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"Bowling definitely saved me": One Kenai bowler remembers Alaskalanes alley

Riley Board
The Alaskalanes bowling alley comes down on Friday, June 24.

Drivers on the Kenai Spur Highway might notice the absence of a long-standing structure in downtown Kenai — the Alaskalanes bowling alley. After closing in 2015 and inspiring a campaign of support over the last few years, the building finally came down at the end of last week.

Mason Yamada grew up bowling at Alaskalanes and went on to bowl at the collegiate level at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee. Even though the bowling alley has been closed for seven years, he said seeing the demolition this past week was still a tough blow.

“When I drove by and saw the big hole in it, it definitely brought all sorts of emotions up,” he said.

Yamada started bowling at around four or five years old, and the now-demolished alley in Kenai was central to both his childhood and that of his brother, who also bowls in college. In a weird way, they both owe their existence to Alaskalanes — their parents, Charlotte and Glenn Yamada, went on their first date there. The couple even leased the building for a few years.

“That bowling alley has definitely been a part of our life, you know,” Yamada said. “Our whole life.”

Alaskalanes was built in 1984 as Kenai Bowl, according to the Peninsula Clarion. The City of Kenai owns the land underneath the alley and uses it to fund operations at the Kenai Municipal Airport.

But lessees have repeatedly found it a tough business to sustain. In 2015, longtime owner Ken Leides closed the alley after defaulting on his lease with the city.

An Anchorage-based commercial real estate consultant purchased the building in 2017 and leased it to Charlotte and Glenn Yamada, who had plans to update the facilities and reopen the alley. But despite a public campaign of support, they too were unsuccessful and the alley has remained closed.

Mason Yamada said he’s sad revival efforts couldn’t overcome the financial roadblocks. He credits bowling for keeping him safe and motivated during childhood and young adulthood, as well as for propelling him to college.

“Bowling definitely saved me,” he said.

He said the only reason he was able to pursue higher education was a combination of the more than $25,000 he had accumulated in youth bowling tournament scholarships from around Alaska, and an athletics scholarship he received from the bowling program at his school.

“I owe my college education, my college experience, to that place,” Yamada said. “I owe a lot of my lifelong endeavors to that place, honestly.”

His collegiate bowling career was cut short by COVID-19. He said returning to the closed Alaskalanes alley in 2020 was a double blow.

Now, if he wants to bowl, he has to make the trek up to Anchorage. He hasn’t bowled since September, almost a year ago.

He said it makes him sad that other local kids won’t be able to enjoy the same access to the sport that he did.

He thinks the Kenai area generally lacks recreational outlets for kids and young adults. And even when it comes to traditional sports, Yamada said, Alaskan students are at a disadvantage, because they’re unable to practice year round.

He explained: “You can bowl rain or shine, snow or sun, hot or cold, it doesn’t matter. You can go inside and you can bowl.”

The demolition of Alaskalanes is the last strike to the peninsula’s bowling scene. In 2018, the other remaining bowling alley on the peninsula, Kachemak Bowl in Homer, closed down.

Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander said the Alaskalanes property was reclaimed by the bank some years ago, before going up for auction last fall, where it was not sold. Recently a private entity negotiated with the bank to purchase the property. This entity is planning to build a new structure at the site.

Riley Board is a Report For America reporter covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula for KDLL. A recent graduate of Middlebury College, where she studied linguistics, English literature and German, Board was editor-in-chief of The Middlebury Campus, the student newspaper, and completed work as a Kellogg Fellow, doing independent linguistics research. She has interned at the Burlington Free Press, covering the early days of the pandemic’s effects on Vermont communities, and at Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife, where she wrote about culture and folklife in Washington, D.C. and beyond. Board hails from Sarasota, Florida.