By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
If you were reading this sentence on the central Kenai Peninsula at sunrise on the winter solstice, the time would have been about 10:15 a.m. Nearly 15 minutes later here in Dillingham, about 270 miles west of your location, the sun rose. But don’t worry that I’m receiving a lesser amount of daylight. Although the sun set for you on this day at about 3:55 p.m., I basked in the rays of the sun until it sets here at about 4:40 p.m.
If you’re doing the math, I get 30 minutes more light than you do.
On the summer solstice, however — when there’s plenty of light to go around, anyway — you will receive about 30 minutes more sunlight than I do. On each equinox, things even out. The sun will rise and set in Dillingham on those days about a half hour after it rises and sets on the Kenai.
Does all this matter? Perhaps not, except psychologically, but the numbers did set my brain to percolating. What other statistics and factoids, I wondered, might make for interesting comparisons and contrasts between the central peninsula and western Bristol Bay?
After a dangerously small sampling of research, I discovered some intriguing differences and similarities:
I was surprised to learn that Dillingham and Kenai have very similar average high and low temperatures during our warmest month, July. The average high in July in Kenai is almost 63 degrees, while the average low is nearly 49. The average high in July in Dillingham is 61 degrees, while the average low is 49. The averages for the coldest month, January, are 23 and 8 degrees for Kenai, and 20 and 9 degrees for Dillingham.
Nearly everybody in Bristol Bay and on the Kenai Peninsula has grumbled about October and November rains, but the average annual precipitation amounts indicate that neither of us is in a rain forest, regardless how we might feel at times. Kenai averages just 18.28 inches of precipitation per year, while Dillingham averages 25.9 inches. That’s a difference of more than 7 inches. Stand a ruler at your feet and imagine what the ground would look like if it were covered with 7 more inches of water. Then count your blessings. (I’ll count mine, too. I could live in Ketchikan, where the average annual precipitation is more than 150 inches.)
Kenai is the most populous city on the Kenai Peninsula, with 7,100 residents, according to the 2010 Census. (Soldotna’s population in 2010 was 4,163.) Dillingham is the most populous city on Bristol Bay, with 2,329 residents.
Ethnically, the largest segment of Dillingham’s population is Native, mainly Yup’ik, at just over 52 percent, while the largest ethnic group in Kenai and Soldotna is Caucasian, at 83 and 88 percent, respectively.
There’s a lot of flying in these locales. The Kenai Municipal Airport, with a paved runway measuring 7,830 feet, sits 99 feet above sea level and (according to 2011 statistics) has 40,178 annual “aircraft operations,” an average of 110 a day. The Soldotna Airport, with a paved runway measuring 5,000 feet, sits 113 feet above sea level and has only 15,050 annual aircraft operations, an average of 41 per day. Meanwhile, the Dillingham Airport, with a paved runway measuring 6,400 feet, sits just 81 feet above sea level and has 50,892 annual aircraft operations, an average of 139 per day. While 80 percent of Soldotna’s air traffic is considered “general aviation,” 58 percent of Kenai’s and 72 percent of Dillingham’s concerns the air taxi business. (And if you’re wondering why a smaller community has so many planes zipping in and out of its airport, keep in mind that Dillingham is not on the road system. Planes and boats are the only reliable forms of transportation in and out of town.)
Since I love to hike, I looked up the elevation of the peaks closest to each location. Soldotna and Kenai, via the Sterling Highway, are closest to Hideout Hill (2,858 feet), which stands across the Sterling Highway from the Skyline Trail. Dillingham, via the Aleknagik Lake and Snake Lake roads, is closest to Warehouse Mountain (2,106 feet), across the Land Otter Creek drainage from Snake Mountain.
Geographically, Kenai and Dillingham have much in common. Both communities occupy bluff land at the mouths of major river systems — the watershed for the 280-mile Nushagak River for Dillingham and the watershed for the 82-mile Kenai River for Kenai. Both drainages are magnets for multiple species of salmon. Consequently, both attracted canneries in the late 1800s, and both are centers of commercial fishing today. Prior to the 1960s, both places were considered fishing villages. Kenai incorporated in 1960 (as did Soldotna), and Dillingham incorporated in 1963.
Both the Kenai Peninsula and Bristol Bay were given the sail-by treatment by Captain James Cook in the late 1700s.
The Russian presence is strong in both places. Russian fur traders established trading posts at Kenai (1791) and across the bay from Dillingham at Nushagak Point (1818). A Russian Orthodox Church — most recently the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary — has stood in Kenai since the 1840s. One was built on Nushagak Point in 1837, but it burned to the ground in 1984 and was never rebuilt. A newer church, St. Seraphim of Sarov, now stands along Wood River Road in Dillingham.
How these communities got their names varies considerably. The Dena’ina people living on the flat land above the mouth of the Kenai River were called “Kenaitze” by the Russians, who used the term to mean “people of the Kenai” (or “people of the flats”). Soldotna’s name also came from a Dena’ina word — Tseldatnu, meaning “little creek trickling down” — not from the Russian word soldat, meaning “soldier.”
Dillingham, however, is a completely non-Native appellation. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were two main villages on this stretch of Nushagak Bay — Kanakanak and Snag Point. In 1903, a courthouse was built in Kanakanak and named after Vermont’s U.S. Sen. William Paul Dillingham, who had led a subcommittee investigation of conditions in Alaska after the 1898 gold rush but who had dipped not even a single toe into Bristol Bay.
A new Kanakanak post office borrowed the name from the courthouse, and soon the whole community was being called Dillingham. When Snag Point outgrew and later absorbed the village formerly known as Kanakanak, it also acquired the senator’s name, and the whole local area became Dillingham.
I could examine many other numbers and bits of trivia concerning these two areas. In the final analysis, however, the minutiae matter little. Feelings are more important.
Although I live now in vast and beautiful Bristol Bay, much of who I am today stems from having spent five decades on the vast and beautiful Kenai Peninsula.
Which place has more daylight, more airplanes, more rainfall or cold weather matters significantly less than knowing where one’s heart is.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.