes piling up and filling the waterway was amazing and I knew we had to take a trip to the beach to see it up close.
The next day we went to bed and went to the beach. It was hard to believe we were going for a walk on the beach when it was five degrees outside. We walked down a steep hill on South Spruce Street in Kenai to the North Beach access area. We gasped in amazement when we got our first glimpse of the beach and the ice-filled Cook’s Bay.
We drove through the snowy sand dunes of North Beach and came to a dead stop. The sound of ice groaning and cracking as it filled the mouth of the Kenai River was the first thing we noticed. The sound grew in intensity and seemed to envelop us like a giant pipe organ. We watched the pack ice ripple with the Cook Inlet swell. The sights and sounds of the ice in the water were mesmerizing and we stood silent as the rising tide washed away the ice.
Cook Inlet’s tides are among the most spectacular in the world. A 40 foot tidal range is common in the narrow inlet areas. This powerful flow breaks up freshwater ice in the Kenai River and any sea ice that forms in Cook Inlet. The water comes in and out at nearly six miles an hour. The sheer force of the tide lifts huge chunks of ice and deposits them on Kenai’s beaches while throwing others into the cove.
We moved along the beach to the sound of the symphony coming from the ice, completely unaware of the freezing weather. Giant ice monoliths towered over the snowy beach, and a relentless stream of crepe ice slabs lay over Cook Inlet. The whole scene was quite unlike anything I had seen or heard before.
It was like walking on the alien landscape of a distant frozen planet. The harsh Alaskan winter had turned our sandy beach into something entirely new and wonderful. Even in the most difficult conditions, the earth had music for us as long as we were willing to listen to it.