Kenai River at Kenai, Alaska
At the point where the Kenai River ends its 82-mile course from Kenai Lake to the Cook Inlet, freshwater collides with the sea and an explosion of life enthralls nature lovers. In summer, harbor seals cruise the river mouth, caribou graze in the Kenai River Flats, moose browse the marshy banks, and occasional brown bears fish the shallows. Here the river—turquoise from the sediment of far-off glaciers that feed into the lake—runs flat, slow, and quiet, giving returning salmon a gentle reintroduction to the world of freshwater. These last few miles swell during high tide, creating enough room for some surprising visitors. In spring and fall, snow-white beluga whales swim several miles upstream hunting salmon and smelts, putting on a show for spectators. The Kenai City Beach, a stretch of fine sand with even finer views of the Alaska Range, makes a good place to watch for whales and other salmon hunters, including locals who jab for fish with long dip nets. As the tide rolls out, greater yellowlegs, dowitchers, sandpipers, and other shorebirds move in to muck about for a meal. Get a bird’s-eye view of the action from Erik Hansen Scout Park, atop a steep bluff overlooking the river. Migrating salmon splash in the water below, and a few thousand gulls squawk along the shore. The Kenai achieves that rare feat: It’s at its most lively at the very end. We should all be so lucky.
Missouri River in Great Falls, Montana
While gazing at the mighty Missouri from the 10th Street Bridge in Great Falls, Montana, pause a moment to pity some visitors of the past. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their Corps of Discovery arrived here in the summer of 1805 expecting a day-long route to the Rocky Mountains. The roar and spray of five waterfalls told them to think otherwise. Lewis gamely called the falls “the grandest sight,” but it took the explorers roughly a miserable month to haul their gear and supplies (including their canoes—on wheels) across more than 18 miles of rough country to reach calmer water. Dams have since tamed the river, but the four remaining falls—Black Eagle, Rainbow, Crooked, and Great Falls’s namesake, which tumbles nearly 90 feet over the edge of the Ryan Dam 10 miles downstream from town—still impress. The River’s Edge Trail, 50-plus miles of pavement and paths, lets cyclists, joggers, and hikers follow the Missouri as it passes through town and enters the rugged prairie to the northeast. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center—a 25,000-square-foot exhibit hall, theater, and activity room—presents the story of the river and the epic detour that first put it in the history books. The highlight: a full-scale panoramic sculpture of four Corps members dragging a loaded dugout canoe up a nearly vertical cliff. Next door to the center, more than 150 million gallons of water bubble up in a clear pool at Giant Springs State Park, sparkling as they tumble into the Missouri. Today the river is still a grand sight—it’s just a whole lot easier to navigate.