Cook Inlet - Waterways of Alaska

Cook Inlet - Waterways of Alaska
The city of Anchorage is located on a wide shelf of land, relatively speaking, between the towering Chugach mountains and Cook Inlet; a huge, vaguely crab-leg shaped body of water stretching 180 miles in from the massive Gulf of Alaska.

The waters of Cook Inlet surround Anchorage on both sides and allow access to the busy deep-water Port of Alaska, but did you know this important waterway also stretches the length of the Kenai Peninsula and all the way to the Shelikof Strait between Kodiak Island and the mainland?

Knik and Turnagain Arms of Cook Inlet, the bodies of water that split off to either side of Anchorage, are just the points where the Inlet ends. There is so much more to Cook Inlet, which is a full 80 miles across at its widest point. This is an active salmon, halibut and herring fishery for both commercial and sport fishermen who share the waterway with productive oil and gas drilling rigs.

As an example of the huge size of Cook Inlet; if you travel south from Anchorage around the end of Turnagain arm and then drive the length of the massive Kenai Peninsula to the very end, stand on the Homer Spit (a popular tourist and fishing destination in itself!), gazing across the vast expanse of water to the still active Mt. Redoubt, St. Augustine and Iliamna volcanos on mainland Alaska on the far distant horizon … you are looking across Cook Inlet, not the much larger Gulf of Alaska. Sort of mind-boggling.

I’ve made that trip more than once and find myself repeatedly seeking out camping spots overlooking the inlet. Whether you find yourself surrounded by forests, watching Beluga whales follow the tide (and the fish) into Turnagain arm, camping high on a windy ridge watching eagles swoop and fish in the inlet below, or parking your RV right on the beach of the Homer Spit, your eyes will be drawn to the ever-changing waters of Cook Inlet.

Cook Inlet was originally populated by the Denaʼina, a Native Athabaskan people. Russian fur traders arrived by boat in the mid-17th century. Captain James Cook, the explorer the waterway was named for, arrived under sail in 1776, while on an expedition searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. It seems he was quite disappointed when first Knik Arm and then the larger Turnagain Arm both petered out into glacial river valleys rather than the much-desired passage-way he hoped to find. In fact, Turnagain Arm was reputedly so-named because of Captain Cook’s frustrated command to “Turn Again!” when they came to the end of the arm.

Communities on the eastern coastline of Cook Inlet along the Kenai Peninsula include Kenai, Ninilchik, Anchor Point and Homer – in that order. All known for their excellent fishing charters, great camping and scenic views of the volcanos across the Inlet on a clear day. The beaches along the inlet between Anchor Point and Homer are also popular clamming beaches – just be mindful of the fast-moving tides.

The tides in Cook Inlet are the highest found in the United States, and second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada for highest tides in all of North America, with a tidal range of up to 40’.

Beyond Homer, and closest to the mouth of Cook Inlet, is Kachemak Bay, a forty-mile-long arm of Cook Inlet and home to the remarkable beauty of the Kachemak Bay National Park.

On the opposite side of Cook Inlet lies the expanse of mainland Alaska, leading out to the Aleutian Islands. Along this coast, you'll find Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, the dramatic and isolated Katmai National Park with its world-famous bear-viewing tours, a vast multitude of river deltas emptying into the inlet, and few small native Alaskan communities. None of this spectacular north-western coast is accessible except by boat or airplane.

By land, you can only travel north from Anchorage a short distance around Knik Arm to the towns of Eagle River, Palmer and Wasilla before almost all roads head inland, leading you to Denali, Fairbanks, Glennallen and beyond.

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